Blue Angels salute medical workers from Metro Detroit skies

Sarah Rahal Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Anthony Scavella was in the Air Force long before he was in the trenches fighting COVID-19. He's seen plenty of fighter jets. But the Blue Angels racing through the sky above Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit?

"That," he said Tuesday, "was a pretty cool thing."

The U.S. Navy's flight demonstration team gave a six-jet salute to the people on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus, sweeping along a path that took them over some of the busiest hospitals in the area.

At Sinai-Grace, Scavella was one of several hundred workers who gathered outside the main entrance to point and to cheer — both for the blue and yellow F/A-18 Hornets and for themselves.

The Blue Angels fly over downtown Detroit, Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

"I wondered if they were going to find our hospital," said Scavello, 62, a biomedical electronics technician. "Sometimes we get ignored."

The flyover was part of America Strong, a joint effort with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds designed to dip a wing toward health care workers, first responders and related essential personnel. 

If the Blue Angels practiced social distancing Tuesday, it wasn't by much.

Their wing tips were further away than the bold 18 inches they'll show off during performances, said Petty Officer Cody Hendrix, a spokesman for the team.

But the arrowhead-shaped delta formation was tight and graceful as they started from the west and left a 21-minute trail of white smoke over — in alphabetical order, not aeronautical — Allen Park, Ann Arbor, Clinton Township, Dearborn, Detroit, Eastpointe, Hamtramck, Sterling Heights, St. Clair Shores, Warren, Wayne and Ypsilanti.

At Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, dozens of health care workers crowded the front lawns, looking at the sky.

People look skyward as the Blue Angels fly over downtown Detroit, Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

Carol Christie-Nichols of Southgate, a nurse at the hospital for 30 years, said being acknowledged on such a grand scale is not something she's ever encountered and was an emotional moment.

"We've never been more important, and this shows that others believe that, too," she said tearfully. "We're getting a lot of recognition right now because nurses are the warriors of this pandemic, especially critical care nurses.

"Things are improving, and we're just hoping there isn't another spike and that research is done quickly. That's what we can't rush. Valid research needs time, and we want it done right."

Other spectators gathered in a parking lot across from the hospital, among them Peggy Schous of Dearborn and grandchildren Fin, Kate and Marty. Their viewing stand was the bed of a red pickup truck.

"We've been cooped up, and I think we need to start opening up and everyone to be personally responsible," Schous said.

The Blue Angels have been spreading their wings on the America Strong tour since April 28, when they joined with the Thunderbirds for flights across New York City; Newark and Trenton, New Jersey; and Philadelphia.

After Metro Detroit Tuesday, the Blue Angels made their way to Chicago and Indianapolis, Indiana, then returned to their home base in Pensacola, Florida.

Registered nurse Karjla Hudson of Detroit said the Blue Angels’ fly-by late Tuesday morning was “awesome to see.”

The planes refuel in mid-flight, according to the Navy's outline of the program, and the air time involved in America Strong counts toward the flight hours required of fighter pilots to maintain proficiency.

Sinai-Grace nurse Karjla Hudson of Detroit said it was nice to see her own team's proficiency recognized. 

"It meant a lot," she said after the jets swooped past, banked to starboard and continued on their mission. "People have no idea how hard the nurses, especially in this hospital, work.

"We don't do it for the recognition. We do it for the patients and the city. But it felt good."

A similar salute is scheduled for Wednesday. Jets from the Michigan Air National Guard's 127th Wing will depart Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township and, according to a Facebook post, fly over Detroit to "show appreciation to the thousands of Michigan heroes who are at the front line battling COVID-19."

The exact time was not released and the flyover is subject to weather and operational requirements. Crews asked potential spectators to refrain from traveling to see the flyover and continue to practice social distancing.

Sinai-Grace discharged its 3,000th COVID-19 patient Tuesday, spokeswoman Affaf Arabbo said. State data released Tuesday put the total of Michigan fatalities at 4,674, out of 48,021 confirmed cases.

The daily cases have declined 25% over the past week, which is an "encouraging" sign, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive.

The numbers mark a continued downward trend in cases and deaths in Michigan. Tuesday marked the 10th day when the state had fewer than 100 new deaths and the 13th day in which the state had fewer than 1,000 new cases., Twitter: @SarahRahal_, Twitter: @NealRubin_dn