Today at noon, the United States Navy and Air Force came together for a historic tribute flight over New York City to honor COVID-19 first responders and essential workers. The military branches’ iconic demonstration squads, the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, flew over some of the hardest hit areas of the city, including hospitals that have become battlegrounds against the coronavirus outbreak, as well as the surrounding boroughs. Among the 12 pilots, there will be only one woman, Major Michelle Curran, helping her fellow Thunderbirds make the occasion special. “A lot of people who see the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels fly see it as a tribute to the United States. They feel really patriotic about it,” says Maj. Curran. “And I think the country as a whole could use a morale boost right now.”
Maj. Curran didn’t always plan on becoming a pilot — but she did always like to go fast. “I was an adventure-seeking kid ever since I was really little,” she tells InStyle. While in college at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, the Midwest native was an athletic student involved in track and field as well as figure skating, all while going through Air Force ROTC training. She also studied criminal justice. But, she says, when the time came, training to become an Air Force pilot swiftly became her top priority. “I felt that being a pilot would be challenging, I would get to travel like I wanted to, and it also fulfilled that thrill-seeking part of my personality,” she explains. “I decided to pursue a pilot spot, and I got one. And then I was like, ‘Well if I’m going to be a pilot, I wanna fly something fast, fun, and exciting.’ That’s when I went after a fighter jet and then I eventually applied for the Thunderbirds.” Maj. Curran served three years in a combat squadron in Northern Japan and three more years on another squadron in Texas before applying for and joining the Thunderbirds last year.
Now, as the fifth woman ever to fly with the Thunderbirds, the 32-year-old looks forward to every opportunity she gets to encourage young girls to chase their high-speed dreams. “The airshow stuff is the most badass flying I’ve ever done,” she says. “You can kind of see that light-bulb moment happen in little girls I get to meet at air shows when they think, ‘That’s someone that looks like me. Maybe that’s something I could do someday.’ It inspires them to chase their dreams. And that’s very rewarding for me.”
This year, as lead solo pilot, Maj. Curran is responsible for some of the Thunderbird’s most daring maneuvers during air shows, like her favorite “vertical rolls,” which send the pilot spiraling up into the air about 15,000 feet. “We do single jet, really low, fast flying, high-G maneuvers to showcase the max performance of the F16 [Flying Falcon Jet],” Maj. Curran says. “I’ll pull up to 9 Gs.” Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, though, the pilot’s second season with the squadron had come to a screeching halt. Pilots were sent home to their families to shelter in place and await any potential future flights. Maj. Curran says, “Just like everyone else, we’re waiting with bated breath to see what else happens over the next few months."
Planning for today’s flight over New York City, Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia has been a major source of hope for the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels teams. Now called the America Strong Operation, this flight tour is also set to hit several other cities in the coming weeks. Maj. Curran says she hopes people watching — while safely socially distanced from one another — will feel a much-needed sense of solidarity. “This is really for the healthcare workers who are putting their lives at risk every day. They’re the ones at war right now — it’s not the military, it’s them,” she says. “It’s also for the first responders, the parents who are having to homeschool, the grocery-store workers … This is our salute to them, to remind them that this is still the United States. We’ll get through this, we’ll be stronger on the other side of it, and we’re all in this together.”
The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds encourage viewers to tag posts about the flyover on social media with the hashtag #AmericaStrong.