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Safety Spotlight: Play ballSafety Spotlight: Play ball

A fly-by to remember

I’ll tune in early to the bowl games this holiday season in hopes of catching the pregame fly-bys. A perfectly executed stadium fly-by comes in fast, low, loud, and overhead just as the national anthem is ending. It’s not enough to be on target, nor is it enough to mosey in on time, whispering over the venue in cruise power. The objective is speed, noise—power the audience can feel. Give them a few seconds as the national anthem is reaching dramatic conclusion to revel in the power, pride, and precision of their military air power.

Success takes a lot of planning, and occasionally a bit of luck. The typical national anthem is 95 seconds long. Flying at 360 knots groundspeed covers 6 miles a minute. A holding pattern (a CAP, for combat air patrol), 10 miles from the field and 9 miles in length, offers a model set-up. Ideally, an event producer on the ground relays a 5-minute call and a 3-minute call, which allows the flight to adjust ground track to be at the front of the CAP for the “national anthem started” call. A steady 360 knot groundspeed inbound puts the flight slightly behind schedule, setting up a high-speed, high power-setting run-in over the last couple of miles to arrive overhead as the singer belts, “…home of the brave.”

The World Series fly-by over Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco is one I’ll long remember. We departed Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, flew to San Francisco and penetrated a low overcast to fly up the east side of San Francisco Bay, wedged in between and below Oakland and San Francisco airspace. Visibility dropped, and we were granted special VFR. Squeezing the cumbrous six-airplane delta formation between adjoining airspace, underneath a low overcast, with limited visibility, a poor horizon, and saturated radios took every bit of my concentration, skill, and experience.

In the staging area, I couldn’t get mental orientation. Lights on the hillsides combined with ships in the bay to make discerning a horizon under the darkening late afternoon overcast difficult. We orbited in loose formation and Thunderbird number 4, the slot pilot, continued to correct my mental picture by calling landmarks. We finally got clearance to move up into our CAP, but the delay threw off our timing, and we still hadn’t heard from our coordinator at the stadium.

Close to the 3-minute mark, halfway through an outbound leg in the CAP, we heard a scratchy transmission, which we suspected to be our 3-minute call. We queried it and heard a scratchy, broken, urgent voice: “nega…anth…has…sta…an...started.”

Well out of position, behind any timing guidelines, and working through my misaligned mental picture, I quickly turned the delta formation inbound, and called for afterburners. We dashed low across the bay in loose formation pointing to what number 4 assured me was the stadium. As we got to within about 2 miles, with the anthem 15 seconds or so from conclusion, we reduced power, closed the formation, flicked on our smoke, and passed from right field, across the pitcher’s mound, and over the third base dugout. I looked slightly low and to my right to see the large American flag on the center field scoreboard. No time to assess our timing, though—we still had work to do.

We’d previously coordinated with Center for an IFR climb following the fly-by to pick up our routing home. Pulling the delta formation up through the gray overcast, I looked briefly to my right and could see no trace of number 3’s aircraft. I held steady, no changes in pitch, bank, or power, for what seemed an eternity, then we broke through on top and I marveled at five exceptionally talented wingmen in perfect delta formation.

With all the low-altitude maneuvering and high power settings, we were low on fuel. One of the wingmen called forward in our secondary radio, imploring the refueling aircraft to head west and meet us early. We ran a night rendezvous, sipped some gas, and flew home to Nellis in time to watch the final few innings. We were late overhead the stadium by about 3 seconds, most of which was covered by Tony Bennett, no rookie to extending a pause or holding a note for a few needed seconds.

A simple fly-by ended up taxing the skills and experience it had taken us our entire careers to build. We were well trained; highly proficient; flying exceptionally maintained aircraft; and we’d developed a culture of trust and accountability that brought out the best in us. We were open about our struggles and weren’t too proud to take help when needed. It takes all of those elements to fly at your very best, which is sometimes required in the most innocuous appearing circumstances.

Tune in early to the holiday bowl games this season and root for the pilots, then go fly.

Email [email protected]

Richard McSpadden

Executive Director of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden lead’s AOPA’s ASI, committed to reducing General Aviation mishaps by providing free educational resources and supporting initiatives that improve General Aviation safety and grow the pilot population.

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