Washington fly-by: just another day on the staff

For as long as I can remember, the staff at Langley Air Force Base – Tactical Air Command (TAC) or now Air Combat Command (ACC) – had the responsibilities of scheduling and controlling the Air Force fly-bys in the Washington Capital area. In the main, this consists of providing the four-ship missing man formations for Arlington burial ceremonies out of ACC, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command resources – at appropriate times the aircraft included bombers and transports, and even some vintage aircraft representing earlier days of military aviation.

Flyover Arlington
Getting those Chinooks over the ceremony at the right time is not easy.

Most of these fly-bys come from units east of the Mississippi, and unit support is coordinated several weeks in advance of the actual event. The ACC ops team works with Washington Center for airspace clearance and Arlington to get the formation over the cemetery at the requested time, and the units with the mission execute with precision formation and split-second timing. Since the fly-by puts some crimp on the flow of air traffic in the DC area, especially Reagan National, an ACC ops team is usually on the ground working coordination between the fly-by formation and Air Traffic Control. Even in the case of some weather, cooperation is great and missions supporting the memorial events are priority for units involved. ATC knows the meaning of these ceremonies, and provides the deserved priority.

Occasionally there are some events earning support of multiple formations for the flyover. Election years are one of those times. My own experience was in 1993 when multi-service participation was in order for the military salute to President George Herbert Walker Bush and the pre-inauguration celebration for the incoming Clinton administration. I will tell you up front these were two events as different as day and night. Both involved units and aircraft from the various services and the Coast Guard; each organization contributed professional, skilled aviators; each brought its own style.

The event for Bush 41 was an element of the Department of Defense recognition to an outgoing known quantity. President Bush had led the forces in Desert Storm and was also a military aviator with combat experience. We knew him and respected him not only as our Commander-in-Chief, but as a leader of substance and style we related to. The ceremonies were conducted at Fort Myer, indoors in the Army’s auditorium/equestrian facility, with the fly-by to be the closing event, with 41 observing from a reviewing stand on the parade ground.

Layout of the event dictated a rough south to north pass, offset, but mainly parallel to the runways and flight path at Reagan National, a couple of miles southeast of Fort Myer. Holding for the formation of some 20 fighters would be about 20 miles south of the review site, with the timing of the activities late in the afternoon, coincident with some of the heaviest air traffic in and out of the capital area. Coordination of the fighters with air traffic control and synchronizing of the formation approach to Fort Myer was critical to avoid conflicts and safe separation with commercial air traffic. The fly-by pass would be at 1000 ft AGL down a tight corridor for air traffic separation, noise abatement and to assure 41 had a clear view of his aerial parade.

The formation consisted of F-14, F/A-18, A-6, F-16 and both F-15C and F-15E aircraft. Strike Eagles out of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson would be in the lead (it was an Air Force-led event and the great systems on the F-15E were assets to precise navigation and timing needed for the event). The Weapons System Officer of the E’s was also a great asset for the same reason – this was before GPS, and low altitude with the low visibility of the Washington area on a typical late afternoon winter day made it prudent to have the best system with professional aircrews in the lead of a one- to two-mile train of fighters crossing the nation’s capital at seven miles a minute. The flight lead was “Bags,” the squadron commander of the 336th Fighter Squadron “Fighting Rocketeers. I had known Bags since our days in the Pacific some years earlier – I felt confident in his ability to execute the mission flawlessly.

So, that frames the planning for the first event. Some of the back stories:

F-16 over Pentagon
In busy airspace like this, F-16s can’t just hold indefinitely.

Getting 41 to the reviewing stand on time was my personal worry. Given the pressure from ATC and the airlines for minimizing interruption of their operations Reagan, Dulles, and BWI, I was really concerned about any slips in the Presidential schedule, and the issues our control team would have in the real-time coordination with ATC. I was fortunate enough to have a face-to-face with the head of 41’s Secret Service detail. I explained the issues with interrupting Washington air traffic due to airspace considerations for flight holding and the actual fly-by.

