"We're in this together": Inside the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels' mission to honor front-line workers

Elite flying squadrons honor frontline workers
Elite flying squadrons honor frontline worker... 02:04

You've never seen this before: the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels flying in formation together on a joint cross-country mission. The elite pilots streaking low over New York and Philadelphia on Tuesday posed a striking thank you to front-line workers like Manhattan's Dr. Sarah Vossoughi, a clinical pathologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. 

"For them to show us that sign of respect and that sign of honor, for them to do that for us, that makes me feel really special, and it makes it worth it," Vossoughi said.

What you couldn't see overhead was the highly choreographed work that kept the fighters flying nonstop.

CBS News flew with pilots and airmen from the Air Force's 305th Air Mobility wing out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

The KC-10 Extender, an aerial refueler, one of four on this mission, took off with 300,000 pounds of fuel to help make it possible for the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels to fly Pensacola, Florida, to New York City and back without landing.

"It's a really huge opportunity for us to show our support for healthcare workers," Tech Sergeant Bryce Smith said between refueling F-16 fighters on the flight to New York. "And this flyover is hopefully going to mean a lot for everybody so it's really nice."

From the cockpit, we talked to the Thunderbirds, like Lieutenant Colonel John Caldwell.

When asked what he hoped front-line workers would take away from the display, Caldwell said, "We want them to know that we're there, that we care, that we're in this together, we know this has been stressful, we know it has been hard, we know that they're struggling. We're supporting them, we're cheering for them, and we're so grateful for their service." 

For another Thunderbird, Major Trevor Aldridge, the low pass over Brooklyn was personal. Watching and waving from her rooftop was his sister-in-law Lily, a COVID-19 survivor. 

"I hope that we can inspire, you know, all the frontline workers while they're going through the toughest part of this," he said. 'We're really, really excited to be able to do this for everybody."

The teams are now planning more "America Strong" flyovers — an airborne show of thanks bearing the message, "We're all in this together." 

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    Kris Van Cleave is the transportation correspondent for CBS News based in Washington, D.C.