Aircraft Over Sports Stadiums: How Are Military Flyovers Arranged?

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Summary Military flyovers began as tactical displays to support troops on the ground during WWI.
DoD uses flyovers for public outreach and recruitment purposes at sporting events.
Flyovers require extensive planning, rehearsal, and coordination due to heavy costs and safety concerns.
The thunder of jet engines echoing through a massive stadium, mingling with the final notes of the National Anthem, the boom of fireworks, and the roar of tens of thousands of fans, sparks the American fighting spirit like no other experience. It is a small wonder, then, that military flyovers have kicked off sporting events from the Rose Bowl to the Super Bowl, from NASCAR to Major League Baseball.
But as strikingly impressive as these displays are, they represent the culmination of months of hard work by hundreds of dedicated individuals. How exactly does a military flyover come together, and why is it such an evocative and traditional event?
The origins of the military flyover
The concept of a military flyover began in the First World War, per the US Naval Institute, as a tactical means for ground commanders to observe how many planes had been lost after a mission. Before a mission, a flyover could also inspire troops on the ground, reassuring them that air cover was ready to support them in the struggle ahead. Over the years, flyovers have remained an enduring sign of presence, support, and power to both military and civilian audiences.
American events like sports and airshows provide an opportunity for the Department of Defense (DoD) to demonstrate that same support to the public at large, and the DoD certainly emphasizes the recruiting potential of military flyovers. DoD Instruction (DODI) 5410.19 establishes the expectations for public aerial demonstrations and requires that certain conditions be met: for instance, the event must be of military or aviation significance, like an airshow or a holiday celebration.
Sporting events, however, “…will be prioritized by the level of benefit to the community outreach efforts of each Military Department. The Military Departments should carefully consider sporting events that will have a national or significant regional broadcast of the flyover or additional opportunities to connect the military to a vast public.” For a military that operates worldwide every day, yet largely outside the public eye, flyovers are a powerful reminder of the necessity and vitality of a healthy civil-military relationship.
Organizing a flyover
However, this is not to say that flyovers are easy or cheap. Military aircraft are expensive to maintain and operate. For instance, the flight of three bombers over Super Bowl LV would have cost over $155,000 per flight hour, according to the DoD. Since DODI 5410.19 also prohibits military aircraft from being hired or paid for an aerial display, most flyover hours come from the supporting unit’s annual flight training budget. Their approval requires a healthy balance between the cost of operating the aircraft, the benefit of community engagement, and the training value associated with the event.
Once the flyover is approved, planning begins months before the event. At least 60 days beforehand, the requester coordinates with the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) and arranges a Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) surrounding the stadium, usually three nautical miles in diameter and up to 2,500 feet above ground level, per 14 CFR 91.145.
Photo: Grindstone Media Group | Shutterstock
The event coordinator briefs flight crews, including any potential backup crews, on the exact timeline for the evening. Like any military operation, these briefings and follow-up planning conferences cover every possible contingency in the air and on the ground. Some of the questions asked at this point include:
How will an engine failure or mechanical issue affect the timeline during preflight, staging, holding, or even during the flyover itself
How will local weather affect the flyover?
What weather will cancel the event?
Is there room to shift for favorable winds?
How long and where can aircraft hold without burning too much fuel or causing significant complaints in the local community?
If there are fireworks, will they pose a danger to low-flying aircraft?
If the anthem singer delays for a few seconds, how exactly will the inbound timing need to shift for the flight to cross home plate on the word “Brave?”
If the aircraft loses radio communication with the stadium, do they abort or continue based on the timing alone?
These conferences and planning sessions can be exhaustive, involving event coordinators, local community leaders, maintainers, communications specialists, meteorologists, flight operations personnel, and pilots, but all parties leave with an understanding of every contingency.
Related 70 Aircraft Flying In The King’s Birthday Flypast Over Central London His Majesty Charles II prepares to celebrate his official birthday. On the occasion, 70 military aircraft will perform a flypast over London.
Getting ready for the big show
Depending on the unit’s budget, rehearsals will begin in the weeks before the event. Flying in close formation is notoriously dangerous and taxing, and a slightly distorted formation can look worse than a dispersed flight when the cameras are rolling. All aircraft must be comfortable in formation, usually a diamond, a V, or an echelon (half of a V). They also must be prepared to assume the position and duties of their wingmen at a moment’s notice. Flying rehearsals mimic the distance, direction, and timing of all control points, ensuring a seamless transition to the actual event.
On the day itself, aircraft depart their assigned airfields well before the event begins. They link up and hold several miles from the stadium, depending on their capabilities and planning timelines. The flight commander keeps abreast of the pregame festivities over multiple redundant communications systems, so that any programming change can be immediately computed for a new inbound speed and time on target.
Photo: James Kiefner | Simple Flying
In some cases, they might even listen to the anthem sung over a radio channel and carefully recalculate their speed to match the vital last few seconds. After crossing the stadium, their mission accomplished, they return to their home base to shut down, leap into a van, and return to the stadium for a moment of recognition during the game.
Are flyovers dangerous?
Flyovers can sometimes seem dangerous, frivolous, or unnecessarily risky. Indeed, some units have received scrutiny for appearing too low or fast over a stadium, such as in 2021 when a flight of Army helicopters made national news over a Tennessee Titans game, or the infamous “McDonnell Douglas Field Goal” of two F-18s in 2009.
However, when properly considered and executed, these demonstrations are important to a healthy civil-military relationship. The extensive preparation can also provide tactical skills and knowledge for young aviators. A multidomain war requires the ability to calculate complex flight profiles mentally, manually, and electronically.
Aviators often need to coordinate across multiple agencies and airspaces to achieve an exact position down to the second, and planners need to ensure that coordination can happen with or without advanced technology. Ultimately, flyovers represent much more than just a display of airpower. They represent precision, presence, and the immense power inherent in a community and nation.

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