He was quick to the point, “When do you want President Bush on the reviewing stand?” My reply was. “The ToT for the lead flight of Strike Eagles to cross the reviewing stand is 37 past the hour.” His reply was crisp: “He will be there.” I countered with, “What if he is delayed?” He replied, “He won’t be, when I tell him it is time to be in place, he will be there – he does not inconvenience those who depend on him.” And so it was, which was a considerable contrast to the fly-by we conducted for the administration a few days later

The ACC control team for the fly-by consisted of officers assigned to communicate with ATC, the mission lead, and officer in charge of ground activities, plus one other for contingency communications – note that is four, count ‘em, four, bodies positioned at a high point on a building on Fort Myer for line of sight, visually with the flight and review area, and for communications with ATC. Our team was in place and performing duties as necessary. Things were going well, and at that time I was a spectator, so I joined the team on the perch.

About 15 minutes before the ToT, the black ninjas came out of the Secret Service Suburbans and took up sniper over-watch positions around the parade ground. A few seconds after they were in their positions, we received a cell phone call asking who the fifth man was on the perch and if there was a situation of distress. I never saw any laser dots, but I can tell you I felt the attention of the ninjas and very quickly apologized for the uncoordinated change to the composition of the control team!

As I mentioned, we had aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Marines in the fly-by. The Navy and Marines wanted to stage from home stations for the fly-by and join the formation marshal only a few minutes before the gaggle departed holding. The ops plan required that they stage out of Andrews so we had a firm grip on the mission composition and could spare if necessary quickly and avoid issues often occurring when the forces are dispersed and 20-30 minutes away from the start point.

Well, this became a near Joint issue when the Navy said they did not have temporary duty funds to support this concept, and asked for Air Force funds to cover this requirement, otherwise they would have to reduce their presence in the event. When we discussed the economics of paying for quarters and meals vs. the JP-8 used for the commute from home station to rendezvous in Northern Virginia, we were reminded about the color of money and unfunded requirements – sigh. Somewhere in the Joint world this dilemma was resolved, and the entire band of aviators was in place at Andrews for the missions – but only after exchange of messages and details regarding funding status and sources. Even in a big game there are niggling details!

Clinton inauguration at Lincoln Memorial
Will the band stop playing long enough for a fly-by?

The first of two events went off fine. With Bags in the lead with four 336 TFS Strike Eagles in the lead, and 16 other jets in trail it was a good show on a bad weather day. All mission aircraft were in the formation, the ToT was met and we were proud to honor a Commander- in-Chief with the airborne part of a fitting tribute to a fellow aviator.

Now for the next event, a much larger and more complex event that included not only Air Force, Navy and Marine fast movers, but also Coast Guard fixed wing and choppers for both the Coast Guard and Army. The formation was larger, consisting of more aircraft, of vastly different performance capabilities and a mission lead of four F-16s from the Arkansas Air National Guard, holding the right of the line, a fitting position due to the home of the new president. Added to the fighters were Army Apaches and Coastie assets, including a Dassault Falcon and two Dauphins.

We had planned a practice fly-by to assure the flyover point, the Lincoln Memorial, where the administration and the performers (including Fleetwood Mac) would be in place for the afternoon celebration. The practice day was just above WXOF and the flight lead was comfortable we could dispense with any practice. Leading in a GPS-equipped F-16, he was confident he could get the gaggle formed up, push on time, and make the time over the Monument TOD. I was not. With something short of a colonel-to-colonel confrontation, I convinced him we at least needed a single ship pass down the mall and across the show site to work the air traffic control coordination, and get an appreciation for the look from show altitude at show speed.

