It was a historic first. A trifecta of American strategic bombers doing a flyover of Super Bowl LV at the precise moment the National Anthem ended. It only lasted a few seconds, but the cheers of the limited number of fans in attendance were noticeably loud.
But the fans would be even more impressed if they knew how much work and advanced planning goes into something like this. And even more so if they considered the quiet message this flyover sent to our potential adversaries around the world.
According to the Air Force, a trifecta flyover like this has been desired for years. But you can’t just dial up three different strategic bombers from three different bases and expect them to just appear at a precise moment over a precise location. So complex is the trifecta that it had been shelved for years.
If we wanted to fly a B1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and B-52 Stratofortress together in formation at low speed and altitude and over a target at a precise moment, what would it take? Well, quite a lot.
“We started doing our initial planning for this flyover back in March of 2020,” said Katie Spencer, Sports Outreach Program manager and Aerial Events coordinator for the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Office. “The bomber trifecta flyover is something that Carla Pampe, the AFGSC chief of civic outreach, had been pitching to us for about four years, and this year it worked out for us to do it.”
To make matters more difficult, each of the bombers came from a different Bomber Wing in a different part of the country.
Chief of the Air Combat Command Aerial Events Branch, Lt. Col. Chris McAlear served as the ground controller for the Super Bowl and vectored the aircraft in for the actual flyover.
“This flyover took a lot of extra coordination because we were working with three different wings at three different bases,” he said in a release from the Air Force. “Normally you’re working with one unit who is used to doing these types of flyovers, so it was a new dynamic for us.”
“Once we got the final aircrews selected and got the times from the NFL on when the National Anthem would end, I put together a detailed event briefing for the three flying crews,” McAlear said.
The flight mission was lead by Captain Sarah Kociuba, one of only 10 female B-2 pilots. She and her crew took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The B-1B Lancer came from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the B-52 Stratofortress from the Minot base in North Dakota.
But flyovers like these are not mere stunts designed to thrill onlookers; rather, they provide some very valuable training challenges to the Air Force.
And remember, these weren’t your run-of-mill F16 fighters or even some ever-awe-inspiring A10 Warthogs. No, these are strategic bombers from the Air Force Global Strike Command the crews of which are prepared for the most critical deployments to any corner of the globe.
The B-52 and the B-1B Lancer flew to McDill Air Force Base in Tampa several days prior to the event and used that runway for rehearsals as well as the final formation flight.
Not only did the Air Force have to scour the training and deployment schedules to find an aircraft of each type able to be flown on this mission, but it had to identify a back-up plane of each type in case of mechanical failure. Of course, there’s also aerial refueling available at a rendezvous over the Gulf of Mexico and another rendezvous position for the bombers to meet up and assume formation flight for the run-in to the stadium. What about an airfield to divert to if a plane had a problem in flight? Gotta have that worked out. What if one were forced to ditch in the Gulf? A few Search and Rescue helicopters would have been on standby at McDill AFB or already in the air near a set of pre-briefed ditching coordinates over the water.
To even perform the flyover so the crowds could enjoy it, these bombers had to fly low and slow, and they don’t exactly maneuver like F-35s. Each aircraft performs differently at these low speeds and altitudes, which made keeping a tight vee formation a feat in and of itself.
There is no shortage of dangers of formation flight within a low and slow envelope. And these dangers are amplified by the unknowns.
To limit the unknowns, the aircraft spent several days doing practice runs over the stadium.
There were hundreds of minor and major details to be worked out before a flight like this could take place. Any failure to anticipate and plan for them can make a very costly mess out of the whole thing. And that is why the Air Force having pulled it off so flawlessly (or made it seem like it did) is quite a tribute to its planning, teamwork, and execution.
There are people who complain about these flyovers, saying they are a waste of money, resources, etc. Yet, what they fail to mention — or simply don’t understand — is that the military routinely carries out costly and complex training exercises. And it’s all the better when these exercises present operational and logistical challenges. Some parts of military training should always include scenarios where the unexpected and novel have to be dealt with. This flyover would have certainly offered that in spades.
And, since your bomber pilots need training anyway, why not let them turn a few heads while they’re at it?
“One of the reasons we do flyovers in the Air Force is to inspire patriotism and future generations of aviation enthusiasts, and our aircrew and maintainers are great messengers to share the Air Force story,” said Chief of Policy and Public Outreach for the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Office Jennifer Bentley. “This is also an amazing way to showcase the capabilities of our aircraft to the American public.”
But it wasn’t just America watching Super Bowl LV.
The military commanders of potential adversaries — think China, Russia, and Iran, among others — would be watching that flyover as well. If I were the Supreme Leader, I would be none too thrilled with witnessing three different Air Force bombers from three different bases scattered over a continent arrive in formation over a “target” at a precise moment in time.
That’s what makes Sunday night’s Super Bowl flyover even more badass.
All of us here at SOFREP are proud of you, Air Force. Well done.
And here is a very cool behind-the-scenes video of the flyover.