Now Approaching From the South End Zone…

It only lasts three seconds but for some fans it is the most thrilling part of a sporting event. However, some may attend thousands of games in their lifetime and never see one; unless of course they are fortunate enough to spend a Saturday in the fall in Annapolis. That's where, weather permitting, there is always a flyover before Navy football games – at 3:30 p.m. and ten seconds to be exact.

About thirty minutes before kick-off, on top of the press box at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a naval officer peered off in the distance, looking for his shipmates to arrive at the game. But unlike the 37,000 or so fans who will be coming via highways and sidewalks, Navy Lt. Matt Duffy was in search of six friends who would be taking a less congested traffic route to the Annapolis venue. Led by Lt. Cmdr. Chris Hayle, Duffy's squadron mates had just taken off from Andrews Air Force Base in nearby Prince George's County, Maryland and were due to arrive in their E-2C Hawkeye airplanes any moment.

The two aircraft, belonging to the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-126 based in Norfolk, would be arriving ‘on station' in airspace located ten miles from the stadium where they would circle for about 20 minutes before making their final approach. And even though their mission was on the verge of completion, the groundwork for it started several months ago.

"We actually started planning for this when we were on deployment in the Persian Gulf last May," explained Hayle, a 1995 graduate of the Naval Academy.

That's about the time Naval Air Force Atlantic or AIRLANT sends out a message on behalf of the Academy seeking volunteers to fill flyover duties prior to Navy football games.

According to Navy Cmdr. Carl J. Cherry, Air Operations Officer at AIRLANT it doesn't take long to fill the request.

"Usually you are not going to have trouble finding volunteers for high-visibility events simply because most of them are very good deals. I've never had to order somebody to fill a request for a Navy football game flyover," said Cherry.

Once the slots are filled, the names of the squadrons go to Navy Lt. J.D. Walker, Logistics Officer at the Naval Academy. It's his job to make sure from that point on the flyover goes off without a hitch – minus the actual flying of course.

"A lot of the coordination will take place a couple of weeks before the game. That's when I will find out what their basic plan is regarding where they will take off from," said Walker. "Then, the week of, I send an email out to the air traffic controllers in the area with the details of the flyover, including their holding point, GPS coordinates, air-speeds, etc…"

"It's a pretty standard event for the fall in Annapolis," Walker continued.

Flyovers fulfill two purposes according to the U.S. Navy. For the pilots and aircrew, it is considered a training mission that enables them to test their ability to be at a very precise position at an exact time.

"We determined our take-off time…when we were going to try to be in holding…our speed…all of it is based on timing. We were told it wasn't necessarily a common thing to make your on-time target, but that was our goal today," said Navy Lt. Cmdr David Dull, Mission Commander onboard the lead E-2C Hawkeye for the Homecoming flyover.

Lt. Matt Duffy talks to the E-2C Hawkeye pilots from atop of the press box at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Photo by David Ausiello/
Helping Dull and his fellow aviators out with the timing on this particular day was Lt. Matt Duffy who filled in for Lt. Walker. Duffy, with a walkie-talkie in one hand and a handheld GPS device in his other, was trying to assure that his squadron mates arrive at precisely 3:30 p.m. and ten seconds.

According to Walker, if all watches are not synchronized properly, the goal will not be met.

"It's a very dynamic event trying to do the pre-game ceremony for the football game along with coordinating the flyover. All of our timing needs to be perfect. We assure that the scoreboard clock is exactly in line with GPS, and I make sure my watch is inline with GPS time. I also make sure that the pilots have the same time as I do."

The one variable Walker can not control is what is happening on the field. If the march-on of the Brigade of Midshipmen is running late, or if the Navy football team decided to come on the field two minutes after they were scheduled, it could throw things off a bit.

"It is a dynamic event. The football team is supposed to storm the field and then ten seconds later the flyover is supposed to happen. Sometimes the football team will come out 20 seconds early and the flyover will still be at that previously coordinated time. So it will make it seem like the flyover was late but actually it was just the football team coming out early. That happens every once in awhile, but I think to the general public it is pretty much seamless. Nobody seems to notice…except maybe for me," said Walker.

"But as long as the pilots are on-time, on-course, and at the right altitude, that is a good flyover for me," he continued.

And while the pilots and logistics officer are concerned with the timing, it is the public affairs officers who are keeping track of the second reason why the Navy does flyovers.

"Anytime we are requested to do a flyover, we evaluate the event to determine the impact. For flyovers, it gives us an opportunity to let the public, in this case the Naval Academy, let them see exactly what we do in the Navy – to see the aircraft in action. It's a great opportunity to generate questions about the Navy and what we do as a service," said AIRLANT spokesperson, Lt. Cmdr David Nunnally.

According to Cmdr. Cherry, there are three different types of flyovers.

