Just a few days ago we brought to you some great footage of a B-2 flyover of the Rose Bowl. Many people often wonder how those jets get right over their heads just at the last note of the National Anthem. The answer is simple really: it’s just part of the job description.

Military aviators, particularly tactical aviators, are trained to hit an exact spot at an exact time that we call a “Time on Target,” or ToT. This has a number of applications, but is most well-known to be used in the Close Air Support (CAS) environment. On the ground, a JTAC will control an aircraft’s weapons delivery and will often provide a ToT. The expectation is that the bombs will go high-order within ten seconds of that time.

That kind of precision became useful in the business of flyovers as well. Flyovers have significant value, be it promoting patriotism at a sporting event, to paying tribute to a fallen comrade with a missing man formation. The flyover is most profound, however, when the timing is perfect.

So how does it all get done? First, we need to look at the variables. Suppose we were doing a flyover at the end of the National Anthem at a football game. The pilots will need to know the exact time that the band or singer starts performing, and exactly how long the performance is going to take. If this information is known in advance, then the pilots merely need to type the ToT into the aircraft’s computer and fly the profile the aircraft tells them to.

Sounds good, but as we all know in this business, things don’t always go according to plan and contingencies need to be briefed. Just like in the CAS environment, a person on the ground to help control is invaluable. At many flyovers the pilots will have someone helping on the ground who is usually another pilot himself. He has the ability to communicate the situation with the pilots and provide critical information.

“The band started 12 seconds late!” is probably something the pilots want to know unless they want to drown out land of the free and the home of the brave with jet noise. A way to correct that is obviously to slow down, but then the slow flyover is less than ideal. If that situation is caught early enough, the pilots can also offset away from the stadium and then back on course to buy time and still be at the original speed.

The U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight, consisting of an F-22 Raptor, QF-4 Phantom, F-86 Sabre, and P-51 Mustang, performs at Aviation Nation 2010.
The U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight, consisting of an F-22 Raptor, QF-4 Phantom, F-86 Sabre, and P-51 Mustang, performs at Aviation Nation 2010. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

If, for instance, the band started early, then good preflight planning may save the day. Due to FAA speed restrictions, the aircraft won’t be able to accelerate past their legal limit. If the route to the stadium included a dog leg, then cutting the corner may get them back on to the ToT. As we mentioned, that requires that the lead pilot planned a dog leg into his route well in advance, as well as some quick thinking while airborne.

There are some old tricks pilots can use if their computers aren’t able to help. Well, they aren’t really tricks, just basic math. All of aviation math is based in 6s and 10s. 6 is because there are 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to an hour. 10 is because of the decimal system. If the pilots at least have a clock and their distance to the target, they can use this basic math to help them if they fly at “convenient” speeds:

  • 240 knots = 4 miles per minute
  • 300 knots = 5 miles per minute
  • 360 knots = 6 miles per minute

These rules-of-thumb are used in tactical aviation all the time, but definitely come in handy during a flyover too. If the TOT is exactly at 12:00:00, then if I plan to fly 300 knots I know I should be 5 miles away at 11:59:00. 6 miles away and I am behind timeline; 4 miles away and I am ahead. Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t always so nice and round so often times the pilots will have to interpolate. We’ll call it very educated guessing. A poorly timed flyover, while less than ideal, will still be cool to the spectator (and will definitely earn some infamy back at the pilots’ home ready room).

A flyover can add special meaning and sentimental value to a public event. However, nothing shows off more the precision of our nation’s aviators like a perfectly timed flyover!

(Featured Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force/TSgt Justin D. Pyle)