By April 15, the number of Americans who died from coronavirus causes was officially tabulated at about 31,000. 

Failing to take control of the public health situation, what were they thinking in the White House? Maybe something like: OK, let’s see, what would be a really good distraction from everyone pointing their fingers at us – how about a deeply meaningful way to honor medical personnel who have risked their lives and suffered higher mortality than the rest of us for the past three months and, probably, well into the future?  

How about a whole bunch of flyovers across the nation by military warplanes designed to kill millions in moments? Perfect! And no chance of infection of the pilots! As President Trump put it on April 22

I'm excited to announce that in the coming weeks, the Air Force Thunderbirds – are incredible – and the Navy Blue Angels, equally incredible, will be performing air shows over America's major cities. What we're doing is we're paying tribute to our front line health care workers confronting COVID. And it's really a signal to all Americans to remain vigilant during the outbreak. This is a tribute to them, to our warriors. Because they are equal warriors to those incredible pilots and all of the fighters that we have for the more traditional fights that we win and we win. 

The next day the Thunderbirds and Blue angels combined for a joint flyover in Pensacola, Florida, where the Blue Angels are based. A dozen warplanes performed in the Pensacola flyover, at an estimated cost of $40,000 per hour, per plane. In all, the event cost more than half a million dollars. 

Although Trump was taking credit for this display of American military might as a gesture to life-threatening health care, the whole project was planned, packaged, and promoted by the American military for its own purposes. 

On April 11, almost two weeks before Trump announced the idea, the Pentagon put on a prototype in Las Vegas. The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds performed an eight-plane flyover in Las Vegas, near the Nellis Air Force Base. “It is an honor to fly for the Americans at the forefront of our nation’s fight against the coronavirus,” said Lt. Col. John Caldwell, Thunderbirds commander and leader, in the official Air Force announcement, which also urged spectators not to gather together to watch the airshow but to view it from the safety of their backyards. The event cost an estimated $320,000. 

Two days after Trump’s announcement, the Pentagon had already managed to schedule the Blue Angles, the Thunderbirds, and other units (including the Goodyear Blimp) for more than 100 events almost daily through May 25 in at least 41 states. 

Looking forward to the April 30 Utah flyover, a rare dissent came from Seth Jarvis, retired director of the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City. Jarvis wrote to the Deseret News: 

I love aviation. Chuck Yeager signed my private pilot log book. To me, the National Air and Space Museum is a holy place. But when I read that on the afternoon of April 30 a trio of F-35 fighters from Hill Air Force Base will be flying up and down Utah in an effort to cheer us up, I cannot help but think about the insanity of it all….

I will stand in my driveway Thursday afternoon, wearing a home-sewn face mask, and admire the planes as they fly down the Salt Lake Valley. But as I watch them, I will be thinking about our nation’s deeply irrational and dysfunctional priorities.

In Arizona on May 1, at least 15 U.S. Air Force and National Guard warplanes conducted an hour or more of flyovers around Phoenix. The planes included seven F-35s, seven F-16s, and a KC-135 tanker. Air Force Times predictably reported that “Air Force Brig. Gen. Todd Canterbury said the participating military personnel are honored to extend heartfelt gratitude to health care workers and others fighting the outbreak.” The 15-plane air show cost an estimated $600,000. 

Media coverage of these flyovers was largely local and fawning. Like most American politicians, reporters and editors chose to take the story at the face value presented by the White House, without asking awkward questions about the obvious absurdities of flyovers honoring people who were underpaid, under-protected, and short of vital supplies. One exception was Reason magazine on May 5: “Empty displays of ritual militarism are always a waste of time, money, and goodwill, but especially during a pandemic.” However the typical media tone was more like this coverage from Mass Live on May 4: 

Two military demonstration teams, the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels, have been making flyovers of American cities over the past few weeks in an effort to thank frontline workers and first responders. Those teams flew over New York and New Jersey last week and Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta over the weekend.  

