We Really Don’t Need Anymore Fleet Weeks in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Fleet Week — which is the largest in the country — is synonymous with air pollution and traumatizing booms.

“What’s that boom in the background,” my mother questions over a Zoom call.

She, like most of my immediate family, resides in the suburbs outside of Rochester, New York. Aside from the odd V8-powered Ford Mustang that may rip through her neighborhood, my mother’s urban life is absent of such noises.

The sonic boom-like roars that soundtrack San Francisco at various times of the year — including, of course, Fleet Week — are an albatross to her. But not for me. Or for any other San Franciscan.

“Oh. it’s fucking Fleet Week, mom,” I reply, wondering how much longer the active-noise-canceling mode would last on my pair of AirPods before I’d need to recharge them.

“They’re flying higher jets over this city of 880,000 people. It’s like living in a warzone.”

San Francisco Fleet Week — now the largest of its kind anywhere in the country — can trace its roots back to 1981 when then-Mayor, now-deceased Dianne Feinstein led the nation in celebrating America’s naval and airforce services, which included aircraft demonstrations that showcased our military’s abilities and advancements.

Before SF’s first official Fleet Week, it was common for several U.S. Navy ships to dock in San Francisco for a similar series of events; those happenings often included a “visit ship” for tourists to the board, as well as community events that offered sailors to connect with loved ones and fellow military servicemen and servicewomen.

But just as it is now as it was back then: The main draw of Fleet Week was the airshows.

The Blue Angels, too, are by no means any cleaner than the commercial planes most of us are accustomed to boarding. They’re even worse, despite their smaller size; around 1,200 gallons are burned by a single fighter jet an hour as it travels at sound-breaking speeds.

In a time marked by the climate crisis, an environmental catastrophe that’s only getting worse, it should be an anathema to fill our atmosphere with these pollutants.

SFGate’s own Alex Shultz pointed out it costs about $1.26 million to organize and host Fleet Week’s aerial shows alone — and that figure was a 2016 assessment for the Bay Area aerial shows alone. The annual cost for the Blue Angels to perform across the country costs taxpayers more than $36 million a year, according to a 2019 estimate. Adjusted for inflation, those figures are now $1.77 million and $44 million, respectively.

Locally speaking, that $1.26 million could be spent on funding dozens of local small business and non-profit arts initiatives; transitioning hundreds of the city’s 9,00-plus homeless individuals into stable housing; feeding thousands of San Franciscans — because don’t forget: one in four residents of the city go hungry each day; offer nearly 75 full-ride scholarships to the City College of San Francisco. Etc.

But sure: Let’s keep on giving Salesforce Tower a happy ending.

Fleet Week’s very existence is predicated on the notion of our country’s unmatched militarized power — one that’s rooted in multi-generational racism, homophobia, and sexism. By the mere sight of military displays, those who’ve been disenfranchised, marginalized, or negatively affected by the world’s most expensive military force are again reminded of those traumas.

Sure: The happening is also an ode and nod to those who’ve served in the United States armed forces. But Fleet Week, too, stands as a symbol of past pains (physical, mental, or otherwise) that people have endured from military regimes.

Sonic booms from passing plans have been documented to trigger episodes of PTSD in not only veterans but also political refugees and those who’ve migrated here from areas marked by violence. This visceral response to these loud sounds isn’t unique to us humans, either.

Throughout about half of the year, migratory birds — many of which are considered “threatened” or “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — use the passageway to find breeding grounds, and feeding areas, or travel to overwintering sites.

Various studies show that loud and spontaneous explosions, like those from passing fighter jets or fireworks, incite flight responses and disorientation in some bird species.

And you don’t have to go too far to see the effects of Fleet Week’s aerial antics on animals. Anyone with a fur-child can speak to the level of fear these random booms can bring to our best friends.

So, yes: San Francisco doesn’t need any more airshows. Our planet, the animals we share it with, our unhoused neighbors, and our collective sanities can’t afford to allow them to go on.

That… and I’m sure we’re all tired of apologizing for aircraft noises while Zooming with loved ones or for work.

Feature image: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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