Sunday, February 4, 2018

Here’s how the men and women of the Air Force are making a flyover of firsts at this year’s Super Bowl come together

By Ryan Van Bibber 

It’s 15 degrees outside, and I’m standing in snow on the tarmac in Minneapolis. I wouldn’t normally choose to be outside in these conditions, but I don’t normally get the chance to get up close with three F-16 fighters and three A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.

The jets and their crews are part of the Air Force Heritage Flight program. They’re in Minneapolis for the same reason I am — Super Bowl 52. I’ll be in the press box for the game. The three pilots I talked to Saturday morning will have better seats, albeit higher, flying over the game during the national anthem. (The pilots and the ground crews for the planes get to go to the game too, after the flyover.)

I’m nonplussed meeting current and former NFL players and coaches walking around town this week, but getting to see these planes and the chance to talk to the people who fly them and keep them running was the best part of the week.

Besides being really neat, it was also the chance to learn more about what actually goes into a flyover and why the one happening at the Super Bowl this year is a little different than most.

A flyover of firsts for Super Bowl 52

“We’re part of the Heritage Flight program, which you see primarily at air shows flying WWII vintage, or Korea and Vietnam era vintage airplanes with modern fighters, A-10s, F-16s,” Maj. Dan Levy, who’s flying one of the A-10, said.

“This is the first time the United States Air Force Heritage team has been able to do a flyover like this. And it being Super Bowl 52 is a pretty big deal. Hopefully we can showcase what the Heritage Flight Team is, because there’s probably a lot of people who don’t go to air shows to get to see that.”

There are four primary demo teams; they each do about 20-25 events per year.

It’s the first Super Bowl for the Heritage Team. Normally, you see the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron or the Navy’s Blue Angels for an event like this. 

“I think we just got lucky enough that neither team was available to do it right now, and the Heritage Team was ready to go, and we jumped on it as soon as they asked us,” Maj. Chad Rudolph, the other A-10 pilot said.

Piloting the P-51 is Steve Hinton, a 56-year veteran flyer with a passion for vintage historic airplanes. He’s president of the Planes of Fame Air Museum. He tells me that he’s done a couple flyovers at the Rose Bowl, but this is his first NFL game. Not a bad one to start with.

Hinton’s well known in the aviation community. In addition to his efforts to preserve historic aircraft, he set the world speed record for a piston-driven aircraft and a champion air racer.

“Getting to fly with him is like getting to play catch with Joe Montana,” is how Levy described it.

What makes this flyover unique?

Besides this being the first time the Heritage Team has done this at the Super Bowl, there’s an interesting mix of aircraft flying over U.S. Bank Stadium.

There are four planes representing three generations of aircraft for the flyover: one F-16, two A-10s and a P-51 (more about the planes themselves below). They’ll be flying in a diamond formation with the P-51 out in front, the two A-10s even with each other on the side and the F-16 bringing up the rear.

“It’s a really unique formation to take a look at, because you never really get to see those vintage aircraft flying with modern fighters,” Levy said.

“The heritage formation is unique. It’s usually just four modern day fighters that are all similar operating a similar speeds and used to doing a flyover together,” Maj. John Waters, the F-16 pilot, said.

“It’s a sign of strength and unity and the sacrifices that have been made. And the cool factor is off the chart. It’s a very special event,” Hinton said.

What kind of planes are these?

A-10 Thunderbolt II, the defensive lineman

“The A-10 is kind of the blue-collar fighter of the Air Force. Our primary mission [the A-10] is close air support, protecting troops who are in close combat with enemy forces on the ground,” Levy explains. 

“We’re basically kind of the defensive linemen of the Air Force. Watching us do an air show is like watching a lineman do gymnastics. It’s still neat, but it’s an unusual experience.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a very easy plane to fly. It allows you to focus on the task at hand which is usually close air support. Generally doesn’t go very fast. It’s not really built for speed; it’s built for punishment,” Levy said.

F-16 Falcon, the Tarik Cohen of the group

“If the A-10 is the defensive lineman of the Air Force, this is the scat back,” Tech. Sgt. Kam Glowack tells me. He’s a Bears fan so it’s fitting that the plane he’s responsible for is a little like Tarik Cohen. 

It goes all the way up to Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, Glowack tells me. That’s 1,534 miles per hour.

P-51 Mustang, the Nazi hunter

The P-51, Sierra Sue II, was built in 1944 and shipped to the European theatre in World War II in January 1945. It’s one of the few airplanes of its kind still flying that actually saw combat in WWII.

Today, it’s at of the Wings of the North museum based in Minnesota.

