Pilots put on an air show to thank San Diego-area healthcare workers

Some 25 aircraft participated in a flyover of San Diego-area hospitals to salute healthcare workers on Friday morning.
(John Gibbins/John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Social distancing prevents people from giving healthcare workers even a high-five these days, so some San Diego-area pilots aimed even higher to show their appreciation Friday.

About two dozen pilots in private planes, some that dated back to the 1940s, took to the sky and flew in formation past several hospitals, with many trailing smoke to add to the spectacle.

“It feels that people are doing things for healthcare workers, and they feel a little more appreciative,” said Lorena Cisneros, a secretary in the emergency room at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa, where about 100 people had gathered outside to watch the flyover.


Knowing the healthcare workers are putting their lives in danger every day, the pilots went “that extra mile to actually put on a little show for them,” Cisneros said.

The flyover was organized by Phil Kendro, a Marine veteran and pilot who has worked on full-scale aeronautical events including the Miramar Air Show.

“There was a fly-by in Kansas City, and somebody said, why can’t we do that here in San Diego, because we have a lot of local professional pilots,” he said.

Kendro’s wife is nurse at Sharp Memorial, so he has a personal perspective on the commitment of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I’m glad we were able to honor our medical professionals, and people were able to get outside and enjoy the awesome weather,” he said, adding that the event was a way of showing hospital workers the love San Diegans have for them.

Pilot George Watson, 82, flew his 1956 Beechcraft T-34 from Temecula to Gillespie Field in El Cajon to participate.

“From the doctors to the guys who sweep the floors, we’re just so grateful for them,” he said. “I’ve seen how hard the workers are dealing with the coronavirus. I can’t imagine.”

Watson said he’s personally thankful to the staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he had heart surgery in 2018.

Outside Sharp Memorial, workers in scrubs, caps, masks, lab coats waited for the fly-by while dozens of their colleagues watched from inside through picture windows on five floors at the front of the hospital.

At one point, workers on one floor broke into the Macarena dance while their co-workers below cheered them on.

As the first group of airplanes approached in a diamond formation at about 10:20 a.m., all eyes and many cellphones turned skyward, and the crowd cheered and waved.

By the time the white trails from the planes had disappeared, more than half the workers returned to their duty, but many were still outside to cheer another group flying by in a V-formation.

“It was awesome,” said Courtney Robison, a manager of one of the hospital’s surgical acute care units. “To have the staff all come out and be recognized … you know, they’re all coming and showing up to work so it’s nice to hear a thank you from the community.

“We’re all in this together, whether you’re on the front line, helping to take care of the patients, or you’re out in the community trying to do your part and social distancing and staying home to make it easier on us on the front lines, we appreciate it,” she said.

Pilot John Flippen, who like Watson flew a vintage Beechcraft T-34 military trainer, said before taking off that he also wanted to show appreciation to healthcare workers. “The people I talked to who know we’re coming and work at these hospitals said the morale was kind of low,” he said. “When they heard we were going to be doing a fly-by ... it was like the lights came on.

“It feels good that we’re making a little bit of a difference in their daily norm,” he said. “It lets them know people are thinking about them.”

Warth and Cook write for San Diego Union-Tribune