How flyovers hit their exact marks at games

Military precision allows pilots to time their flyovers right to the end of the national anthem. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

On Opening Day at Target Field this year, an Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber came roaring over the Minnesota Twins’ ballpark perfectly in sync with the last note of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

In 2009, before Game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, three Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets appeared in the night sky just as John Legend completed “and the home of the brave.”

And on Jan. 27, 1991 in Tampa, Fla., just seconds after Whitney Houston finished the anthem before Super Bowl XXV, four Air Force F-16s in formation streaked overhead with a deafening encore.

Hundreds of times each year, fighters, bombers and helicopters perform pregame flyovers at sports events. No matter the venue, the sport or the aircraft, the flyovers all have one thing in common: precise timing that puts the pilots directly over the stadium just as the anthem ends.

How do they do it?

How do aircraft traveling at high speeds -- sometimes from long distances -- manage to hit their marks with military precision?

Well, the answer might lie partially in that one word: military.

“We do similar things a lot in all of military aviation, where you have to be at a site at a particular time,” says Marine Capt. Emily Miller, a helicopter pilot who has flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently led a two-chopper flyover at Petco Park in San Diego. “It’s really not a lot different.”

For a pilot to get to his or her TOT -- time on target, in military speak -- is just another day in the airborne office.

Because sports events involve detailed pregame scripting, a team or league can provide pilots with a specific time they want the flyover to occur (say, for instance, 12:58 p.m. for a 1:05 p.m. baseball game).

Combine that specific time with (1) backed-out calculations for takeoff, distance and air speed; (2) a pre-specified holding area where aircraft can circle or hover to kill time if necessary; and (3) a forward air controller inside the stadium for last-minute guidance, and presto, you’ve got aircraft zooming overhead while fans are still standing with their hands over their hearts.

“We like it to happen right at the last note. Right as it ends,” says Mike Berentson, a former Marine major and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who now serves as the director of military affairs for the San Diego Padres.

The biggest challenge?

“Paperwork and weather,” he says.

• • •

The steps to make it happen:

The request: As Berentson explains, a team or league that wants a military flyover must fill out a government form called DD2535, which is a “request for military aerial support” for a specific date. Once submitted, the request must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration -- essentially saying it’s safe to conduct a flyover at the time and site -- before it goes to the headquarters of the branch of service that has been requested for the flyover. If the request is deemed eligible, the team or league must then find a squadron willing to do a flyover.

This is important because typically flyovers are considered part of a unit’s training requirement. Pilots need so many hours in the air to stay current in their qualifications, says Berentson, so flyovers are incorporated.

“It becomes another training mission, essentially,” says Berentson.

For that reason, the cost of flyovers is part of the military budget -- not paid for by a sports team or league -- unless special circumstances dictate that the team must pay for the cost of fuel (in an area of scarcity, for instance).

As far as the military is concerned, it’s a win-win: good training time (that pilots would have needed anyway) and good PR. For fans, there’s something special about seeing a jet, bomber or formation of helicopters directly overhead.

“It’s pretty awesome to see,” says Berentson. “Especially, the minimum altitude you can fly is a thousand feet, which feels really close, especially if you have a jet, like an F-18. Even the big cargo planes are pretty cool to see that close.”

For Super Bowl XLV in 2011, four Navy F-18s that had taken off in Virginia streaked over Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Because the weather was bad, the stadium roof was closed, so the flyover was visible only to TV viewers and those at the game who watched it on the giant video board. It prompted some to question the cost of the flyover to taxpayers, with one reporter in Dallas suggesting it cost $450,000.

In response, a Navy spokesman told one publication: “These missions are included in the annual operating budget of all branches of the military, and they are used as training.”

The script and calculations: Whether it’s a Super Bowl or a regular-season baseball game, entertainment directors prepare scripts for pregame activities that are down to the second.

A recent Padres pregame script, for instance, called for introduction of the national anthem performer and band starting at 12:55:05 p.m., followed by the start of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at 12:57:05 and a flyover at 12:58:50.

It’s that precise moment that’s used to back out the time needed to get the aircraft into the air and over the field.

“Our entertainment department, they know how long everything’s going to last, including the national anthem,” says Berentson. “We keep it [the anthem] traditional style, so no long, drawn-out notes or Jimi Hendrix-type stuff.”

Mike Grace, the Padres’ manager of in-game entertainment, says the anthem can vary in length from performer to performer, but it’s generally about 1 minute, 15 seconds.

The target time for the national anthem is factored into takeoff, figuring in miles, altitude and speed. Some flyovers originate from nearby bases, some from distant sites.

The B-52 that flew over Target Field on Opening Day took off from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, about 440 miles away. The F-16s that flew over Tampa Stadium for Super Bowl XXV in 1991 took off less than 10 miles away at MacDill Air Force Base.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Keith Ballard, the NCO in charge of community relations at Minot Air Force Base, said the B-52 “being as storied an aircraft as it is” has been requested for flyovers from as far away as California, Florida and Maine.

The holding area: Instead of flying directly to the stadium, aircraft fly to a predesignated area where they will wait (circle or hover) to make their final approach.

For Capt. Miller’s recent flyover of Petco Park, the waiting zone was just off the coast of San Diego.

“We established the holding area where we’re within contact and we know exactly how long it’s going to take us to get from the holding area to our target, in this case being Petco, at a preplanned air speed,” says Miller, who flies a CH-53 Echo (“Super Stallion”) helicopter. “So in this case, we use an air speed that’s not too fast that we can’t go any faster, and not too slow that we’d be uncomfortable -- kind of medium air speed. So if we leave our holding area and something changes in our inbound, we can slow down or speed up as necessary.”

The man on the ground: In the stadium is a forward air controller, a member of the unit -- often a pilot -- who can let the pilot know if the pregame ceremony is running late or ahead of schedule. That controller, through a hand-held radio, will let the pilot know when to leave the holding area and can open the talk button to allow the pilot to hear the national anthem as he or she approaches.

“They call their aircraft and say, 'Come on,'" says Staff Sgt. Ballard of the controller. “So the plane will turn and fly toward the field as the national anthem is playing. Once they’re inbound, the anthem is going, so you don’t see them and you don’t hear them, obviously, being on the field with the music and everything, but they’re coming.

“So as the song ends, the timing is such that the plane should be arriving at the field.”

Adds the Padres’ Grace: “As long as they started at about the right time, they can speed up or slow down just enough to hit at the very end of the song.”

Kevin Smith, the Twins’ executive director of public affairs who worked with Minot Air Force Base to set up the B-52 flyover, has coordinated with the military on three Target Field flyovers and says, “The Twins are 3-for-3 in perfect flyover timing.”

To Capt. Miller, communicating with a controller on the ground is a key.

“That’s something we’re really familiar with anytime we do an operation out in theater, with battalions on the ground,” she says. “We’re working, doing the planning ahead of time with the forward air controller, and then also when we’re inbound.”

The Padres’ Berentson, who as a reserve Marine Force Recon platoon commander is trained to call in strikes from war planes, isn’t surprised at all by the uncanny timing of the flyovers.

“A forward air controller’s job is to direct the aircraft and tell it where to shoot or drop bombs. We don’t drop any bombs on a baseball game,” he says, laughing, “so they’re saying, 'We need you to be at this point on the map at this point in time,' and they make it happen.”