High Honor

The origins of the missing man formation.

One morning in July, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Benjamin Stone finds himself scheduled to flay at a funeral.  The site is Arlington National Cemetery, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.  Ben Stone is assigned to VFA-81, which is stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia--four hours away as the interstate runs.  He'll be part of a four-man formation in McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornets, the pretty bird with two tailpipes, two rudders, and wings so far aft they could serve as elevators.

The casket is supposed to go into the ground at 1130 hours.  Stone and his fellow aviators want 30 minutes of loiter time over Washington (they'll circle the metro area while waiting for the funeral to begin), plus 30 minutes for the commute, 45 minutes to saddle up, and 75 minutes to be briefed on the mission.  That's three hours, so they start the day at 0830.

Says Stone: "We brief exactly where to hold, where to fly over, what information to expect from the man on the ground, and what to do in various contingencies.  For instance, the flight is always briefed as a four-plane, with the third guy pulling up, but we [also] brief a three-plane flyover with a hole in it."

A Naval Aviator in Washington will work as ground controller.  He went to Arlington yesterday with a GPS receiver to check the grave site and record its latitude and longitude.  Stone enters those coordinates into each Hornet's memory.

At 0945, the aviators dress for flight.  "Preflight takes five minutes or less," says Stone.  "Strapping in and starting up takes about 10 minutes.  Most of that time is spent waiting for the INS to alight itself."  The Inertial Navigation System measures the Hornet's directional acceleration and its rotations in yaw, pitch, and roll; if it knows where the aircraft is when INS is switched on, it can tell the pilot at any given moment thereafter what spot has reached above the earth's surface.  While the INS sorts itself out, the maintenance crews look for problems outside the cockpit.  Sure enough, one Hornet has a mechanical difficulty, and it proves intractable.  Plan B is now in effect: VFA-81 will fly the formation with just three aircraft.

In 1999, aviators from Ben Stone's squadron drew three of these funeral assignments: flying the Missing Man formation for Admiral Donald D. Engen, director of the National Air and Space Museum; for the repatriated remains of a PBY Catalina crew from World War II; and for Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island.

Military guidelines authorize flyovers for "dignitaries of the armed forces and the federal government."  But in November 1999, four Air Force F-16 Falcons made a flyby at a Texas A&M football game to mourn the Aggies killed while building a pre-game bonfire of heavy logs, which collapsed.  Another Air Force flyover memorialized the the students shot at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.  So how did the youngsters get to be dignitaries?  "The events in question were deemed public affairs events," says an Air Force public affairs officer.  In short, the military ignores its guidelines if the grief level is high enough.

And guidelines don't apply to civilian aircraft.  John F. Kennedy Jr. got a salute from German-built Extra 300s at the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Last year "Peanuts" cartoon creator Charles Schulz got a flyover by World War II-era fighters at his funeral An out in California, the Memorial Flights company will fly the Missing Man for anyone with the ability to pay for it: $1,800 for four T-6 Texan trainers, $3,600 for three World War II fighter aircraft, within 50 miles of Chino.

In short, the Missing Man formation has become an American tradition--cliché, if you prefer.  And like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and "okay," it has spread around the world.  When World War II ace Colonel Lauri Pekuri died last year, Finnish air force F-18s flew the Missing Man at his funeral.

Curiously, for the first half of the history of flight, the now-ubiquitous formation was seldom seen.  Oh, there was the occasional flyby: British squadrons on the Western Front in World War I sometimes overflew their airfields after combat, so the men on the ground could count the number of surviving aircraft, and King George V got a mass flyover at his funeral in 1935.  Then there was Major General Oscar Westover, head of the U.S. Army Air Corps.  When he was buried at Arlington in September 1938, no fewer than 50 fighters and bombers flew overhead, and the formation had a "blank file," or empty row, of half a dozen aircraft--almost, but not quite, a Missing Man.

The first approximation of today's Missing Man appears to have occurred in 1931, when the May 22 edition of the St. Paul, Minnesota Pioneer wrote about the funeral of Charles W. "Speed" Holman, operations manager of Northwest Airways.  Reported the Pioneer: "During the services in the temple, a broken formation of four 109th Air Squadron planes kept vigil from above.  As they droned hight they kept a gap in flight.  The vacant place was for 'Speed.'"

By the end of the Korean War, the Missing Man had entered the inventory.  In April 1954, Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg was buried at Arlington with "several departures from the prescribed Special Military Funeral," in the words of The Last Salute, an astonishingly detailed 1971 book written by B.C. Mossman and M.W. Stark on the subject of graveside honors.  The traditional horse-drawn artillery caisson was missing.  Instead, Vandenberg got "a flyover of jet aircraft with one plane missing from the formation."

