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A Note From the Editor

Pentagon Flyby

By Harold Cannon, Editor - Warbirds Briefing, EAA 466240

T-34 flyby
T-34 flyby for Joint Chiefs chairman

I didn’t know it going in, but EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2011 was to be the start for one of my greatest aviation adventures. If you’ve ever looked skyward during the opening ceremony at an NFL game and wondered what it would be like to be in that military formation streaking overhead, I can now tell you I have a good idea.

On September 30, Admiral Mike Mullen retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The only flyby was conducted by four T-34s, all privately owned by members of EAA/Warbirds of America.

The run-in closed Reagan National Airport for a few minutes, and passed over the west side of the Pentagon at 500 feet AGL. On the reviewing stand were President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, and the Joint Chiefs. No F-16s were scrambled (thank goodness), and all went to plan. I was there on the left wing of the diamond (yep, lucky beats good every time), and this is how it happened.

First, it was a great year to have a T-34 at AirVenture. With the various airworthiness directives that have threatened our aircraft now a thing of the past, the turnout was excellent. One picture of a formation flyby even made The Wall Street Journal. We were joined by a new T-34 owner, General Chuck Boyd, U.S. Air Force (retired). Things were good.

Formation
T-34 formation as seen in The Wall Street Journal

Our formation clinic leading up to the show in Oshkosh was led by William “Smitty” Smith, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and airline pilot. Smitty also has time in Army helicopters and has flown civilian air-evac. After the Tuesday debrief, he casually asked if I and one of our other ’34 pilots, Darrel Berry, could do him a favor.

Turned out he wanted to do a flyby for someone’s retirement. I said, “Sure,” all the time thinking that Smitty lives in Maryland, I live in Kentucky, and this is going to be a heck of a commute for one flyover.

Flyby
Colonel William “Smitty” Smith, U.S. Air Force (retired)

After I said yes, Smitty explained that it was going to be in Washington, D.C. Inside the special flight rules area (SFRA), inside the Flight Retricted Zone, and a couple of miles from the White House, at 500 feet AGL. I said yes again, loudly. Darrel, being a Marine veteran, just said yes. He’s considerably more difficult to excite. It turned out that Admiral Mullen and our new friend, General Boyd, are old friends. General Boyd had approached Smitty with the idea of doing the flyby to honor Admiral Mullen, and the plan had grown to include aircraft in the paint schemes of four service branches.

I’d like to think that the invitations had everything to do with our considerable formation skills, but I guess I ought to mention that I have a T-34 in Army paint (yes, they had a few), as well as a T-34 honoring the Marines. Smitty’s aircraft is inexplicably painted Navy, and Chuck Boyd’s T-34 is, to no surprise, Air Force.

Smitty took on the job of getting the flight approved. Although I was excited at the prospect, I must admit that I had real doubts that the flight would ever happen. Smitty’s obstacle course included the Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service, the Pentagon, FBI, and FAA. I think I sent him my life history at least three times. Colonel William Smith is nothing if not persistent!

To my surprise the TSA signed off first, and everything else began to fall into place. The FAA was last to sign off with a waiver down to 500 feet AGL coming the day before the flight!

With the Pentagon on board, we were issued “smart packs” which were a wonderfully detailed summary of all data for the flight. These were nothing new for two of the players (General Boyd and Smitty). For me it was a look at what a truly professional briefing was all about.

Ingress

The smart pack assigned us call signs to be used with ATC both for comms and flight plan filing. Draco 51-54 designated the aircraft, and three ground controllers were assigned to our mission as well. One was placed in the TRACON, sitting with our very own ATC guy. One other was working with the flow of the ceremony itself and would issue a hard 10-minute hack to time on target. The third was on a nearby rooftop to give last-minute heading changes. Apparently you can fly within 500 feet AGL of the POTUS but not directly over him. Good to know.

Two days before the flyby Smitty e-mailed all of us that things were a go (FAA altitude waiver still pending, but a go). The morning of Thursday, September 29, dawned cool and with a bit of ground fog here in Kentucky. I was at the hangar at 5:30 a.m. My backseater, Charles McGaughy, and I waited for things to burn off a bit, then launched for Big Sandy, Kentucky. Big Sandy (K22) is about as far as one can go east in Kentucky. We were met there by Darrel and his backseater, Steve Downs. Both Steve and Charles are first-rate mechanics and had been cleared as traffic spotters and backup pilots for the flight. Given the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the thing, bringing a mechanic didn’t seem excessive.

