Flyovers Keep Our Spirits Soaring

By Julie Summers Walker
October 2020

“Flyovers may be most important for the feelings of awe they produce. Whether at a sports event or an air show, the flyover is a sign of speed, power, and expertise. Over a battlefield or a funeral, the symbolism of the missing man is a fitting farewell for those who serve in the air. The feeling of safety that air power symbolizes is a connecting thread between World War I doughboys and healthcare workers across the United States, even if the situation is different. The flyover is one American tradition that carries on, even as so much else has halted during COVID-19.”   — June 2020 Naval History magazine

On May 14, frontline COVID-19 responders and essential workers were honored by the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, with formation flights over Arkansas.

This may be hard to believe: The first military flyover in the United States occurred in 1918. It was game 1 of the World Series—Chicago Cubs versus the Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth at bat. And 60 U.S. Army biplanes flew over Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the flyover has become the symbol for support and assurance of safety. It was designed to be exactly that, as well as provide a training platform for military aviators to maintain currency and competency. The branches of the U.S. military include in their budgets the cost of these flyovers; they are not additional expenses when they take place. The U.S. Air Force defines the flyover: “One straight-and-level pass of one to four aircraft of the same type from the same military service not involving aerobatics or aircraft demonstrations.”

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels (established in 1946) and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds (established in 1953) are what we think of when someone says “flyover” and since April 2020, there have been more than 100 sorties of military units in more than 40 states (as of August 2020). These flyovers are offered as support for medical workers on the “front lines” fighting the pandemic.

In a traditional military flyover the formation of aircraft will fly in a holding pattern near the site (football field, stadium, monument) and computers and GPS guide the aircraft to appear at the closing of the playing of the national anthem. When you sing “home of the brave,” here they come (see “Safety Spotlight: Play Ball,” January 2020 AOPA Pilot).

One of the largest historic flyovers was at the signing of the Japanese surrender in World War II. More than 500 aircraft flew over the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. During the funeral of President George H.W. Bush in 2018, a 21-aircraft salute honored the chief executive and former pilot.

A “missing man” formation flyover is flown to honor those who have died. Flyovers were performed after both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. In a missing man formation, the aircraft fly a “finger-four” formation (see illustration). Two pairs of aircraft fly a V-shape formation led by the flight leader at the point. When at viewing level, the number three aircraft quickly pulls up and out of the flight. The remaining airplanes continue straight and level and preserve the gap in the formation where number three had been.

Email julie.walker@aopa.org