Also in 1954, Captain Joseph McConnell Jr. was testing a modified North American F-86 Sabre at Edwards Air Force Base in California when he ran into trouble and was killed trying to save the airplane.  This was in an era when Hollywood and the Pentagon were a team, and Warner Brothers immediately cranked out The McConnell Story, a film featuring Alan Ladd, June Allyson, a sonorous Air Force general, and not one but two Missing Man formations.  The firs takes place wile the Korean War is hotting up in the summer of 1950.  Ladd and Allyson are inspecting a homesite in Apple Valley, California, when suddenly a squadron of F-86s flies overhead in three flights of four.  The leader of the second flight pulls up and away.  Asks Allyson in her husky, housewifey voice: "Why is that plane leaving formation?"

Ladd: "You heard about the accident this morning?"

Allyson: "Yes."

Ladd: "It's the flyby for Lieutenant Gordon.  See that open slot? That's the position he used to fly.  It's call the [pause for effect] Missing Man formation."  The second occurrence is at Edwards, when the squadron leader comes over to tell Mrs. McConnell that her husband has bought the farm.

Today, the Missing Man is usually flown as a finger-four, a combat formation developed by the Germans and soon adopted by all sides of World War II.  The flight leader is at the point of the arrowhead, with his wingman following and to the right, as seen from bellow.  Occupying the same position on the flight leader's left is the second-element leader, who in turn has a wingman behind him and to the left.  In short, the formation is a "V" with the left leg longer that the right.

The leader of the second element is the Missing Man.  Either this airplane is absent altogether, or it leaves the formation in a spectacular pull-up.  In the case of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, and some civilian aerobatic teams, the Missing Man trails a plume of smoke to emphasize the pull-up, but smoke is never used at a military funeral.

Ben Stone and his two squadron mates take off from NAS Oceana at 10-second intervals.  They join up on the run, climb to 16,000 feet, and scream toward Washington at 460 mph.  About the same time, their ground controller is getting in his car and driving out to Arlington with a hand-held radio.  Says Stone: "Along the way, we will talk to Oceana Departure, Norfolk Approach, and Washington Center, who will eventually switch us off to Andrews Approach, who will descend us down to 3,000 to hold over Andrews awaiting the call.  Andrews' tower is familiar enough with flyovers at Arlington that we don't need to ask for any special clearance."

The Hornets are now 20 miles south-southeast of Arlington, communicating with Andrews on a special discrete frequency that's free of other radio traffic.  At the cemetery, the ground controller is tuned to the same frequency.  "Once we check in on the discrete, Andrews knows where we are, but it is the guy on the ground who is really controlling us," says Stone.  "He'll tell us that the funeral is dragging on, or it's almost over, or whatever.  Usually, we will plan to fly at a suitable fast speed divisible by 60.  That way you know how many miles per minute you fly and it makes it easy to do the math."  If the controller wants the Hornets over the grave in three minutes, the arithmetic goes like this: 20 miles divided by three minutes equals...well, call it seven miles per minute, or 420 mph.

"We get a three-minute warning from the guy on the ground and start heading that way," says Stone.  "Out of teh turn, we take our exact positions [for the formation] and hold them the rest of the way.  Ideally, we fly a little bit slower than necessary, so we're on a pace to be just a little late.  Then we accelerate just at the last second to be extra fast at the grave."

If they've misjudged and find themselves coming along too fast, they slow down and do shallow turns to kill a few seconds.  "The man on the ground can see us more easily than we can pick out the grave site, and he gives last-minute heading changes of a couple of degrees to talk us directly over the funeral," says Stone.  "He also gives us a five-second countdown so we know when we pass over it.  That way, the Missing Man can peel up out of the formation right on cue."

Today, of course, there are only three aircraft, and the Hornets sweep over the casket with a gap where the Missing Man would have been.  Arlington National Cemetery lies inside the sprawl of metropolitan Washington, D.C.  Out of deference to the folks living on the hill overlooking the cemetery--and also the Federal Aviation Regulations--the flyover is done at an altitude of 1,000 feet.  The Hornets are, however, excused from the regulation that limits low-flying aircraft to a speed of 200 knots.

Later, one of the mourners recalled: "The Hornets made their characteristic sort of quiet, high-pitched whine.  They approached quickly, and then it was over in the blink of any eye."

It is probably the moment, however, that those standing by the grave will remember for some time.

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