Blue Angels Over San Francisco

Today (Sunday) is the last day this year that the Navy Department’s Blue Angels aircraft will be flying over San Francisco, causing eardrums and nerves to shake citywide.

We’ve been hearing them during limited daytime hours since Thursday.  The (usually) yearly air show is held on weekends, but practice runs are handled on Thursday and Friday.

This air show is regarded by many as a tribute to servicemembers who protect our country from threats, and for the record we should not blame servicemembers for instances in which the White House and Pentagon have acted on the wrong impulses.  War decisions are made way above the heads of anyone you see in uniform.  Many people enlist with the intention of serving the country, and they are forced to place their trust in authority before they can carry out their duties.

Blue Angels aircraft have suffered in-air collisions during shows, but to date none of those accidents have been over densely populated areas.  Anyone in a city just has to hope our luck holds up, and recognize that every one of those past accidents resulted in pilots’ deaths when the planes were in the air for non-compelling reasons.

The first time I ever saw the Blue Angels in the air above San Francisco, it was during a practice run in 1984.  We hadn’t been told there would be a practice run, and many of us didn’t even know an air show was planned.  At first, we had no explanation, so we speculated — quietly.

I was outside, barely above the Tenderloin section of Polk Street.  The memory of people looking up at the sky, covering their ears and then looking at each other like deer caught in the headlights will be with me forever.  The way that section of Polk Street was then, it took a lot to shock the neighborhood people.  An unspeakable crime committed right in front of them might not have fazed them, but mystery war planes did.

Routine appearances by the Blue Angels don’t prompt a P.T.S.D. response from me, in spite of the intensity of the 1984 misunderstanding.  However, I do think of veterans and refugees whose lives have been changed by war trauma, and they shouldn’t have to live with this.  Maybe the people who can afford it (and take time off from work, beginning on Thursday) go out of town and rent hotel rooms.  Others have to stay and sweat it out.

When I hear Blue Angels defenders talk about the advantages of these air shows, they present strong arguments.  Not strong enough, though.

Yes, the air shows are good for local economies because they draw visitors.  Many stay in hotels and spend money during the weekend.  The events are also a way of showing respect for people who serve in the all-volunteer Armed Services.

Arguments against the shows are stronger.  In San Francisco, the possibility of an accident over a compact city full of apartment buildings is the most compelling, in my opinion.  There’s also a political/ethical concern that producing entertainment with Navy aircraft glorifies war.  The argument has merit, but Blue Angels defenders have countered that position by reminding us that supporting the Armed Forces is not synonymous with supporting war.  No one has a good answer when we’re warned that an occupied building could get hit with the aftermath of a collision, though.  The predictable P.T.S.D. reactions (see above) also belong in any debate on this topic.

Here’s one of the most disturbing aspects of Armed Forces-sponsored air shows:  They act as misleading recruitment tools.  Gullible teenagers who dream of flying airplanes will enlist, and most of those kids will never receive pilot training — regardless of what recruiters tell them.

(Note:  I’m not aware of whether the Navy Department engages in direct recruiting during these performances because I’ve never been to the public viewing area.  However, we know that the excitement of these precise, stimulating events will put the idea to enlist into some young people’s heads.)



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