The first funeral flyover of aircraft occurred during World War I, when British fighter pilots honored the funeral of German ace Manfred von Richthofen ("the Red Baron"). Flyovers of airfields became standard practice in the Royal Air Force, to show the ground crews how many survivors had returned from a mission. The United States adopted the tradition in 1938 during the funeral for Major General Oscar Westover, with over 50 aircraft and one blank file. By the end of World War II, the missing man formation had evolved to include the pull-up. In April 1954, United States Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg was buried at Arlington National Cemetery without the traditional horse-drawn artillery caisson. Instead, Vandenberg was honored by a flyover of jet aircraft with one plane missing from the formation.
The funeral of a police officer killed in the line-of-duty is undoubtedly one of the toughest and most emotional aspects of the job. The "sea of blue" is always a fitting way to send a hero home; among hundreds, if not thousands, of police officers showing the world the camaraderie and unity of the police fraternity. The long line of motorcycle officers and bagpipers, as well as the playing of taps always softens the hearts of the most hardened officers. Although a very small part of the ceremony, police aviators consider conducting the "fly-by" as among the most sacred of assignments.
The planning and preparation of the funeral flyby usually begins once the location of the funeral ceremony or the location of burial is established. The agency that the fallen officer belongs is usually the lead agency in coordinating the fly-by. The agency extends an invitation to other aviation units to participate and determines a staging area where all aircraft will meet for a pre-flight briefing on the day of the funeral. The flight formation commander will conduct a reconnaissance of the church or cemetery a day or two in advance to determine the likely flight path, hazards such as obstructions and an area to "hold" the formation while awaiting a signal to commence the fly-by.
On the day of the funeral, all aircraft will meet on the ground in order to conduct a formal pre-flight briefing. This briefing is critical to the success of the mission, especially since many of the aviators participating do not routinely fly together. The flight leader will brief all flight crews. The flight leader is usually a pilot assigned in the lead aircraft that will conduct the and direct the formation. Each aircraft will be assigned a designated spot in the formation. All technical terms are discussed, items such as radio frequencies, altitudes to be flown, routes to be flown, emergency break-ups of the formation, the holding area and safety considerations are discussed. The last thing any flight crew wants is a surprise in formation flight. Most formation flights consist of between five and seven aircraft. Anything larger is sometimes split into two formations for safety purposes.
Approximately 15 to30 minutes before the time of the scheduled fly-by, all aircraft are started and the formation either takes off as a formation or departs separately and forms up in flight. Once in formation, Air Traffic Control handles the formation as one aircraft. The flight leader makes all radio calls with the appropriate Air Traffic Control facility. Air Traffic Control always does everything in their power to help the fly-by be a success. In fact, it is not uncommon to have an Air Traffic Facility hold arrivals or departures from a major airport to allow the fly-by to conduct their solemn flight. The flight leader establishes communications with a designated "ground coordinator" that is already at the site of the fly-by. This coordinator, usually a member of the hosting agency's aviation unit, works closely with a member of the ceremonial unit. If all goes according to plan, the formation usually holds about 2 to 3 miles from the location of the ceremony. This allows the formation to quickly fly in when needed, yet the aircraft remain "out-of-sound" and do not interrupt the ceremony. The ground coordinator and flight leader maintain radio communications and try to determine a five minute and then one minute mark, This allows the flight leader to determine when to leave the hold. Unfortunately, a formation of five to seven aircraft cannot turn on a dime, and if they begin a turn away from the ceremony, it is normally necessary to finish the turn before proceeding inbound. Of course, this turn takes about two minutes and can seem very long during the ceremony. Ideally, the aircraft arrives overhead just after Taps is sounded or after a 21-gun salute has finished.
Although sometimes conducted as a "missing man formation," in which a particular position or slot for an aircraft is empty, it is much more likely that the formation is a simple V or diamond formation. The formation usually descends to a pre-planned altitude and slows to a safe airspeed to conduct the fly-by. Once the formation has flown away, they will break formation on the flight leader's command and according to plan.
Unfortunately, some agencies conduct more funeral fly-bys than others. In the New York metropolitan area for example, the NYPD typically performs four to five a year. The spirit of cooperation and fraternity is always evident. In addition to the NYPD, the agencies that are always represented are the Nassau County Police Dept, the Suffolk County Police Dept., the New York State Police and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police.
The funeral of a fellow officer is certainly among the saddest of duties performed. Every police aviator takes tremendous pride in the fact that they have shown the officer's family and the entire world the tribute and honor in which the officer's life should be celebrated.