The roar. The whoosh. The cheers.
Military flyovers have become a staple of American sports, from the thunderous blast of Navy F/A-18s swooping past a NASCAR race track to the stealthy appearance of the Air Force’s B-2 bomber at Major League Baseball’s All-Star game in Kansas City this past summer.
In fact, the Air Force, Navy and Marines tell the Medill News Service and the Washington Guardian they scrambled aircraft for more than 1,000 flyovers at sporting events, funerals and air shows in 2011 alone, one of the first-ever accountings of the how widespread the practice has become.
Amazingly, though, none of the services nor their Pentagon overseers tracks the specific tab to taxpayers for the public relations use of fighter aircraft whose operational costs can soar above $10,000 per hour. In fact, military officials say they treat flyovers as part of pilot training, meaning the costs are drawn from training budgets.
But some question whether the costs are worth it in an era of trillion-dollar deficits and talk of an impending “fiscal cliff” poised to impose steep cuts to the Pentagon budget as early as January.
The Army recently banned flyovers. And some in Congress along with taxpayer advocates are pressing for more scrutiny and oversight of flyovers by the other military branches, questioning whether flying over a stadium really provides the best training for combat conditions.
“Some may find these flights to be of good use, others perhaps not, and all those views should be taken into consideration,” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.
“Even though our pace of combat operations may be slowing, it is still important that pilots get every possible value out of their flight time because it could save their lives,” he said. “I think there should be a constant evaluation as to the best use of scarce training dollars.”
There is no single repository inside the Pentagon for flyover information, so the Medill News Service in conjunction with the Washington Guardian contacted each service separately to gauge the scope of the practice.
The Air Force is the most popular recipient of flyover requests, receiving more than 3,000 invitations in 2011 and performing approximately 1,000 flyovers last year, according to Tynisha Jones-Vincent, a public affairs officer for the service. It did not have figures available for 2012 yet.
The Navy conducted 102 flyovers last year and 54 so far this year, said Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a spokeswoman for the Navy. The Marine Corps has completed approximately 25 funeral flyovers and 14 flyovers at public events this year, said spokeswoman Lt. Maureen Dooley.
In the midst of more than a decade of war, the Army placed a moratorium on flyovers in 2009 “to preserve flying hours and reduce stress on the aviation force,” Army public affairs specialist Maureen Ramsey said.
The military defends flyovers, saying the benefits extend beyond training to public education and recruitment. But they have, on occasion, created some awkward moments.
Four F/A-18 Super Hornets zoomed over the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium before the February 2011 National Football League Super Bowl. The only problem? The stadium had a closed roof for the game, prompting many to question why a flyover was even necessary.
Flyovers can be requested through a simple online form.
“We look at the character and significance of the event, recruiting aspects, expected attendance, media coverage, any other military participation, and whether or not it can be incorporated into an existing mission or training,” Ramsey explained .
Representatives from all of the branches emphasize that flyovers must fit into existing training missions.
Each year, aviation squadrons are given a certain number of flying hours that must be completed, said John Wallach, deputy director at the Navy Office of Community Outreach. Squadrons are required to complete a number of operational training requirements, like takeoffs, landings and holding pattern training.
Once a flyover has been approved and sent to a squadron, the squadron then must find a way to fit that flyover into this already established budget of flying hours. If it can, the flyover request will be granted, according to Wallach.
The squadron members will use the time in the aircraft before or after a flyover to complete some of their operational training requirements, Wallach said. For example, after completing a flyover before a National Football League game, the squadron might also do other training exercises like airway navigation.
“If they don’t knock out the training requirements during a flyover they will do it over the Atlantic Ocean,” Wallach said. “The flying hours that squadron is given is a sunk cost.”
As a result, “flyovers are performed at no additional cost to the taxpayer,” the Air Force’s Jones-Vincent insisted.
But they don’t come free. The average per hour operational cost of an F/A-18 is approximately $10,000, Dooley said.
Flyovers provide needed training for aviators, said David Tretler, a retired Air Force colonel who has participated in flyovers and now teaches at the National War College. “Anytime you get in an airplane, it’s training,” he said.
Like many missions, flyovers are performed in formation, allowing aviators to practice for real- life scenarios, he said. “Flying in formation is hard,” he said. “It takes a lot of practice and repetition.”
Flyovers also allow aviators to work on precision.
“If you are a bomber pilot, you are supposed to be over a certain target at a certain time, coming from a certain direction,” Tretler said. “[Flyovers] don’t necessarily teach you how to bomb better, but there is a general training level that comes along with it.”
“I guarantee that there are number of young men and women who are attracted to go ahead and sign up because they think that looks really cool,” Tretler said.
Military representatives also view flyovers as a way of helping to educate the American people about the armed services.
“The Marine Corps is an unknown entity in some ways to many Americans,” Dooley said. “We have high recognition by name as an expeditionary fighting force, but our high-tech side and myriad career opportunities are often overlooked.”
Flyovers are particularly important for the Navy, Wallach said. Since the Navy’s primary hardware—their ships—are on the coasts, many Americans do not ever get to see the Navy in action, he said.
“It’s hard to get a ship into Kansas City, Missouri,” he said. “We kind of do have an obligation to show taxpayers what they are getting for their investment in the Navy.”
Especially with today’s all-volunteer force, there are far fewer people with direct contact with the military, Tretler said.
“So, the notion that there are occasions when larger numbers of the American public get to see that there is a military and they appear to be proficient is a good thing,” he said.