The United States Air Force Golden Knights are an experienced parachute team that performs at many events. See our collection of military jets pictures.

USAF Golden Knights

Introduction to How Military Flyovers Work

The thrilling roar of fighter jets performing a military flyover is now a common experience at many big spectacles or major sporting events, even at the opening of some Little League seasons. The military approves most of the 850 or so flyover requests submitted annually [source: Robbins].

The Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force all participate in flyovers of one sort or another. Generally, these spectacles are arranged through the appropriate service's public affairs or community relations office.

They don't come cheaply: It cost $36,000 for six F/A-18A Hornet fighter jets -- from the Navy's Blue Angels squadron -- to fly over the University of Phoenix Stadium before the 2008 Super Bowl [source: Robbins]. (A Blue Angels press officer told the Orlando Sentinel that the cost was worth it in order to increase the Blue Angels' and the Navy's visibility [source: Robbins].)

The cost is deducted from funds used for training, but for some special services, like the Golden Knights skydiving team, the event organizer (if it's a private organization) may have to pay for lodging, meals and transportation -- up to $3,000 a day.

The military views flyovers as promotional and recruiting opportunities for the armed services. They allow ordinary citizens to see the military up close in a way that's normally not possible.

A flyover flight actually counts as training for the pilots, but with a flyover essentially consisting of a brief flight between two points, labeling it "training" could be viewed as rather generous.

In this article, we'll take a close look at how you request a flyover and what happens during a flyover, such as how the pilots manage to appear exactly when the national anthem is ending. We'll also examine incidents in which flyovers went wrong.

 

Despite the prohibition against flyovers at sporting events, they occur all the time, like this one before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Shelby 427 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March 2009.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images for NASCAR

Requesting a Flyover

Anyone can request a flyover -- the military is not allowed to favor one group over another -- although you may not get approved if you don't meet certain criteria.

Requesting a flyover is as simple as filling out a form on the Department of Defense (DoD) Web site. On DoD Form 2535, you can request various services, including:

  • Flyover
  • Static display
  • Single aircraft demonstration
  • Other aerial support
  • Aerial demonstration team

If you select "aerial demonstration team," you can ask for the U.S. Army Golden Knights, U.S. Navy Blue Angels or another special team. "Other aerial support" may mean a parachute demonstration or a search and rescue group.

Expect to provide basic information about your event, such as when it's occurring and the location. You must also include crucial information about the elevation, size of the runway available (if possible) and the general type of site. It's also the requester's responsibility to offer details about any other aviation activity that may occur at the event.

The event must abide by certain guidelines that pertain to activities sanctioned by the government: It can't discriminate on any basis, nor can any organization sponsoring it. It must be open to the public. The event can't endorse one religion or political viewpoint over another. The event can't be designed to turn a profit for the sponsors. And often, the event organizers have to make space for military recruiters.

According to Form 2535, flyovers are supposed to be restricted to aviation-related events or events taking place in relation to "patriotic holidays" -- Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, POW/MIA Recognition Day and Veterans Day [source: U.S. Air Force]. So technically, flyovers are not supposed to occur at sports events. Nevertheless, 440 sporting events had Air Force flyovers in 2005 and 2006, and during the same period, the Navy approved flyovers or parachute demos for 469 sporting events [source: Robbins].

If the event does involve planes in flight (and not a static display), then you will also have to coordinate with the local air traffic control authorities, and you may need to obtain air show waivers from the FAA up to 60 days in advance. If your request is approved, you may have to do the work in finding an available squadron. Or, you may be contacted by a squadron commander who viewed your approved request online.

Famous Flyovers

Besides the Super Bowl, you can count on seeing a flyover to open Fleet Week in New York, major air shows or the Army-Navy football game.

Flyovers in Action

The Air Force defines a flyover as "one straight and level pass of one to four aircraft of the same type from the same military service and not involving aerobatics or aircraft demonstrations" [source: U.S. Air Force]. Sometimes the aircraft may turn around and execute another pass. The planes maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet (305 meters), a rule instituted after Sept. 11. But there aren't tricks or other maneuvers performed, so don't expect to see the Thunderbirds or a stunt team as part of a flyover.

A flyover isn't necessarily made up of fighter jets. Helicopters may be used, such as the UH-60 Black Hawk, or a large cargo plane like a C-17 Globemaster III. In fact, someone requesting a flyover can ask for any plane within the military's inventory, though it's not a guarantee that it will be available.

Flyovers have to be carefully timed, usually so that the fighter jets appear just as the national anthem finishes (during the "home of the brave" line). The calculations are all performed on a computer, using GPS coordinates and a target speed. Meanwhile, the planes are in a holding pattern near the event site. When a spotter positioned on the ground gives the command, the planes are off and soar over the event right on cue. The pilots may later appear at the event to be honored in person.

After the planes or helicopters go by, other associated activities may occur, like a parachute drop by the Army Golden Knights Parachute Team.

On the next page, we'll learn what happens when a flyover goes bad, taking a look at a couple of notorious incidents.

This photograph is one of several official images released by the White House/DoD after the controversial NYC Air Force One flyover in April 2009.

White House/Department of Defense

When Flyovers Go Bad

The botched New York City Air Force One flyover is perhaps the most well known example of a flyover gone wrong. At around 10 a.m. on Monday, April 27, 2009, some residents of New York and New Jersey became panicked when they saw what looked like a Boeing 747 flying low in the sky, circling the region and being trailed by fighter planes. In the wake of Sept. 11, the unusual event provoked an understandably fearful reaction in many people. Workers rushed out of office buildings and emergency service numbers received a deluge of calls.

In fact, the plane was the backup Air Force One jet and it looks just like the one on which the president normally travels. Unfortunately, the White House Military Office hadn't announced to the public that a plane would be flying over as part of a photo-op, although New York City officials had been notified beforehand. As a result, Louis E. Caldera, the director of the White House Military Office, turned in his resignation on May 8, 2009. In the letter, Caldera writes,

"I have concluded that the controversy surrounding the Presidential Airlift Group's aerial photo shoot over New York City has made it impossible for me to effectively lead the White House Military Office. Moreover, it has become a distraction to the important work you are doing as President. After much reflection, I believe it is incumbent on me to tender my resignation and step down as Director of the White House Military Office [source: White House]."

The April 2009 NYC flyover was not the only controversial incident of its kind, particularly in New York. In February 2002, Manhattanites were shocked to see two F-16s returning from a routine patrol, flying at low altitude over the city. On May 15, 2003, a Boeing 777 containing soldiers returning home from Iraq "buzzed" the Statue of Liberty. Flying at an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 feet (610 to 914 meters), the plane had, at the last minute, received special permission to fly low and offer the soldiers a better view of the landmark [source: Saltonstall, Mbugua, Gittrich]. Similar fly-bys had been performed before for returning soldiers. But the incident caused panic among some residents and caused the local fire department to rush to the scene. It also put an end to the practice of fly-bys for returning soldiers.

Because of Sept. 11 and the fallout from the April 2009 flyover, the U.S. government has been much more careful in notifying the public of exercises involving low-flying planes. In May 2009, when NORAD was conducting night-time maneuvers over Washington D.C., the government sent out many press releases, advisories and notifications to local agencies and to the general public.

For more information about flyovers, military planes and other related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great Links

Sources

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