Military Flyovers: Trifectas, Tributes and Tradition

Did you watch the recent military flyover during Super Bowl LV or during NASCAR? Or did you get to see a flyover in person in 2020, when aviation teams paid tribute to COVID-19 healthcare workers across the country? While some flyovers—a low flight by one or more aircraft over a specific location—are routine and relatively simple affairs, others take months of planning in order to execute. So what is the purpose of military flyovers, and what exactly goes into planning one?

USAF Thunderbirds & US Navy Blue Angles

USAF Thunderbirds & US Navy Blue Angles fly in formation during an airshow.

The Purpose of Flyovers

Jennifer Bentley, Chief of Public Outreach for the Air Force Public Affairs Office, said that flyovers “inspire patriotism and future generations of aviation enthusiasts, and our aircrew and maintainers are great messengers to share the Air Force story.” She added that flyovers provide the opportunity “to showcase the capabilities of our aircraft to the American public,” allowing civilians to get a closer look at aircraft they otherwise wouldn’t get to see.[1]

Some of those aircraft include the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F/A-18 Super Hornet, flown by the US Air Force (USAF) Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels, respectively. But fighter jets aren’t the only aircraft used in flyovers. Cargo aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster III, or helicopters like the UH-60 Black Hawk, can also participate.

F-22 Raptor flies with P-51 Mustang

US Air Force F-22 Raptor flies in formation with P-51 Mustang in airshow over Panama City Beach, FL, in Gulf Coast Salute Air Show. (US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Couillard)

Occasionally, you’ll also see modern aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor or the A-10 Thunderbolt, perform flyovers with historic WWII, Korean or Vietnam-era aircraft, paying tribute to American air power history. And speaking of history, do you know when the first military flyover took place?

A Brief Flyover History

The first military flyover happened during the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. Sixty army biplanes flew over Comiskey Park before the opening pitch was thrown. However, military flyovers can actually trace their origins back to WWI. Following combat missions, WWI pilots would fly over battlefields so those on the ground could see how many aircraft had been lost during the engagement, and whether or not their mission was successful.

US Navy carrier planes fly over USS Missouri during Japanese surrender.

U.S. Navy carrier planes fly over USS Missouri (BB-63) during Japanese surrender ceremonies, 2 September 1945. (As seen from atop Missouri’s forward 16-inch gun turret.)

And if you think a 60-plane flyover is a big deal, can you guess how many aircraft were involved in the largest flyover in American history? On 2 September 1945, after Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri, 450 naval aircraft from the Third Fleet flew over the battleship, followed by 462 B-29s from the 20th Air Force.[2]

Demonstration Teams Today

Following the end of WWII, the US Air Force was established as a separate military branch in 1947. Six years later, in 1953, the Thunderbird Demo Team was activated and became the Air Force’s official aerial demonstration team. The original team was comprised of seven officers and 22 enlisted airmen, and they performed a 15-minute demonstration routine of formation acrobatics. Today, the team is comprised of eight pilots, four support officers, four civilians and more than 100 enlisted personnel. The Thunderbirds perform 40 maneuvers during their 75-minute demonstration, which includes a mix of formation flying and solo routines.

US Air Force Thunderbirds Demo Team

US Air Force Thunderbird Demo Team flies F-16 Falcons during airshow. (USAF photo)

In addition to the Thunderbirds, the current US Air Force aerial teams include the A-10 Thunderbolt Demo Team, the F-22 Raptor Demo Team, the F-16 Viper Demo Team, and the F-35 Lightning II Demo Team. The F-35 Demo Team is assigned to Hill AFB, Utah, and is comprised of one combat-ready pilot and fourteen Airmen. The Demo Team’s airshow routine showcases the F-35’s capabilities, advanced handling characteristics and maneuvering, with some maneuvers performed at .95 Mach (just under the speed of sound).

US Air Force F-35 Lightning II

U.S. Air Force Major Kristin “BEO” Wolfe, F-35 Demo Team Commander, flies inverted during a demonstration practice near Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (USAF photo by Capt. Kip Sumner.)

And is there a rivalry between the demo teams? Kristin “Beo” Wolfe, Commander of the Demo Team for the 2020 – 2021 season, said, “There’s always an entertaining, friendly rivalry between teams, because every team member—whether it’s the pilot, a maintainer, our public affairs team, etc.—thinks their airplane is the best fighter at the show. No matter what aircraft is performing, however, it’s always a guarantee that every team has eyes turned towards the demo and loves watching all of the jets perform.”[3]

F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, A-10 Thunderbolt, & F-16 Falcon Fly Together

F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, A-10 Thunderbolt, & F-16 Falcon fly in formation at airshow in Fort Lauderdale, FL, 2020. (US Air Force photo by Lt. Sam Eckholm)

The Three B’s

So which planes flew over Superbowl LV? Three USAF Global Strike Command bombers: B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and B-52 Stratofortress. And why were these bombers chosen? Well, if you add the “three B’s” (B-52 + B-2 + B-1) you get 55, in honor of Super Bowl 55.

