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Fleet Week in San Francisco a legacy of Dianne Feinstein

Fleet Week in San Francisco another Dianne Feinstein legacy
Fleet Week in San Francisco another Dianne Feinstein legacy 03:39

SAN FRANCISCO -- Support operations for San Francisco's Fleet Week began arriving on Sunday. The weeklong celebration of the military's seafaring services is a popular draw for the city but this year's event will be bittersweet. Dianne Feinstein, who began it all in 1981, will no longer be part of the festivities.

Blue Angel air shows in San Francisco date back to 1950 when the Navy's formation flyers buzzed low over the city. Rather than being blue, the jets were painted black because, shortly after the show, the unit was disbanded so they could serve in the Korean War. 

ALSO READ: Guide to San Francisco Fleet Week 2023

Thirty years later, then-mayor Dianne Feinstein got an idea that she said at the time was strictly business.

"The Navy is building its fleet," she told a KPIX reporter. "San Francisco is a large ship repair center and we would like to have more business from the Navy, if that's possible."

That's how Fleet Week, as we know it, began.

"It was noon when a squadron from the Third Fleet made its entrance into San Francisco Bay..." said the reporter a video report. KPIX provided extensive coverage with cameras in the air and on land where they got reaction from delighted spectators -- who weren't shy about offering advice.

"I think it's wonderful," said one woman. "My husband used to work in the shipyards."

"Well I don't know how old these boats are but I presume they're pretty old," said a man as he watched the ships pass. "I think it's about time we get some new ones, a little bit faster ones. If ever a war comes out, we're gonna need 'em."

The Blue Angels, in their A-4 jets, were plenty fast but, in following years, they were asked to stop flying so low in the city. The unit's 1982 flight leader Dave Carroll remembered why.

"Dianne Feinstein was the mayor. Apparently, her phone rang off the wall with people complaining, wanting to know why these airplanes were flying around the Transamerica Building and scaring everybody," Carroll said. "But we had huge crowds and they were appreciative, too, when we actually flew the show."

While Feinstein may have cracked the whip on low-level flying, the event's current executive director, Lewis Loeven, said it became a labor of love for her.

"I can tell you that she was active with Fleet Week. It was her baby," he said. "And she was an honorary co-chair for all of these years and we would go to her for advice -- sometimes advice and consent -- because she had her hands in it!"

From the beginning to this very day, San Francisco has turned out to enthusiastically welcome the young men and women of the military and Navy spokesman Brian O'Rourke said it is appreciated.

"That's why San Francisco has become a legendary port visit," he said. "Those sailors and marines go home and they talk about what a great time they had when they were here and all their friends who weren't on that trip, they want to do it next year."

There almost wasn't a "next year" this year. Congress passed a last-minute spending bill to keep the government operating for a few more months and Loeven said things got pretty dicey for a while.

"What I would say is, we were prepared. We had our contingency plans. But there's nothing that feels better than that these sailors and Marines and Coast Guard and all the other branches of the service, that they're going to be here. I mean, that is the heart and soul of Fleet Week," Loeven said.

No one knows for sure how much the city has benefited from Fleet Week. Over the years, millions of visitors have arrived for the event, likely spending hundreds of millions of dollars. So, it turns out Dianne Feinstein was right...they did get "more business from the Navy," after all.

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