Hinton will be flying it. 

This plane changed the course of the air war against the Nazis. It was the first long-range fighter introduced during the war, capable of flying and fighting alongside the bombers on their way to targets deep in Germany. The introduction of the P-51 gave the Allies a distinct edge over the enemy, and it helped crush German air power in the process.

It is absolutely my favorite airplane, the one I looked at over and over again as a kid, listening to my grandfather’s stories about the war.

“It was the best fighter of World War II,” Hinton tells me. 

How does the flyover actually work?

With four very different planes, including one that can go twice the speed of sound, it’s not easy to stay in a tight formation at the same speed and to do it with timing synced up to the national anthem.

“The F-16s and even the A-10s have a wide speed range. If they get 30 seconds behind they can add 200 mph, pick up the time. There’s a lot of pressure on us to get this correct,” Hinton said.

“It’ll be challenging for the flyover, because it’s a vintage WWII airplane and there’s no computers in there to get the timing right. We’re all working together as a team to make sure the formation looks good and we hit the timing correctly,” Levy explained.

“For this one it’s the timing, communicating with Steve in the P-51 exactly when to turn in and how to change his speed because it’s the old instruments. And then trying to get our formation position just right for the camera angles.”

They have to eyeball it to keep the shape. Pilots queue off the tail and the wing of the P-51 out in front. From there, it’s a matter of geometry, figuring out the angles to determine how far back and how close they want to be.

They’ve only rehearsed the Super Bowl flyover once.

“We don’t get to practice this every day. We just practiced it yesterday, and then it’s showtime,” Levy added.

They’ve had experience with the mix of planes for a demonstration before.

“I was fortunate enough in October, I did an air show with a P-51 where we normally do our routine, but afterward we gassed up and went over to do the flyover at the Talladega 500,” Waters said.

There’s also the timing issue, getting the planes over the stadium at the exact moment.

“We’re trying to hit it right there at the end of the national anthem, on ‘brave.’ There’s a really tight window we’re trying to hit,” Rudolph explains.

“Each one brings a different challenge, and you’re always juggling variables, usually the ability to communicate to the guys in the stadium to know when to start our inbound leg ... there’s usually buildings in the way, line of sight issues and things of that nature,” Waters said.

“We’re all pilots, our planes have wings ... we practice and train to hold our formation,” Hinton said.

How will people see the flyover since it’s an indoor stadium?

“It’s got that half translucent dome, so our goal is to fly right over the top of that. Everybody in the stadium should be able to hear us and get a glimpse of us as we pass over the top of that,” Rudolph said.

“There should be some live stream feeds from the Air Force, looking out the back of the P-51 with a wide-angle lens that hopefully we can see all the aircraft. You can find that on Facebook. Hopefully they’ll get that pumped into NBC as well. I think there’s going to be multiple camera vantage points looking at the formation from outside the stadium so people can see that either on TV or on the jumbotron.”

How will the cold weather affect the flyover?

The truth is that it won’t. In fact, the jets fly better in cold air.

“Colder weather, compressed oxygen molecules, it’s a turbo engine’s best friend. Got more oxygen,” Glowack explains.

Cold or not, the crews keep the planes running.

“It’s austere conditions, we’re humans so we have to brace for the cold, stay on our A game and make sure we’re inspecting the jets properly and make sure we’re doing our job and they’re still safe,” Glowack said.

What’s the Air Force Heritage Foundation?

Founded in 2010, it’s a nonprofit that brings together historic aircraft with contemporary fighters for public displays. Its charitable mission to make those planes available for events like this one. The flights are a living memorial to those who have served and are still serving.

The flyover is also about recruiting more more pilots.

“It’s really a big recruitment tool. Right now, there’s a lack of pilots in the entire industry, not just the Air Force, even the airlines. We want the interest for aviation to go up,” Rudolph said.

“The demand for everything aviation related keeps going up. Everyone expects Amazon Prime to show up the next day. You’ve got to have people to fly the airplanes to move that stuff. The Baby Boomers are retiring right now, so without getting the production of pilots up, it’s going to be pretty tough for everybody, not just the Air Force.”

For a six-hour block of football and entertainment, the flyover takes up a fraction of that time, a few minutes with four historic aircraft punctuating the national anthem. And it takes days, even months, of work, training and coordination to make it happen. It’s an even more inspiring thing to see knowing exactly what goes into it all, and the meaning imbued with it.

“You work with great people, and then when you see the jet fly, it’s goosebumps,” Glowack said.

It didn’t take me too long to get warmed up from my time on the tarmac, but I still have goosebumps. 

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