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Military flyovers at sporting events debated

Orlando Sentinel

The noise inside University of Phoenix Stadium grew deafening as Jordin Sparks finished the national anthem before the start of this year’s Super Bowl. It was time for that American sports tradition that puts an exclamation point on the pregame ceremonies:

A military flyover.

But the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels went unseen by anyone at the game: The stadium’s roof was closed, and it was so loud inside that no one could hear the jets overhead. But almost 100 million TV viewers did get see the planes for about 4 seconds.

A spokesman estimated the cost of sending the six F/A-18A Hornets from their training home in El Centro, Calif., to Glendale, Ariz., and back at $36,000.

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Flyovers, once unexpected, have become a normal part of pregame festivities at major sporting events. An Orlando Sentinel investigation has found that getting one isn’t very difficult.

Fly-bys provide feel-good moments for fans, sports leagues and athletes at a time when the U.S. is at war. But are flyovers worth their high price?

“For the publicity aspect of it, I’d say it’s definitely well worth it when you consider the cost to advertise during the Super Bowl,” Blue Angels press officer Capt. Tyson Dunkelberger said. “The more people see our blue jets and recognize the Navy, the better it is for us.”

On Sunday, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will perform a similar fly-by before the Daytona 500. An Air Force spokeswoman said eight F-16 Fighting Falcon jets would fly from Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas to Daytona Beach, Fla., and back at a cost of $80,000. The flyover will be performed by six of the jets, which will use about $6,000 worth of fuel.

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“The reason why we have this mission is to bring the story of the Air Force to people who may not have an Air Force base near them,” Thunderbirds press officer Capt. Elizabeth Kreft said. “We’re going to reach an untold number of homes with the Air Force message, and that’s why we were given permission to do it.”

Military officials say the fly-bys boost recruiting efforts and give Americans an opportunity to see their aircraft in action. Officials also insist that flyovers don’t cost taxpayers any additional money because each flyover counts as a pre-budgeted training flight.

“Baloney,” said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. “It’s atrocious training. They’re flying from Point A to Point B. They’re doing a couple of sort of low-altitude passes over the events and they go home. That’s what pilots call ‘converting gas to noise.’ ”

The Sentinel investigation shows that the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy receive about 850 requests each year for flyovers or parachute jumps at sporting events. The vast majority of those requests are deemed eligible for aerial support -- whether they’re opening ceremonies for Little Leagues, international tennis matches or minor-league baseball games.

Once an event qualifies, usually it’s up to individual teams or leagues to find available squadrons to perform the fly-by. Commanders also can access their armed services’ websites to see a list of approved flyover requests and then approach teams themselves.

Incomplete records

Department of Defense Form 2535, the three-page application that must be filled out for every fly-by request, makes no mention of sporting events. Its instructions state that “requests for flyovers will be considered only for aviation-oriented events . . . or for patriotic observances [one day only] held in conjunction with Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, POW/MIA Recognition Day or Veterans Day.”

But the reality is different.

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Freedom of Information Act requests filed to the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps yielded approximately 4,600 pages of documents but still proved incomplete in some cases. The Air Force is the only one of the services that compiles a full spreadsheet of the applications it receives; it’s also the only one that tracks the number of sporting-event flyovers it conducts.

The data revealed:

The Air Force received 926 applications for flyovers at sporting events held in 2005 and 2006, not counting the requests that were filed late. In all, 762 of them, or 82.3%, were deemed eligible for fly-bys. Ultimately, 440 events, or 47.5% of the total, received flyovers, according to Air Force statistics.

Not counting late applications, the Navy received 492 flyover or parachute-jump requests for sporting events held in 2005 and 2006. Of these, 469, or 95.3%, were deemed eligible. But, because of a lack of staff, the Navy did not track the total number of flyovers its units conducted.

The Army and Marine Corps did not track the total number of applications they had received for sporting-event flyovers in 2005 and 2006, nor the number of flyovers they had performed.

Means of recruiting

This past college football season, 12 bowl games were held Dec. 31 or later at open-air stadiums within the continental United States, and each one featured either a flyover or a parachute drop.

Lower-profile amateur events also have received military support. Once in the early 2000s and again in 2006, the Leap Frogs, the Navy’s parachute demonstration team, did jumps for the Clairemont Hilltoppers Little League’s opening ceremonies in San Diego, said the league’s board chairman, William S. Conner.

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The flyovers concern Pete Sepp, vice president for policy and communications of the National Taxpayers Union, a government watchdog group in Alexandria, Va.

“I don’t want to get too dramatic here, but military training probably is a more important thing today than it has been for a whole lot of time,” Sepp said. “The time these folks get in the air could save their lives in a very real near-term combat situation. We have a duty to make sure all those training dollars are being put in the right place without any kind of external considerations.”

Wallach thinks flyovers are a part of the military’s community-relations duty and are more important to the Navy than to the other branches because the Navy has few installations in middle America.

Experts agree that advertising has been an essential recruiting tool since the U.S. ended the draft in 1973.

“The military insisted that with a volunteer force they’ve got to get the message out, particularly because of the declining number of young people who had parents that served in the military,” said David J. Armor, a public policy professor at George Mason University and a Defense official during the Reagan administration.

“I would have to guess, if there was no data, if there was no survey on it, that it is a plus to remind young people of military activity” through flyovers.

There’s no doubt that having aircraft appear over a stadium at the precise moment the national anthem ends requires exquisite timing.

But Robert Owen, a retired Air Force aviator and flyover supporter who teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, said that the training benefit “is probably pretty minuscule.”


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