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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


T.H.ursday's with Tom Hill

There are a couple of things we do in the aviation business that are necessary but don't produce much reward. They also have lots of opportunity for failure. In the USAF, we say you can only "break even" in such situations. One thing that comes to mind is doing fly-bys. We've all seen them. They're common at the start of sporting events when, at the high note of the Star Spangled Banner, a flight of fighters miraculously appears overhead. It's great drama. There are cheers. People are yelling, screaming, clapping. It's awesome. Yet, hardly anyone I know who's never seen a fly-by quite understands the complexity of such a seemingly simple thing. After all, isn't it the military's bread and butter to be over a point at a certain time? You bet. 
 Next time you are traveling 600 feet per second, try to be over the given point at precisely the time when the singer wants to be dramatic with their version of the song. Oh - and add in the fish bowl of national TV. A few seconds early, you drown out the ending of the song. A few seconds late, the singer is done, packed up, and gone--you look like an afterthought. You can only be there on time. You can't be any more on time than on time. The best you can do is break even.

Backyard during a partial eclipse

More often than not, fly-bys are not done at sporting events. Many times we fly at memorial services. In some ways the stress level is so much higher. You may know the grieving family and all you want to do is do your best job, playing your part in ensuring the memorial service serves the family as best as it can. Nothing may be more important.

A few days after the Columbia accident in 2003 when I was the Operations Officer of the Test Pilot School, I was asked to organize a memorial Missing Man formation at the Edwards AFB service. The local NASA Dryden Flight Research Station folks couldn't put a four-ship together for many reasons, one of which was that they wanted as many of their folks as possible on the ground attending the service. We developed a plan to have three of our T-38's with a single NASA F-18 in the #3 position do the Missing Man fly-up when overhead at the outdoor service.

I assigned the project to one of my great captains, who didn't have much experience doing such events but certainly was capable enough. I decided to fly as #4 to be out there "just in case.”

One of the challenges of fly-by's is you can't make up time. As fast as fighter-type aircraft are, there's only so much speed you can add or take off while still meeting all the rules and not breaking the laws of physics. Add on the unknown qualities of speakers and singers and these fly-bys become a lot like performing a play with no rehearsal. What helps is we cheat. First, we have a guy on the ground with the script. He keeps us updated as to how the service is progressing. Next, we plan a route that allows us to add or cut off distance at strategic points. When flying at six miles a minute, if you're late and need to cutoff a minute, you cutoff a mile. If you're early and need to add a minute, you add a mile to your route. With your spy on the ground, you note little milestones on the route to verify you're on the right point based on how the service is going. Instead of speeding up or slowing down, you have more options if you use geometry to add or subtract distance.

A perfect fly-by is when you sail overhead at the right moment, very nonchalant like. Just like a duck that looks calm on the surface of the water but is paddling like crazy underneath, we only want the crowd to see us calmly execute. Inevitably, nothing goes according to plan with these things, meaning we're paddling like crazy. This fly-by was no different.

My lead did a great job planning and briefing the mission. The NASA F-18 pilot, the guy doing the fly-up, was well known to us. We had flown together many times before. We were very comfortable with the plan, which included many contingencies we hoped would never happen--i.e., not having four aircraft, weather being a factor, the timing being completely off, yadayada. 
Sunrise on Midway

The absolute last “what-if” situation we briefed was when to do the fly-up: when precisely was the F-18 going to pull-up as the Missing Man into the sky, to pay tribute to the lost astronauts? You see, timing for the fly-up was important. Having it too early meant the crowd couldn't see it or was too far away. Having it too late meant it was straight over-head, or worse, behind the crowd. No matter what, we needed to have the F-18 pull-up into the sky at the right point on the ground. To make this harder, as a wingman in formation you have very little awareness of where you are on the ground. That means you need a radio call from the lead with a backup call from the others just at the right moment to tell the Missing Man to pull-up. When you’re moving at 600 ft/sec, timing is really important.

The takeoff was about the only thing that went according to plan. Just after airborne, it all went out the window. We held, waiting for the service to start. Then, the service didn't go on plan. In the middle of the route, we had to hold again. My flight lead sounded a little frustrated. I couldn't blame him. I began to worry whether we had enough gas for more holding and still do the fly-by.

