High Honor

The origins of the missing man formation.

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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.

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