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Convoy Of Military Planes Salutes COVID-19 First Responders

People across south-central Kansas had a chance to see Wichita’s hometown military aircraft in flight Wednesday morning.

Three tankers from McConnell Air Force Base and the restored B-29 bomber named “Doc” flew in formation to honor frontline COVID-19 workers.

The special flyover began in Newton shortly after 10 a.m. and ended in El Dorado. The planes flew single file over Wichita, Derby, Andover, Garden Plain and Haysville on a path that took them past 11 hospitals.

Health care workers stood outside Wesley Medical Center in Wichita to watch the procession. Spectators also lined bridges over the Arkansas River near downtown, stood atop parking structures and gathered in open areas to see the planes. Sedgwick County commissioners took a break from their weekly meeting so they could head outside for the flyover.

Two KC-135 Stratotankers and a KC-46 Pegasus air refueling tanker took part in the flight. Capt. Andrew Doenitz was the pilot in the KC-46, the Air Force’s newest tanker.

"All of us really wanted to be able to pay tribute to Wichita in that way as we’ve seen many of the other communities around the country start to get flyovers from their local bases," Doenitz said. "So we’re just ecstatic to be able to do this for all the local citizens and frontline workers."

The flyover was intended to salute health care workers, first responders and other essential employees for their response to the COVID-19 crisis.

"We appreciate everything that they’ve done to keep our community running," Doenitz said.

Personnel from the 22nd ARW, the Air Force Reserve 931st Air Refueling Wing and the Kansas Air National Guard 184th Wing, all located on McConnell Air Force Base, were involved in the effort.

"In a time like this, in the midst of the pandemic, being able to perform our job and also be able to do it in a way that pays tribute to Wichita is something that will stick with me forever," Doenitz said.

The flyover also served as a training mission for the pilots and aircrews. The Air Force says flyovers are conducted at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

As of Wednesday, Sedgwick County had 441 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths. Outbreaks happened at several Wichita area nursing homes. Phase one of the Kansas reopening plan began Monday after a six-week stay-at-home order was lifted.

For Doenitz, seeing people come together and help each other is helping him get through the crisis.

"I think what's giving me hope is seeing everyone around me — my coworkers, my neighbors — everyone really coming together trying to help each other through these trying times," he said.

The B-29 Superfortress "Doc" was forced to cancel or reschedule nine events and tour stops on the 2020 schedule due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The B-29 Doc Hangar, Education and Visitors Center near Wichita Eisenhower National Airport has been closed since early March.

Organizers are making plans to reopen to the public, with new safety measures, as part of phase two of the Kansas reopening plan, which begins no earlier than May 18.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Hugo Phan / KMUW

Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.