B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, & B-52 Stratofortress fly over Raymond James Stadium for Superbowl LV

Air Force Global Strike Command bombers–B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, & B-52 Stratofortress– perform trifecta flyover at Super Bowl LV over Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL, Jan. 7, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jacob B. Wrightsman)

This flyover was historic because it was the first-of-its-kind trifecta involving these particular aircraft. With a flyover involving only three aircraft, you would think the planning process would be fairly easy. But planning the Superbowl flyover was actually more complicated and took more time than most people realize. Let’s look at what went into planning this event.

B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, & B-52 Stratofortress

B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, & B-52 Stratofortress at Royal Air Force Fairford, U.K., 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Randahl Jenson)

Planning and Rehearsal

The B-1, B-2, and B-52 pilots who participated in the Superbowl flyover made it look easy to keep the aircraft in what is known as a trifecta formation. But these bombers fly differently at slow and low speeds, which required rehearsals several days before the event. Months before rehearsals could be scheduled, however, the USAF had to coordinate with various bomber units to see who was available to support the event. Because the aircraft came from three different wings at three different bases, the USAF had to coordinate training and deployment schedules that worked for each wing.

B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber refuels with KC-135 Stratotanker

B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber from 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman AFB, flies behind a KC-135 Stratotanker from 100th Air Refueling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, UK. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kelly O’Connor)

Once schedules were coordinated, backup planes were lined up in case the aircraft involved with the flyover had mechanical issues. Search and Rescue helicopters were also made ready in case the bomber crews encountered any trouble while flying. And don’t forget the KC-135s needed to refuel the bombers en route to the Superbowl.

B-1B Lancer taxis down runway at Ellsworth AFB, SD

A B-1B Lancer taxis down the runway at Ellsworth AFB, SD, after completing a training mission. (US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Seybert)

Each crew was briefed on everything they needed to know to perform the flyover safely, including time on target, maps of the area surrounding the stadium, etc. And then there was the Public Affairs training aircrews and maintainers had to go through to prepare them for media interviews. In the end, it took hundreds of airmen to support the Superbowl flyover.[1] But routine flyovers generally don’t require this level of planning. Let’s look at some of different reasons for flyovers today.

Paying Tribute

Currently, aviation teams perform flyovers for a variety of events. As previously mentioned, flyovers are can be performed during major sporting events such as NASCAR or the Superbowl. Flyovers can also commemorate anniversaries of special events such as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day, marking the end of WWII). The Thunderbirds and other USAF demo teams, such as the F-35 Demo Team, even do flyovers during USAF Academy commencement ceremonies to recognize recent graduates each spring.

USAF Thunderbirds perform flyover at Air Force Academy graduation

The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” perform a flyover at the Air Force Academy graduation in Colorado Springs, CO, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/ by Sgt Cory W. Bush)

In 2020, the Thunderbirds and other demonstration teams also conducted flyovers across the country to pay tribute to healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of COVID 19. Over 100 flyovers took place in over 40 states.[1] In Utah, F-35 Demo Team Commander Kristin “Beo” Wolfe and the 388th Fighter Wing conducted a state-wide flyover to show appreciation not only to healthcare workers, but military members and essential personnel as well.

US Air Force Thunderbirds & US Navy Blue Angels perform flyover to show support for frontline COVID-19 responders

USAF Thunderbirds & US Navy Blue Angels perform a flyover to show support for frontline COVID-19 responders, Newark, NJ, 2020. (US ANG photo by Michael Schwenk)

Capt. Wolfe said, “This flyover is our way of saluting those that are keeping our home-front safe during these unique times. To provide just a small showcase of our appreciation to everyone that is doing their part to combat the virus, and to say ‘thank you for your sacrifice and service’, to let everyone who has been affected by this pandemic know that we stand by you.”[6]


Whether flyovers are used to show appreciation, to commemorate important events, or to entertain crowds at airshows, they will continue to showcase American airpower and to inspire future aviators for generations to come.

US Air Force Maj. Paul "Loco" Lopez, F-22 Raptor Demo Team Commander for 2018 season

US Air Force Maj. Paul “Loco” Lopez, F-22 Raptor Demo Team Commander for 2018 season, poses with fans during Red Tail’s Over Montgomery Air Show, Dannelly Field, AL. (US ANG photo by Senior Airman Hayden Johnson)

[1] Lowe, Major Miranda Summers. “Praise from Above: The American Tradition of the Military Flyover.” Naval History Magazine, June 2020. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.

[2] Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs. “Super Bowl LV flyover took months of planning, coordination.” US Air Force, 8 February 2021. Accessed 7 April 2021.

[3] Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs. “Super Bowl LV flyover took months of planning, coordination.” 8 Feb. 2021. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

[4] Burke, Laurence M. “Celebrating the End of the War.” Smithsonian National and Space Museum, 2 Sept. 2020. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

[5] “Q&A with F-35 Demo Team pilot Capt Kristin ‘Beo’ Wolfe.” Skies Magazine, 10 March 2021. Accessed 6 April 2021.

[6] Sumner, Capt. Kip. “F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team, 388th Fighter Wing to salute Utah with flyover.” 27 Apr. 2020. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

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