If you're watching today's memorial service for former President Gerald R. Ford, you may get a glimpse of a rare, 21-aircraft flyover, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
There's a slight irony that Air Force jets will provide a final, aerial salute to Mr. Ford, who served as a Navy officer during World War II. But responsibility for the "missing man" formation for fallen leaders typically rotates between the Navy and the Air Force, and this time, it's the USAF's turn.
I've been told that today's fly-by has been assigned to the 4th Fighter Wing, based at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina. The 4th Wing flies the F-15E Strike Eagle, the two-seat, long-range attack version of that aircraft. Flying round-robin between Goldsboro, North Carolina and Grand Rapids will require at least two aerial refuelings. KC-135 tankers are also assigned at Seymour Johnson (part of Air Mobility Command's 916th Air Refueling Wing), but I'm not sure if the in-flight refueling job has been delegated to that unit, or another AMC wing.
The actual fly-by will consist of four elements of five Strike Eagles, followed by a single F-15E, which will pull up and away in the "Missing Man" salute. The tankers are not scheduled to fly over the funeral site.
On a personal note, I've had a little experience in coordinating (or more correctly, attempting to coordinate fly-bys). Suffice it to say, it's not as easy as it looks. Timing is absolutely essential, and getting the aircraft overhead at exactly the right moment requires superb airmanship, a little help from air traffic control, and good weather. In one of the fly-bys I was involved with, everything went wrong, much to the chagrin of a certain U.S. Senator, who wanted a C-141 to pass over his alma mater's football stadium, just before kick-off against an SEC rival.
Unfortunately, the jet was late taking off from home station, the weather grew progressively worse, and ATC was no help whatsoever. With visibility reaching absolute minimums, we finally scrubbed the fly-by (about five minutes before ETA), and told the band to keep playing. The C-141 lumbered on, briefly popping out of the cloud cover about a mile east of the stadium, roughly a minute behind schedule. Someone later asked me why the Air Force was trying to interrupt the pre-game show.
I hope things go better for the 4th Wing at Grand Rapids this afternoon.
Historical note: JFK's state funeral in 1963 featured an even larger, 48-ship fly-by, incorporating both Air Force and Navy jets. The Navy led the way, with 24 of their new, shiny F-4 Phantoms, with an equal number of Air Force F-105s trailing close behind. The F-4 was powerful, but the F-105 was exceptionally fast in level flight, and the Navy pilots complained that the "Thud" drivers were trying to run them down during the fly-by. After that, someone hit on the idea of single-service fly-bys at state funerals.