The origins of the missing man formation.
- By Daniel Ford
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 3 of 4)
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."