Oddly enough, one of my earliest memories of seeing military aircraft in-flight didn’t come from me attending an airshow or seeing them at an air base. It was actually at a football game, ages ago, when a group of Ohio Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons screamed overhead at the end of the national anthem. It’s really an experience that doesn’t ever leave you. There’s just something very special about feeling the roar of those powerful jets reverberate through your body as one of the most patriotic songs in the world comes to a close and the big flag on the field waves brilliantly.
Yesterday, while watching Super Bowl XLIX with a bunch of friends, a question was posed to me: “How do they do it?” It’s all about timing.
In fact, the biggest constant that joins together the entire realm of military aviation is timing. Perfect timing leads to engines starting the right way. Perfect timing leads to proper launches, takeoffs and three-point landings. Perfect timing leads to winning dogfights and well-executed airstrikes. And when it’s gameday in America, perfect timing leads to a breathtaking flyover with some seriously awe-inspiring military hardware thundering overhead. Before program officials and military public affairs organizers get to figuring out the timing with a stopwatch, however, you need to start with a request.
Absolutely anyone can ask the military to conduct a flyover at their event. This can range from little league baseball games to college commencements, NASCAR races and anything in-between. It remains up to the military to decide whether or not it would be in its best interests (in terms of recruitment) for it to have one or more branches of the service visible during these events. The Department of Defense allows you to specify aerial demonstration teams or aviation units that are stationed near your venue on your request form, so you have a variety of choices going from the Blue Angels to the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, or even a B-2 Spirit out of Missouri (if you’re close enough and they can allocate an aerial asset of the sort to such an occasion). If you want to get one or more aircraft buzzing overhead at your event, then it’s also your job to provide important details about the location’s geographic variables, as well as coordinate with local air traffic control officials in achieving waiver approval for the airspace above your venue. For certain events, like the Super Bowl, a TFR (temporary flight restriction) is set up, closing off airspace to all aircraft but approved military birds. This is done purely for reasons of safety, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It’s considerably dangerous to have an event with such a massive physical viewer turnout lacking some form of aerial protection, and the easiest way of enacting such a safeguard is to simply keep unauthorized aircraft from flying in that pre-designated zone. The actual flyover itself is restricted in terms of what the pilots can and cannot do. Once again for safety purposes. They can form up in a pattern (if in a multi-ship flight). They can’t showboat or perform aerial stunts. They can fly low enough that you’ll see them clearly and hear them. But they can’t drop below 1000 feet while executing the flyover. Regardless, even with these restrictions in place, anyone who has seen a flyover in person will attest to the brilliance of the event.
The actual planning of the flyover is carried out between the pilots, senior operations personnel and the event coordinators. Everything is mapped out with precision, using calibrated GPS instruments to figure out the best routes that avoid large obstacles (both natural and man-made) that might pose a credible danger to the aircraft and aircrew involved, as well as civilians on the ground. The route will also take into account the length of the anthem sung, so that the aircraft fly over during the very last lines. The musical artists selected to perform the anthem are consulted and rehearsed with, so that timings are nailed down to a matter of milliseconds. This is crucial, as every singer generally has a slight variation on the tempo (timing) of the anthem that affects how long it’ll be. Once again, timing is everything.
For events like the Super Bowl, a dry run is usually held the day before the big game, where the artist sings the anthem, and the pilots maneuver their aircraft above, making sure that last minute details are accounted for and everything is exactly on time as it should be. On the day of the event itself, defense personnel are on-site with radio systems set up to communicate with the pilots in the air. Flyovers aren’t always ordered specifically for the event. By that, I mean that the aviation units involved don’t necessarily fly only because they were requested to do so by the event organizers (and the Department of Defense upon approval). On many occasions, the flyover is carried out during a leg of a training mission, where the aircraft is/are rerouted temporarily into airspace above the stadium or track and then right back out of it to either proceed with the training exercise it was on, or to return to base (if the flyover was executed upon the completion of the training hop). To ensure that the aircrew are fully focused on the event and ready to rock, they’re put into a holding pattern near the venue while the introductory parts of the event are carried out on the ground. The coordinators in the venue, in the meanwhile, are still in constant radio contact with the pilots above, making sure they’re updated on everything happening. When it’s time for the anthem to begin, it’s nearly showtime for the aircrew about to buzz the cheering fans below. At a predetermined spot during the anthem, the coordinator directs the aircraft out of their holding pattern and down a narrow imaginary strip in the air that will take them immediately above the crowds. They’re doing this while paying close attention to their watches.
“Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave?” pause.
Smoke on (if they’ve got the capability to do so). The coordinators are now talking the pilots in through the very last stage.
“O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!” WHOOOOOSH!
There they go, roaring above tens of thousands of cheering heads!
And it’s back to base for a debriefing, beers and a chance to watch the game on TV, or even to head over to the big game as guests of honor.