"(There are) the fun times or the large venues – 80,000 seat, national television sporting events; the sublime events - VFW dedications, a Veteran's Day parade or a Memorial Day event; and (events that are) a little more somber in nature – (like a) missing man flyover for funerals of a fallen aviator or flag officer."

Navy football games fall into the "fun" category, not just because of what the pilots are flying over, but what typically occurs after the aerial part of the mission is over. For aircrew members who take part in flyovers in Annapolis, they are given transportation from the airport after they land as well as several tickets to the football game.

And once they get to the stadium, they are able to complete the public affairs portion of the mission by walking onto the field during a timeout to be introduced to the crowd.

(l to r): Lt. Cmdr. Dave Dull and Lt. Cmdr. Chris Hayle watch the fourth quarter of the Navy's Homecoming game against Pitt.
Photo by David Ausiello/
As good as that deal sounds, Cherry admits there are even some that are considered to be better – like ones that include a certain Major League Baseball team.

"The Yankees will pick (the pilots) up at LaGuardia Airport after a flyover and bring them to the stadium by the second or third inning. Box seats are typically made available, and (the Yankees) will put you up at the Sheraton in midtown Manhattan," said Cherry. "It's a win-win situation for all those involved."

Regardless of the venue, there are strict rules that all pilots must adhere to when conducting a flyover.

Unlike the memorable scene in Top Gun when Tom Cruise's character conducts a flyby of an aircraft carrier which causes the ship to rattle, flyovers are much more tightly controlled.

"Generally the Navy operates out in the middle of the ocean where anything goes," said Cherry. "Unfortunately or fortunately within the continental United States, the air space is owned by the FAA. They have regulations that dictate what you specifically can and can not do in various classes of air space. Most metropolitan areas are going to be near a large airport, so they are going to be very strict interpreting those rules."

"A flyby is different in that it is typically not over anybody's head. You would typically see something like this at a beach in which case the FAA may make an exception to the 1,000 foot rule and let the aircraft go down to 500 feet or maybe even lower," continued Cherry.

The lowest pilots are allowed to fly at Navy football games is 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle; and the fastest they are allowed to travel is 250 miles per hour. There are, however, exceptions to the speed rule.

"The FAA will generally authorize up to 300 knots which makes it easier, especially for tactical aircraft, to maintain the formation at a higher rate of speed," said Cherry.

Nevertheless it is not uncommon for seasoned Navy fans to remark after a flyover that it was a ‘good one' or ‘better than the last one.' And by better, the observers typically mean faster and/or lower than other flyovers. So do pilots sometimes bend the rules a bit?

"Definitely they have, but I tell the pilots what the rules are…and they are in control of their aircraft. It's kind of out of my hands. And I don't ask them how high (or low) they were," said Walker.

Make no mistake though, if pilots don't adhere to the regulations, there could be consequences.

"If (the rules are) violated, and (they have) been violated in the past…it can result in a fly violation that is issued to the Navy – and it can have repercussions on the careers of the aviators."

However on this day, at Homecoming in Annapolis, Hayle and his E-2C Hawkeye squadron mates were at the exact altitude and approved speed which allowed them to arrive at the precise time – 3:30 p.m. and 10 seconds.

According to Cherry, most venues will request and insist upon "the nosiest and sexiest aircraft" in the inventory for flyovers, which means they want F/A-18 Hornets. Navy football games, however, are the exception.

"For Annapolis the logic has been to showcase what the Navy has in its inventory. We have a lot more than hornets. So this year you [have seen] the Ospreys from the Marine Corps, the E-2C Hawkeye, and you will also see the C-130 – which isn't exactly the sexiest plane, but I think it is pretty cool," said Cherry.

That's a sentiment that members of the E-2C Hawkeye squadron who flew over Navy Marine Corps Stadium prior to the Pittsburgh game on Oct. 18 agree with.

"You have to represent all of naval aviation. You see [hornets] all the time. But without us, they can only do so much. It's good to represent the backbone of naval aviation," said Lt. Cmdr. Dull.

"It's amazing to come out here and to support Navy football and let the public see an airplane they probably don't see everyday and aren't too aware about," said Lt. Cmdr. Hayle. "It's a tremendous honor."

And what may be an honor for the pilots, is definitely a thrill for the fans, like Jake, 8, and Ryan, 5, of Severna Park, who according to their dad, can't wait to see the planes before the game.

"We always make sure we are in the stadium and set to enjoy the show. The pilots become instant heroes for my kids," said Bill Harrell, a 1994 Naval Academy graduate. "It's not a fair competition with cotton candy and sliding down the hill in the end zone, but I think in the long run they will always remember the flyovers as an important part of what made the games special."

2 E-2C Hawkeyes from squadron VAW-126 flyover Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Oct. 18. Photo by David Ausiello/ Top Stories