Group pic
Left to right: Colonel William Smith, General Charles Boyd, Charles McGaughy, Harold Cannon, Darrel Berry, and Steve Downs

Departure from Big Sandy as a flight of two soon ran into higher tops and a solid undercast. So much for the forecast. Time for a 180 and breakfast back at the departure point. I can vouch for the airport diner at Big Sandy; breakfast was good and a much better idea than pressing on. Within a couple of hours, things had improved and we were soon letting down over the Shenandoah Valley. I had flown over it before, but never this low or in weather this beautiful. Mental note made to read some Civil War history when I get home. Landing at Warrenton, Virginia (KHWY; General Boyd keeps his ’34 there), we were met by Smitty and Chuck and whisked away to the local Dairy Queen for rations before starting practice.

That afternoon, we flew a warm-up which included rejoins, reconfigurations, and a simulated run-in with the general’s house in place of the reviewing stand. With a computed 9-minute run-in from the final fix, this wasn’t trivial. By the time we recovered the flight and shut down, I was ready to call it a day. I think we all felt that way, but the Marine among us wasn’t admitting it. Smitty debriefed the flight, and with sympathy for his troops, declared us ready, the day’s flying done.

Chuck opened his home to us for the night. Dinner at a local steak house was wonderful. I guess I had no idea what a retired four-star’s basement walls looked like, but let me tell you it’s better than most museum tours.

Friday, September 30, was cool, with a high broken overcast. Not a bad day to fly. After breakfast at a rural Virginia diner whose name I wish I could remember, it was off to the field. The expected time on target was to be 12:25, plus or minus. Given the length of most speeches, we expected a plus. After preflight and a brief, it was “hurry up and wait.” On the way to the aircraft Smitty informed me that if he fails engine start, I am to lead the flight. I caught my breath and informed him that he can lead from my backseat. Seems that A-10 drivers don’t think of there being a back seat. Engine start (for everyone, including Smitty) and check-in came a few minutes after 11. The plan was to take off in elements and join to the diamond.

Smith and Boyd take off
Colonel Smith and General Boyd depart for flyby

Cannon and Berry
Cannon and Berry depart KHWY for flyby

That accomplished, we began a climb toward the SFRA and our hold point south of Andrews Air Force Base. All wingmen in the flight monitored lead on a discrete company frequency. Smitty was tasked with handling both his flight and ATC as well as our ground handlers. We arrived on station and went to a four-ship in-trail formation. This wasn’t as much work as the diamond in bumpy air and turned out to be a good idea on lead’s part. As we approached time for our inbound hack, Smitty took us out of an oval racetrack and into a figure of eight so that the flight was always turning toward the initial point.

Outbound
Flight formed and outbound for the hold

You might remember that earlier I said we expected a 10-minute hack to time on target. We got a 9-minute hack, which was okay, except the run-in time was inside 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Suddenly the tail chase was in a much steeper turn, and lead was calling us back into the diamond while in the turn. Diamond assembled and heading downhill, the slipstream noise increased, and the controls loaded up just a little. (This was just a T-34 after all.) But eyes were outside only. I do remember one final slight S-turn as Smitty adjusted our run-in, and before you knew it there went the Washington Monument in the periphery under lead’s airplane.

Boyd inbound
Right wing, General Boyd, inbound with Washington Monument in background

Ingress
Smart Pack Run-In Diagram

Smitty called, “Showtime,” on discrete, and it’s time to really settle down and get things as stable as the bumpy air would allow. To his credit we passed the reviewing stand only 2 seconds off our assigned arrival. A slow climb out of sight and then back to en route spacing. Whew! Recovery back at KHWY was celebrated with a cold beverage for Chuck and me.

Gen Boyd after the flight
General Boyd after successful flyby honoring Admiral Mike Mullen

Darrel and Charles flew our two ’34s back home as soon as they were refueled, so no refreshments for them. As luck would have it, I stayed for a national neurosurgical meeting to begin the next day. It took a couple of weeks and watching the 6 seconds of fame we enjoyed on C-SPAN a few times to really let things sink in.

And that is how I spent the last Friday in September, honest. 

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