Eventually, we rush in on the final leg. "You're late!" Damn, we have to push it up. The three wingmen are holding on. Afterburner is selected to get up to speed. All that pre-mission planning isn’t useful. All we have is speed to arrive on time. "On time,” the throttles come back to idle. The speed brakes come out. The formation is a mess, the wingmen bouncing all over the place due to all the sudden changes in our speed. Fortunately, we're too far to be seen. The duck is paddling as hard as it can.

Amazingly, we're just arriving at the service when the formation calms down--we’re in position. Friends in the crowd tell us later we look perfect--the duck is calm. I get a quick thought: "I can't believe this is all going to work out!" Arriving at the pull-up point, the lead calls "Pull-up!" Nothing. The F-18 does nothing. It's stuck there on the wing. One or two seconds later, #2 and I mash our mics, "PULL-UP!" I'm desperate, willing it to fly away. Another second, he's gone. The F-18 flies out of view into the sky. Darn!!

After all that, after all the changes and everything, we arrived on time at the right point only to miss the fly-up. I'm dejected. I'm thinking we snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. We had it, then lost it.

Back at ops, we're all quiet. I'm thinking about how to guide my guys through this so there's a positive learning point. Eventually, people begin to trickle in from the service. I ask one of my folks who attended the service, "How did it look?" "You guys looked great. Umm..." she tapers off and thinks, "how did you do that with the moon?" "The moon?" I ask, a bit confused. "Ya, the moon. You flew right overhead, which I thought was a little late for the pull up. Then, we're looking straight up with the moon in the background when the F-18 pulls right towards it. How did you figure out when to pull right into the moon? It looked great and especially appropriate since this was a NASA memorial." I had no answer.

To this day I’m still amazed how that worked out. In flight, I went in seconds from full elation making the pull up point on time and in formation, to complete dejection from having screwed up. Then, out of the blue comes this fortunate set of circumstances where it all worked out. I could not have planned that.

I am absolutely a firm believer in saving luck for those times when needed. (See last week's article.) I am also sure that if we hadn't done the other mission planning we would have missed something else and never would have had an opportunity to "fly into the moon." Still, I will not look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say. I just feel fortunate to break even.



  1. I would rather be lucky than good. I was unlucky on one of my two flyovers.

    I was doing a fly-by for the Governor's inauguration in 2000. It was a C-130 two-ship and we did all of the things you talked about.
    I spoke to the person tasked with event on schedule. I kept telling them, that we couldn't appear out of no-where. We needed a hard time to shoot for. We could be a minute early or late, but we needed a hard flyover time. It was set and everything was a go.

    Like you, the event started late, the band played long, the speakers spoke too long, ect. Our guy on the ground was standing next to the coordinator. We were holding, just three miles away.

    Ready to start the run-in, the guy on the ground told us another five minutes. No big deal, but it did require a turn away from the Capitol building.

    No sooner did we get wings level, pointed the wrong way did we get the call to start the run-in. An aggressive 60 degree bank, max power and full speed. You know the Herc flies at the speed of slow. I told the wingman to get ready to abort the flyover because we were so late.

    The coordinator knew how late we were going to be and still wanted it. We became the punch line in the Governor's speech, the crowd laughed. Everyone except the Wing Commander and the General. Number two was tucked in tight when we went over, but it is no good to be late. I am still embarrassed over it.

    1. Rob, Thank you for the great comment...story! When we're late in the airline world, we just apologize and keep our door closed. ;)

      Seriously, I have never thought about the timing this took. So... my friend, time to move on and put that event behind you! Being a punchline could be an honor. :)

    2. Rob,

      I know exactly how that feels. I have my own share of things that still gnaw at me. I prefer to remember them as learning points for the future.

      I what I failed to mention in my article is the double extra challenge of flying a slow-mover at one of these things. Unlike aircraft with afterburners--like we used in my story--you simply don't have the speed variable to make up time. A mission commander in a slow mover formation has a much harder time, as if it wasn't hard enough.

      I talked to a friend of mine about this. Until hearing about this story and others, she said she had no idea how hard these things where. "They just looked calm and collected." She reflected she'd never take these fly-bys for granted again. And, where she lives in a major metropolitan city, fly-bys cruise by her house all the time.




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