So on a really gray, sloppy day – typical for DC weather in February – we put the control team at the monument and launched the single to go through the frequency drill, enter the holding area over the Chesapeake and fly the track down the Mall. Well, the Razorback Viper launched from Andrews (not a Joint Base in those days – merely Andrews), hit the hold and departed for the Mall. Our team was in radio contact and was looking and listening for the Viper. Approaching the time for fly past, one of the Control Team stated he should be here, and another said, loosely quoted, “Holy s—t! There he goes, on the other side of the White House.” Old F-4 drivers and Star Wars fans will remember the phrase, “Dive toss will never work!” In this case, it was “GPS is usually accurate, but not always.” A few minutes later, Razorback One was back at Andrews, glad it was a practice, and the error was not at show time.

The good news was on the day of the event we had reviewed the process, scrubbed the details and the gaggle of 22 aircraft took off, the fixed wings from Andrews, while the helos were positioned close to the Mall, where they could enter a hover at the appointed time and start down track so they passed the show site as if they’d been in the formation from the start.

Another winter day, and holding about 20 fast movers took up a lot of Washington Approach Control, Reagan and BWI airspace. We had a time block slot for the hold and the fly-by – the minimum required for safety and the maximum the Air Traffic Control could accommodate without undue interruption of air traffic out of the Capital region. One small problem – the party was focused on Stevie Nicks, and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” – they darn sure weren’t worried about airplanes, airspace and safety.

DCA
When a fly-by is going on, DCA is essentially shut down.

Delays mounted, the weather didn’t get better and the transmissions from Washington ATC went from understanding to shrill, to angry, no doubt reflecting the calls from the airliners awaiting clearance to start their approaches, or roll for takeoffs at the three major airports in the area.

Finally, the direction came: “Depart holding or abort the mission.” The call was made, announcing to the Control Team at the show site, formation inbound arrival in 11 minutes, and the flight headed inbound. The Arkansas party was still operating on their drum beat, and was not of a mind to focus on the approaching formation.

Finally, Omar took the apparent person in charge of the schedule of events, looked him in the eyes and said, “Partner, the airplanes are inbound and if you want anyone to see them, stop the music, and announce it’s time to look to the east.” He did, and the crowd, and Stevie Nicks, and maybe even Mick Fleetwood, turned in time to see the first flight of Vipers overhead, and the other jets and helos passed in nice formation, with superb spacing, and appropriate noise associated with the Sound of Freedom, departing to the west, working their clearances back to specific home stations. And, the ACC Aerial Control Team packed up their kit and hit the road down I-95, returning from five hectic days to the world of staff summary sheets and the quality culture at Langley AFB.

Postscript

I have no visibility on how subsequent inauguration fly-bys were executed, but I’ll bet that each event gave some inkling about the character and persona of the outgoing and incoming administrations. I would also wager that the Joint Task Force, Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, is one of the few bureaucracies that “almost” goes away when the task is finished, and that, when it is reconstituted every four years, it is a start-from-scratch organization – lessons learned archives either lost or ignored.

When it came time for the recognition of those involved in the Armed Forces Inaugural events, the awards went to those in the Joint Task Force and the National Capital area, and the Langley Team and some of the aviators stirring around in winter weather were awarded (some misspelled) certificates of recognition – e.g., mentioned in dispatches. As my good friend Conan says, “In DC you are elected, appointed, or just another clerk.” We’ll take the dispatches, thanks.

Disclaimer

There were many personalities in this series of events. If I use a proper name, it is accurate, but I will only use the names of the Air Combat Command Aerial Event Team that participated in events in the Military District of Washington activities. Those are: Lt Colonels “Omar” Keith and Mike Hynek, and Majors Bruce Blood, George Nelson, Don Seiler, and Bruce Townsend. There were several senior officers engaged in the aerial events, but the Langley crew were the guys who planned it, directed it, and cajoled the various units supporting it with aircraft and some C2 equipment resulting in a professional presentation of joint airpower to two presidents, their staffs (and one or two strap hangers), and thousands of spectators out and about in DC, enjoying the departure and arrival of POTUS in January 1993.

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