High Honor

The origins of the missing man formation.

Air & Space Magazine

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.

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