Today's Detroit News has complete coverage of yesterday's funeral service for Gerald Ford in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Toward the end of the piece, reporters Mark Hornbeck, Gary Heinlein and David Josar note that the late 38th President received full military honors, including a 21-gun salute, the playing of "Taps," and a fly-over by 21 Air Force F-15s in the "missing man" formation.
Yesterday, we noted the difficulty in coordinating and executing a fly-by. From what I could see on C-SPAN, the F-15s hit their mark, but they arrived just a bit too early. The elements of F-15E Strike Eagles thundered overhead as the bugler was playing "Taps," drowning out the somber notes. Ideally, a fly-by is supposed to arrive just after the bugler sounds his last note.
Of course, it's hard to quibble about a few seconds when you consider the logistics and coordination of the overall operation. The fly-by aircraft launched from their base in North Carolina and flew more than 1500 miles (roundtrip) to Michigan, with aerial refuelings along the way. Getting 21 Strike Eagles meant that the 4th Wing had to generate (and launch) at least 25 aircraft, in case one of the fly-by jets suffered a malfunction. For in-flight refueling, Air Mobility Command launched at least two KC-135s, ensuring the F-15Es had enough gas to reach their destination and return home.
The tanker support was made more critical by the slow pace of the funeral service, which forced the Strike Eagles to orbit outside Grand Rapids, waiting for their cue. The original timetable called for the jets to pass overhead at 3:49 p.m., but the fly-by actually occurred more than an hour later. That's a lot of time to spend circling in a jet, and it's nice to have a KC-135 near-by, to keep your tanks topped off.
The public--and a national TV audience--saw 21 Air Force F-15Es honor a fallen commander-in-chief. What they didn't see was the effort, coodination and precision required to get them over the burial site at the required moment. Kudos to the pilots, WSOs and maintenance professionals of the 4th Wing at Seymour Johnson who made the fly-by happen, and the AMC tanker crews who provided refueling support. The fly-by was a fitting climax for then internment service, and an appropriate send-off for the late president.