During the final notes of the national anthem at Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles, most fans will be thinking about the matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams. Others will be looking up, scanning the sky for the flyover.
The pre-game flyover is a Super Bowl ritual more than half a century old. Although it only lasts a few seconds, for many pilots and aviation enthusiasts, it’s one of the most thrilling moments of the game. Previous flyovers at the NFL championship game have included the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Army helicopters, and even three different types of bombers.
In honor of this year’s 75th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the NFL has enlisted the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation (AFHFF) to perform this brief—but thrilling—annual event.
The flight includes five historic and important U.S. military fighters and attack aircraft:
- P-51D Mustang, based at the AFHFF in Chino, California
- A-10 Thunderbolt II—aka “Warthog”—based at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona
- F-22 Raptor, based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia
- F-35 Lightning II, based at Hill AFB, Utah
- F-16 Fighting Falcon, aka “Viper,” based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina
Check out the cockpit footage of the aircraft, including an F-35A from the @F35demoteam, rehearsing the #AF75 @afhflight flyover at @SoFiStadium for this weekend’s #SBLVI Super Bowl 🏈! pic.twitter.com/q7tTJF2mNi
— F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office (@theF35JPO) February 10, 2022
This Is How It’s Done
Piloting the Mustang dubbed Wee Willy II will be former world speed record holder and Reno Air Race champion Steve Hinton, who has logged more than 7,000 hours piloting vintage World War II fighters. Hinton spent a few minutes with FLYING to describe the complicated teamwork between the U.S. Air Force, the foundation, the NFL, and the FAA that goes into these flyovers.
In the end, it’s all about what the military calls “time on target”—aka TOT. Time on target is the precise time when aircraft are scheduled to be located above a specific location. Planning, practice, coordination, and communication are the keys to a successful TOT.
A few days before game day, the flight team conducts a practice flyover to properly choreograph the delicate operation. The goal is to reach TOT over SoFi Stadium during the final note of the national anthem. Hinton said the pilots listened to the anthem a few times during practice, “just so we can kind of get a rhythm.” Following the practice flights, small modifications are made to the flight plan and pilots receive a very detailed brief from leadership on how to properly execute those adjustments.
The flight will take place in restricted airspace, thanks to a TFR issued by the FAA, making sure no unauthorized aircraft are in the immediate area. Taking off from Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos (KSLI), located southeast of the stadium, the Air Force jets will depart separately from Hinton in the Mustang. A few minutes later, all five airplanes will rendezvous in the air at a hold position over the Pacific, off Malibu Beach.
When they receive a cue from a controller inside the stadium via a dedicated radio frequency the formation will proceed to the east at about 250 knots across the coastline, past Santa Monica Airport (KSMO). At a specific point, they’ll make a right turn on a specific vector toward SoFi. “And then it’s a 45-second shot across the stadium,” Hinton said.
The route makes things a little tricky, “because it’s not a straight shot in. It’s hard to estimate exactly the time when you have to make two turns along a specific route.
“We’ll be timing at many points along the way to see how we’re doing so we’ll know if we’re behind a second or two,” Hinton said. “The unknown issue is if they have a glitch in the presentation—if there’s a slip in their time.” If that happens, the pilots will have to improvise and slow their approach.
Speed Becomes Tricky
But because the P-51D is not a jet, speed becomes a tricky issue.
“I’ve only got maybe 30 knots to play with because I can’t slow down where these guys [in the jets] can’t fly. So I’ve got to keep up around 250 knots so we can stay in formation. I can push it up to 250, 280, or 290, but I’d prefer not to. That’s running the engine above the comfort level. But a Mustang will get up and go pretty good.”
By the time they appear over the stadium, all five airplanes should be in formation within 10 feet of each other. “It’ll be a nice, tight formation, you bet,” Hinton said.
FAA regs generally restrict aircraft from flying no lower than 1,000 feet above objects on the ground and 2,000 feet laterally from objects. However, for this event, the FAA has issued a low-altitude waiver permitting the pilots to fly as low as 705 feet above the ground, Hinton said. “We’re shooting for 800 feet, but the waiver is for 705 feet,” he said. “For heritage flights, when we have waivers for air shows, we’re actually allowed to fly 500 feet above the crowd.”
Every year, each Air Force demonstration team member and each heritage pilot are required to demonstrate to the FAA that they can safely fly per the waiver at those low altitudes, Hinton said.
After they fly across the stadium, the hard part is over. Their exit route takes them over the Palos Verdes area and then southbound along the coastline back to KSLI, where they will land.
Live Video from the Cockpit
Hinton will make the flight with a tripod-mounted camera strapped to the area behind his seat, which, if all goes as planned, will provide a video feed from the Mustang cockpit streamed live on the U.S. Air Force Facebook page beginning around 6 p.m. ET.
It doesn’t look like weather will be a problem. Sunday’s Super Bowl forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high temperature near 84 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Sunday night, mostly clear skies are expected with a low around 56 degrees.
A Tradition of Air Force Flyovers
The history of Super Bowl flyovers dates back to 1968, when U.S. Air Force fighter jets wowed fans by roaring over the Miami Orange Bowl before Super Bowl II.
In fact, the Air Force performs nearly 1,000 flyovers every year. Naysayers and party poopers may ask, why? Well, in addition to showcasing the capabilities of unique military technology, the Air Force believes flyovers go a long way toward inspiring patriotism and encouraging aviation enthusiasm.
Not all NFL flyovers are without controversy. Last December, three U.S. Army helicopters flew low over Nashville, Tennessee’s Nissan Stadium, prompting investigations by the Army and the FAA.
The Air Force points out that its flyovers take place at no additional cost to taxpayers. These flights actually qualify as time-over-target training for pilots, crew, and ground control.
Super Bowl Temporary Flight Restrictions
This year’s championship is taking place in one of the busiest sectors of controlled airspace in the nation—the area surrounding Los Angeles—which heightens the importance for GA pilots to be aware of local TFRs.
The FAA has issued a TFR for Sunday that prohibits all aircraft flight operations from the surface up to, but not including, FL180 within a 10 nm radius of the stadium, which is just east of Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX).
This zone is designated as Class B airspace. In addition to KLAX, airports within the zone include Compton/Woodley Airport (KCPM), Hawthorne Municipal Airport (KHHR), Santa Monica Airport (KSMO), and Zamperini Field in Torrance (KTOA).
Pilots should check NOTAMs frequently to confirm they have the most current information.
Exceptions include regularly scheduled commercial flights and approved law enforcement, ambulance, or military flights.
After 25 years of taking part in these kinds of flyovers, Hinton says this will be his final mission with the Air Force.
Although he’s never served in the military, he said it’s “been an honor and a pleasure to be a part of these.” The Air Force pilots “are well trained and they have great attitudes and they know their airplanes and they know their mission. I can’t even believe I’ve gotten to do this stuff. It’s been crazy.”