How do pilots time a flyover?
February 5, 2007 11:27 AM   Subscribe

How do jet fighter pilots time their stadium flyovers?

I was watching the Super Bowl last night and as always, there was a fighter squadron flyover during the national anthem. How do pilots time their run so they always fly over the stadium exactly as the word "brave" is being sung? Everyone sings it a different pace so it can't just be just a matter of calculating time, speed and distance.
posted by reidfleming to Technology (17 answers total)
I would think that the person singing the Anthem has practiced it at the stadium before the game, so they know about how long its going to be until the word "brave". They derive their timing from that I'd assume.

I've also seen other events where they ended up flying over after "free", instead of "brave". That is a situation where perhaps the individual took slightly longer to sing than they did in practice.
posted by SirOmega at 11:39 AM on February 5, 2007

They've got radios, right? Maybe they're getting cued by someone who's listening?
posted by contraption at 11:42 AM on February 5, 2007

At the speed those boys are traveling, I would imagine they can just do a circle of the stadium say a mile or two out, waiting for the "t-minus 5 seconds to fly-by" radio call, which could be transmitted from the stadium once "free" is sung, and then they just turn towards stadium and buzz it.

So, yeah - would just be a matter of time, speed, and distance. If you know they are X miles out, and it takes them X time to cover those miles at X speed, you just need to be able to radio them at the right point in the song to get the fly-by right.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:45 AM on February 5, 2007

If you attend one of these events, you can sometimes see the pilots circling in a holding pattern off in the distance. They are awaiting a cue from a controller (possibly on-site) for them to make their run. You will also notice that all other air traffic is cleared from the corridor prior to the flyover.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:51 AM on February 5, 2007

I'm more impressed by the cameraman who manages to pick them up and whip the camera around to follow them.
posted by smackfu at 12:04 PM on February 5, 2007

Yes, mad props to the cameraman. I also have respect for the guys who shoot the tight zoom-ins and zoom-outs of the long drives during golf telecasts.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 12:10 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Simple answer - Radio communications.
posted by drstein at 12:24 PM on February 5, 2007

Stadium events, both for television and in general for sports, are extensively scripted before the event begins. I work for Texas A&M University in the Athletics department, and every one of our games features a flyover by an air wing with at least one former-Aggie member. My job role doesn't directly deal with the video department, but my office is next door.

The answer: Everything that happens except the game itself is scripted.

When the script gets written, events are timed down to the second. They know exactly where the jets will be circling and how long it will take them to get permission from Air Traffic Control to move, they know how long it will take to get to the stadium, they know to the second (as the singer doesn't really sing at their own pace, they sing at the pace of the background music) the time when they need to tell the person on the phone with the air traffic controller when to cue the jets, when to allocate the cameras (because the camera operators don't get to choose what they're looking at -- the director does!) to see the jets fly over, when the switcher operator should have his hand hovering over the 'go' button and what program (input and output) to be running to watch the jets...

The script is in effect from the moment the gates open to the moment the players leave the field. It dictates the actions of an entire army of people connected via headsets and walkie talkies.

Often, you'll have not only the local video crew (who may be in a production facility miles away, connected to the stadium via fibre optic lines), but a remote television crew for ESPN, ABC, CBS, et. al. operating out of a satellite truck or team of trucks. The operators in this truck also follow the facility's script, because they don't know how things 'usually' run.

During the game, the ribbonboards and signboards are also controlled by the script, but since game events and timings are by nature unpredictable, they operate off of a default set of rules. I.e. it takes x amount of time for the officials to discuss, and not any shorter, so the announcer can read a particular "This game sponsored by..." ad within the thirty seconds that the call discussion on the yellow flag will take. Swapping out the defensive and offensive line usually takes thirty seconds, so that's another advertisement or a 'player feature' or other content that can be used to distract the audience from what's happening on the field. Enough of this variable filler content, and in what conditions, order, or cases to use it, is all laid out in the script. Everyone works off of the script, and the director 'calls the plays' so to speak. Even advertisements are scripted as to when and how many minimum times the advertisement must be flashed into the audience's eyeballs ...

I realize that this takes some of the mistique out of the event, but truly -- to pull off an event like this takes an incredible amount of sophisticated technology and experience using that technology. It's rather amazing to see an entire army of people produce a college football game -- they move like dancers in perfect time with one another, and what's even more amazing is that they only have the chance to practice their art for a few weekends each year.
posted by SpecialK at 12:40 PM on February 5, 2007 [18 favorites]

SpecialK, it doesn't hurt the mystique at all for me...I love knowing how things like this work underneath. One question, though (and perhaps never a problem at an A&M game) -- in many stadiums, the National Anthem is sung a capella, so there's no background music to que the singer. I expect a fairly precise idea of any one particular singer's timing wouldn't be hard to establish, though.
posted by lhauser at 4:07 PM on February 5, 2007

Basic algebra: If it takes Billy Joel x seconds to get to the word "brave" in the national anthem when it is being played at tempo y, and the Thunderbirds start their approach z miles out and are traveling q miles per hour, when should they start their approach to the stadium?
posted by Doohickie at 4:55 PM on February 5, 2007

It's pretty much like allkindsoftime describes it. The aircraft will usually orbit at a marshaling point a few miles from the stadium. Since they are generally some of the most advanced aircraft in the world, one or more of them will have a radio. At a predetermined point in the anthem, they will head for the stadium and adjust their speed to make the pass as the last line is being sung. It helps that the singer will usually draw out the last word.

See here for an account of the flyover from last year's Rose Bowl.
posted by forrest at 7:08 PM on February 5, 2007

From a different angle: isn't it absurdly expensive to arrange for military aircraft to fly over mere sporting events? Multiplying the cost across dozens or hundreds of college and pro football games alone... is the PR really worth that much?
posted by onshi at 11:10 PM on February 5, 2007

I don't think they have flyovers at most college football games. Maybe only Bowl Games, if that. Not sure about NFL games. Often it's the local Air National Guard doing it, so it's more like local promotion than USAF stuff.
posted by smackfu at 6:08 AM on February 6, 2007

onshl, often it's made a part of a training flight. USAF pilots need to have a certain amount of time in the air each month to maintain their certifications, pilots licenses, and experience. Often, you'll find that higher ranking fighter jocks will swap out the desk that they usually fly for a fighter during these flyovers so that they can maintain their pilot certifications in that jet.
posted by SpecialK at 6:41 AM on February 6, 2007

I think Texas A&M gets more flyovers than most schools because it is such a big military school. We graduate more military officers than any but the service academies.

A bit off topic, but one of the great things about the flyovers at Texas A&M is that the pilots often land at the airport about 1 mile from the stadium. I've taken my kids over there to check out the planes before and the crews have even let them look into the cockpit.
posted by CRS at 8:09 AM on February 6, 2007

Personally, I'm partial to the flyover happening on the word "Free." As the son of a career Navy Airframes Mechanic, I was taught the the sound of our fighter planes flying over head was the sound of freedom. Hokey as it may seem, it's always stuck with me.

Thanks for the write up, SpecialK. It's nice to hear the dirt from someone in the know.
posted by friezer at 10:51 AM on February 6, 2007

@forrest: Thanks for the link to the article. Neat.
posted by pzarquon at 9:49 PM on February 9, 2007

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