Super Bowl flyover: Secrets of split-second timing

Posted at 10:03 AM, Jan 31, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-31 12:03:02-05

By Thom Patterson

(CNN) — A little more than a decade ago, Idaho high school running back Tyler Wright was scoring touchdowns for the Boise High Braves. On Sunday, he’ll pilot an Army helicopter over the NFL world championship.

“I can’t believe my son is flying over the Super Bowl,” RaeAnn “Annie” Smith told CNN on the phone from her home.

You can understand why she’s so excited. Around kickoff time, when opera star soprano Renée Fleming sings “…And the home of the brave…” 80,000 fans in the stands — and millions more on TV — will watch Wright and his eight fellow pilots soar high over East Rutherford, New Jersey’s, MetLife Stadium.

Does anyone you know ever get a chance to do that? Probably not. “It’s a once in a lifetime career opportunity that you get to do this,” Wright said in a phone call Friday with CNN.

A bit of advice: Don’t blink on Sunday, or you might miss them and their amazing military hardware. You’ll see a V-shaped wedge formation of three workhorse Black Hawks, three Apache attack helicopters and three Chinook heavy-lifters — those are the big choppers with the double rotors whirling on top.

Military flyovers at the Super Bowl have been around a while. The first was at 1968’s Super Bowl II, when Air Force jets thrilled spectators at Miami’s Orange Bowl.

Wright, like his eight comrades, has paid some dues to get here, ending up with a tour in Afghanistan.

His journey started as a boy, dreaming of piloting aircraft. But at first Wright chose a more conventional path, considering a career as a veterinarian and then a pharmacist. He did stints at two universities, but it was no use. As his mom put it, “The flying thing just bit him.”

Wright first soloed in a small plane in 2008 and then enrolled in commercial flight school. That meant packing up a car with his wife and young daughter and driving 2,500 miles to Florida.

After graduation Wright chose military service over an airline job. “He loves his country, and he wanted to serve,” his mom said.

In 2012, Wright left his then-pregnant wife and 7-year-old daughter behind to join the war in Afghanistan. Turns out, Wright was really good at flying Black Hawks, his mom said.

“I love helicopters,” Wright said. “And I like the versatility of the Black Hawk,” especially hauling supplies and soldiers in and out of combat zones with the 101st Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade. As he put it, moving the “bullets and beans … and troops.”

Flying a chopper in a war zone got a little hairy at times for some of the pilots in the unit, Wright said, but, “we knew what to do and how to react.”

When Wright’s tour ended last May, he returned to his base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky — and a newborn son.

One night recently, Wright’s mother was working her part-time second job at a department store, when her cell phone rang. “Tyler said, ‘Mom, I’m calling to give you some good news … I’m going to fly my Black Hawk over the Super Bowl.’ I thought he was kind of teasing. I said, ‘Seriously, Tyler?’ Yep.”

The band of brothers who’ll be flying Sunday are all friends — a really tight-knit group, said Wright, part of Bravo Company 5-101, “The Lancers.” Last year at this time, some of them were watching the Super Bowl on TV half a world away. Now they’re among the stars of the show.

So, how does a military flyover at a football stadium work, exactly?

Well, it’s tricky, especially in the New York metro area, which is the busiest aviation corridor in the nation.

Normally pilots flying in the region have to be aware of traffic from multiple airports, including Newark Liberty airport south of the stadium and Teterboro airport, which is north. Let’s not forget the traffic from JFK and LaGuardia.

But hey, this is the SUPER BOWL. Special privileges apply.

Basically the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the airspace on Sunday. Traffic: not a problem. Check.

Next, good pilots always keep an eye on the weather. Wright’s no different. The game-time forecast calls for west to northwesterly winds at 10 mph with temperatures in the upper 30s or low 40s. Although there’s a slight chance of light rain, Wright is confident conditions should be good enough to get the job done. Check.

Then the hardest part: Wright and his fellow pilots have to time their flyover to the second. The mission: Soar across the stadium during the final note of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Beginning at a holding area, Wright and his fellow pilots coordinate via radio with controllers on the ground. They know exactly how long it will take for them to reach their destination. In the military the procedure is called “time on target” — aka T.O.T. It’s all part of the job of being a military pilot. That’s just what we do, Wright said, “be at a specific place at a specific time.”

Come flyover time — back in Boise — Wright’s friends and family plan to be watching. And cheering.

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