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High Honor

The origins of the missing man formation.

"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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