Fortunately, our wars are fought thousands of miles away, well out of danger for most Americans. Without flyovers or airshows, most wouldn’t get a chance to see our fighter force in person. It’s one thing to see these aircraft on the news, it is however, a completely different experience to feel an after-burning engine ripping the air apart right in front of your eyes, and not only hear it, but feel the sound in your chest as it reverberates throughout your body.
The biggest criticism I hear is that these flyovers are a wasteful use of taxpayer money. However, as a fighter pilot, it’s critical to be able to hit a TOT (Time-Over-Target). Not only do flyovers give us a chance to practice this skill, but, as I’ll discuss later, it’s often in a dynamic and chaotic environment–which is one of the hallmarks of combat. And, because flyovers only take 15-20 minutes, we’ll nearly always work on tactical training afterward.
Once a flyover request makes it through the various levels of approval, we’ll start the planning process. Typically, we work with large venues, such as baseball and football stadium, who are accustomed to flyovers: They know what they want based on their needs, and it’s usually just a matter of repeating the last flyover. However, I’ve worked with other venues, such as PGA golf courses, who were less familiar with the process and needed some coaching on the best ways to maximize the show.
The day before the event, we’ll send someone to the venue for the dress rehearsal. They’ll work with the event coordinator to come up with an approximate time of the flyover. They’ll also listen to the singer—typically flyovers are at the end of the National Anthem—and write down time stamps throughout the song. If the singer’s pace chances during the actual event, usually because they’re nervous, we’ll know and can adjust our timing.
On the day of the flyover, we’ll brief up the sortie and takeoff to arrive about 10 minutes before our TOT. I like to hold 10 miles away so that we have a nice long run in which gives my wingmen time to tuck into a perfect formation position. We’ll then check in with the ground party who’ll give us any updates on the timing. Once the singer starts, we have 2 minutes before we have to be over-top of the venue.
In my cockpit, I have an estimated TOT based on my current airspeed. Just prior to the run-in I’ll accelerate to the planned airspeed, which is typically about 450 mph. I’ll then line up on our preplanned axis and descend down to the run-in altitude.
At this point, the most important part is to scan for traffic. These venues usually have a flight restriction around them, however, that often doesn’t stop the light-civilian aircraft or drones from going through our flight path. During a flyover I did at the 2018 Phoenix Open, there was a hot air balloon directly over our run-in which we had to avoid by flying underneath it. Once we have a clear flight path, we’ll make small adjustments to our airspeed so that as soon as the song ends, we’re directly overhead showcasing what 100,000 lbs of thrust sounds like.