On May 6, the Colorado Air National Guard took almost two hours to perform a statewide flyover. The Denver Post joined in the standard cheerleading in reporting the event: “The flyover is part of a national effort to boost morale as the pandemic causes severe health and economic impacts.” Colorado went on having flyovers on May 14 (30 planes over Denver) and May 15 (Air National Guard over the western Rockies), as boosted by Colorado Public Radio: “Flyovers have emerged as a way to boost morale and honor front line health workers during the coronavirus pandemic.” 

That’s public radio-style lying by omission. Yes, the flyovers “emerged,” but not out of nowhere. The Air Force designed them as self-promotion exercises. Then Trump co-opted them as stealth commercials for his re-election. Media collusion takes the form of pretending these flyovers are all about boosting morale, without asking any medical people if their morale was boosted. The Colorado air extravaganza, featuring close to 40 planes cost in all about $1.6 million. 

Also on May 6, the Massachusetts Air National Guard performed statewide flyovers with a team of four F-15C Eagles at an estimated cost of $160,000. Mass Live reported the story slightly off-script, but with proper obeisance: “The flyover, which took place on National Nurses Day, was a part of Operation American Resolve, a nationwide salute to those supporting COVID-19 response efforts. Air Force units around the country took part in similar events.” The report included pictures showing mostly women, wearing masks, but not social distancing as they pointed their cameras skyward. 

One might think that flyover tributes to medical workers were so ridiculous on their face that the public outcry – or better, laughter – would have stopped them in their tracks. No such thing has happened. It’s all but impossible to find any objection from any Senator, Representative, Governor, or anyone else with the authority to spend tax dollars where they’re most needed. This is a national demonstration of quisling leadership. 

On May 23, the day after Vermont’s flyover, mental health professional Bill Coleman posted an objection on Facebook (as well as in a letter published in the Caledonian Record): 

I do not share the enthusiasm of some people for the flyover "salute" to Vermont hospital workers by the new F-35 fighter bombers yesterday. While I am no longer affiliated with the local hospital I am certain that not everyone employed there felt supported by the militaristic display that took place. By coincidence I saw them roaring over Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, VT as I was driving past. These bombers are designed to kill people and are a prime example of poor federal budget priorities. At a time when Personal Protective Equipment is being hoarded by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and allocated according to who kisses the butts of the fascist Trump administration the most even the money spent on fuel to fly these money wasting devil machines around could be much wiser spent to pay for ventilators or PPEs, or to keep the United States Postal Service operating. People are being drawn into this ultra-nationalistic frenzy by Trump and his cronies as a distraction from their bumbling incompetence, corruption and perverse decision making in a full range of areas.

Vermont’s May 22 flyover involved four F-35s taking about an hour to pass over 16 hospitals around the state. Contrary to state health guidelines, the air show drew crowds in several locations. According to the Vermont Air National Guard, the air show cost about $166,000. 

In typical fawning fashion by officials and media, the Burlington Free Press reported with no hint of irony: “The Air Force — and not Vermont — paid for an airborne, statewide salute to coronavirus front-line workers Friday, Gov. Phil Scott said.” He made no mention of the homeless Vermonters, or the hungry Vermonters, or the unemployed Vermonters, or even the sick Vermonters the U.S. nuclear bombers passed over in their “tribute.”  

On May 25, Memorial Day, California’s flyover consisted of a single HC-130J Combat King II over northern California. The state has had several previous, multi-plane flyovers. The aggregate cost of California flyovers is more than $2 million.  

On May 27, the official number of Americans dead from coronavirus causes reached 100,000, more than any other country in the world. No one knows how much higher the actual death toll is. No one knows how high the final death toll will be. We know that nationally, coronavirus deaths continue to increase across the flyover country at a rate of more than 1,000 people a day. And we know that military flyovers saved no lives.

With the country in a prolonged and deepening state of psychic numbing, Trumpian distractionism appears to be at its most effective. The message seems to be: Look up at the sky, pay no attention to what happens on the ground. Or in Trump’s words: “I want to see those shows. I’ve seen it many times and I can’t get enough.”