The NFL regular season will be ending soon, meaning that its apogee is just on the horizon. Of course, the apogee is the Super Bowl with all its substance and window dressing.
And the Super Bowl flyover — performed by America’s armed forces — is arguably the centerpiece of the substance (with all due respect to the halftime entertainment).
“The flyover is a display of power and precision by the aircraft and pilots overhead and is a great opening to our games that gets fans excited about the power and precision they are about to watch on the field,” Dan Lessard, an active-duty Army officer and military fellow currently serving on the NFL’s Social Responsibility team, stated via email.
The Super Bowl flyover tradition is more than a half-century old – the first occurring in 1968 – and the opportunity to display air power is spread among the military branches. Past Super Sunday games have included the Navy Blue Angels, the Air Force Thunderbirds, Army helicopters and a variety of bombers.
According to iflysun.com, flyovers originated in 1918 at the World Series in Chicago, where a procession of 60 aircraft entertained the spectators. The Blue Angels formed in 1946 and first displayed its skill set and might that August. The Air Force followed suit in 1953 with the formation of the Thunderbirds.
The last four of the five Super Bowl flyovers have been performed by the Air Force. Its rotation ended in 2022, and the Navy will fly over in 2023.
Super Bowl LV in Tampa and Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles were unique. Super Bowl LV comprised a bomber trifecta flyover — B-52, B-1 and B-2 — which had never been attempted in public.
“It was never done before,” said Katie Spencer, a reservist, and sports outreach program manager for the Department of the Air Force. “They only do that in training. They’ve never performed that formation over a venue before. And it just so happens that when you add B-52, B-1, B-2, it equals 55.”
September 2022 marked the Air Force’s 75th anniversary, and it commemorated the milestone via the Super Bowl LVI flyover in Los Angeles by rolling out its heritage flight. The patch consisted of a P-51D Mustang, A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II and an F-16 Fighting Falcon, reported Flying Magazine.
“It celebrates our heritage right where we’ve been and where we’re going, you know, with our fifth-gen aircraft,” Spencer said.
Flying five differing aircraft in a formation was a daunting task, said Maj. Haden “Gator” Fullam, who piloted the A-10.
“So you can imagine what it takes. It feels like this confounding issue of now we have five different airplanes that don’t fly the same,” Haden said. “They don’t fly the same air speeds. They don’t perform the same. But we’re going to put five airplanes in very close formation. We’re now going to fly them through some of the busiest airspace in the United States. And then we’re going to put them over the top of the largest sporting event in the U.S. to the second.”
Fullam said the pilots were there one week ahead of the Super Bowl and only had one opportunity to practice flying over SoFi Stadium. Part of the logistical challenge was LAX. Fullam said the runaway approaches at LAX are only 3 miles from SoFi.
“The arrival corridor of LAX was a massive undertaking behind the scenes as well,” he said. “That’s some of the busiest airspace in the United States that we’re trying to fly a five-ship formation, that’s not very maneuverable, through.”
And precise timing is required for Super Bowl flyovers. Fullam said that the formation aims to be at an exact point and heading at an exact time. Normally the combat TOT, or time-on-target, allows for a plus or minus 5-second window. The NFL standard is more rigid.
“The NFL, they want you there to the second,” he said. “The expectation is you’re going to be exactly over that 50-yard line to the second of where they want because the whole day and everything around an event the size of the Super Bowl is scripted out on a very, very strict timeline with TV schedules and everything else going on with such a massive event like that.”
But the purpose of the flyover goes beyond wowing and enthralling football fans and Super Bowl attendees. It’s the flyover-related events of the preceding week, the underlying symbolism of the powerful display of modern aviation and what it represents.
“One of the things that we realize is that it’s not just the time-over-target flyover and the six to 10 seconds on live television that we may or may not get,” Spencer said. “It’s everything that happens the week leading up to.”
She said they set up a day when the media can meet the pilots and become acquainted with the aircraft. The Air Force also conducts a community outreach day where schools, civic leaders, celebrities and influencers can hear the aircraft crews discuss their roles in servicing the jets.
“We invite these people to come out and talk with our crews about what they do, these maintainers, which is a huge recruiting for, you know, a lot of the kids that are in schools that might not want to go to college and get a degree,” Spencer said. “They have options to work on these awesome aircraft.”
The symbiotic working relationship between the Air Force and the NFL is another aspect of the flyover.
“The NFL has a long history of supporting our nation’s service members, veterans and their families,” Lessard said. “It’s deeply ingrained in the culture here.”
As the only sports outreach coordinator in the DOD, Spencer has been able to cultivate a strong rapport with the NFL.
“No other branch of service has someone dedicated strictly to sports outreach,” she said. “And so that gives me the opportunity to really work my relationship with the NFL throughout the season, on- and off-season.”
The partnership and flyover seem to serve a greater cause, transcending the fleeting captivation of a brief thrill. The purpose is to foster appreciation.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” Lessard said. “It’s also just a great way to connect our fans with service members on gameday and to remind them that our nation has a well-trained and professional military defending the freedoms we all enjoy.”
Perhaps the Super Bowl flyover accesses the future by stimulating interest.
“We do these flyovers to recruit that next generation … and we want that little boy or girl in the stands to look up and see these massive pieces of iron flying over and hear the jet noise and feel it in their soul and want to grow up and be part of the world’s greatest air force,” Spencer said.Read comments