TAMPA — Nurses, doctors and hospital staff lined the top level of the Tampa General Hospital visitors garage, phones at the ready Friday morning. To honor Tampa Bay’s front-line healthcare workers in the pandemic, MacDill Air Force Base launched a KC-135 Stratotanker that flew over 12 major hospitals in the region. TGH was its first “stop.”
At first the nurses and doctors at TGH weren’t sure what they were seeing: “Is that the plane?” people asked aloud. As the aircraft got closer, the massive size became apparent. The pilot gave a wave, tipping the wings left then right as nurses grabbed photos and video.
“This community goes out of their way to honor our sacrifices,” said Air Force Col. Stephen Snelson, commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing. “This is an honor for us to be able to display our gratitude to these warriors who protect our base and this community from this horrible virus.”
The flight path was determined with the Federal Aviation Administration, accommodating hospitals along that path, a spokesman said. The KC-135 took off about 9:30 a.m. and landed about 90 minutes later.
“It was a nice thank you to come by and support everybody who has been working really hard during this really testing time of life,” said Kate Cirrinicione, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Kelly Bulaclac, who is also a neonatal intensive care unit nurse, felt a personal connection. She has a friend who used to fly refueling planes, including in the Middle East.
“I know it’s a high-stress, risky job,” she said. “It was special for me to see. I’m going to send him the video.”
Kelly Cassana and Michelle Bonfe, nurse practitioners in the Joint Center at TGH, missed the flyover while tending to patients but came out to the roof to watch the plane pass over on its way back to the base.
"It means a lot that the community is supporting our hospital and healthcare frontline workers who are taking care of their patients,” Bonfe said. “It’s nice to get a good feeling after being sad for a little while. It gives you hope.”
Bonfe wore a fabric mask inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night on Friday. She tries for fun masks as a communication tool, decreasing anxiety.
Family members aren’t allowed in the hospital right now, so patients are relying on nurses a little more for some of that support and communication. Cassana said the support within the hospital, both personal and professional, has helped with the anxiety of working at a hospital through the pandemic.
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Spectators gathered on the rooftop of the Suncoast Medical Clinic at St. Anthony’s Hospital campus cheered and waved as the tanker curved and flew past them overhead. They were joined by a handful of folks in the hospital parking garage and additional spectators spaced out in the parking lot below. Staff at local businesses including Barkett Realty on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St N., had also lined up outside their office earlier for a view.
The KC-135 departed from MacDill and headed south toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, according to a release.
MacDill said they would be “performing some training requirements for an hour” hence the 9:30 am departure and the start of the loop at about 10:30 a.m.
The aircraft headed back northward along Tampa Bay, then turned south and followed Interstate 75 to Sarasota, then turned north again through St. Petersburg before returning to the base over downtown Tampa. Some of the hospitals in the flight path included Brandon Regional Hospital, Largo Medical Center and the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.
The aircraft provides aerial refueling capability for the United States Air Force and routinely departs from MacDill for training and refueling missions along the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast region.
Active-duty and reserve teams from the 6th Air Refueling Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing stationed at MacDill piloted the flight.
Other bases have performed their own flyover salutes to healthcare workers including the Air Force Reserve’s 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, which flew the C-130H3 Hercules aircraft over North Georgia hospitals and the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base that sent a four-ship formation of fighter aircraft over Okaloosa County medical facilities on Thursday.
An F-22 from Eglin crashed on Friday morning, but officials said the jet was part of a training exercise and not the flyovers saluting medical personnel. The pilot ejected and was taken to a hospital in stable condition. Officials are investigating.
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