March C-17 makes ten flyovers in a single sortie

C-17 Globemaster III (b/w), Graphic by Bob Goode, AFNEWS/NSPD

C-17 Globemaster III (b/w), Graphic by Bob Goode, AFNEWS/NSPD

C-17A Globemaster III (b/w), Graphic by Billy Smallwood, AFNEWS/NSPD

C-17A Globemaster III (b/w), Graphic by Billy Smallwood, AFNEWS/NSPD

A C-17 from the 729th Airlift Squadron at March ARB dips to 1,000 feet to fly over the City of Corona’s “July 4 Celebration” at Santana Park. The flyover was the last in a continuous series of 10 flyovers that day. (Photo courtesy of the City of Corona)

A C-17 from the 729th Airlift Squadron at March ARB dips to 1,000 feet to fly over the City of Corona’s “July 4 Celebration” at Santana Park. The flyover was the last in a continuous series of 10 flyovers that day. (Photo courtesy of the City of Corona)

Long-range capability and precision planning make it possible for March Air Reserve Base aircraft to make a record number of appearances at Fourth of July celebrations throughout Southern California. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Vanessa Gempis)

Long-range capability and precision planning make it possible for March Air Reserve Base aircraft to make a record number of appearances at Fourth of July celebrations throughout Southern California. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Vanessa Gempis)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- While most flyover units conduct one or two flyovers at a time, a C-17 from the 729th Airlift Squadron conducted ten flyovers in a single, 3- hour trip on Saturday, July 4, 2009. The flyovers were a part of civic Independence Day celebrations throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in Southern California. 

Lt. Col. Timothy Harris, 452 AMW current operations, coordinated the series of Fourth of July flyovers this year. "I've just always liked doing them and each year I've added more. This is the most I've ever done, ten." 

The 2009 flyovers could very well be a record. "We think we're up in territory that people haven't done before as far as that number of flyovers on a single sortie. I think it's pretty unique," Harris said. 

"According to the paperwork, we reached over 320,000 people who saw us just at those events. A lot more people saw us flying point to point," Harris said. Harris' wife and children were among that group, watching for the C-17 from their home in Yucaipa when It came in for the University of Redlands flyover. 

Timing ten consecutive flyovers is no small task, especially when flyovers are scheduled to coincide with a specific moment during the event, like the end of the national anthem at the opening of a baseball game. 

"I work with all the different event coordinators to make sure they know I need to maybe move a minute or two from what the requested time was and then I put them together as one big flight plan and I can precisely get overhead at that event at that time," Harris explained. 

"If they want us to go over at the end of a song, they need to understand how long that song takes and they need to back up the arrival time and use the right clock," Harris said.
Through his years of coordinating flyovers, Harris has observed that the timing has become much easier in the past five years, thanks to the cell phones with clocks that run off the same GPS time the C-17 uses. 

Most of the flyovers on the 2009 schedule were direct flights from one event to the next. In a few cases, Harris had to plot courses for timing triangles to burn time between events. He also prepared a script that detailed all flyover times, locations, radio calls and visual cues. 

On the day of the event, Harris focused on the flying while his crew managed the script and communications on several different radios. When flying over Angel Stadium, for example, the C-17 needed special permission before passing through the three mile flight restriction area surrounding nearby Disneyland. 

Lt. Col. Harris and his co-pilot, Lt. Col. Keith Guillotte, used time control (speed adjustments) to fine-tune their flight plan down to the second. The time control practice was a valuable benefit of the sortie. 

"It's great training for us because there are times when you have to go overseas and be someplace precisely at a certain time," Harris said. During the flyovers, Harris and his crew had the additional pressure of thousands of people observing as they finessed their time control. 

"It definitely works on your adrenaline," Harris said. "It's good training for combat. We do our first flyover at Angel Stadium and then we go immediately to the next stop. We can't relax." 

Congested airspace was another challenge of the flyover sequence. The pilots had to continually avoid the major air corridors for L.A. International, John Wayne and Long Beach Airports. 

The flyovers were at 1,000 feet, a potentially dangerous altitude in such a congested area because control towers have a hard time seeing planes flying that low. To avoid this problem, the C-17 would stay between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, dipping to 1,000 feet only on the last leg of each run. 

"Approach control keeps an eye on us and helps us out with traffic, but we're kind of on our own," Harris said. 

Harris enjoyed flying over the lakes and the stadiums the most. "The lakes are fun to do because it's rather unusual to be flying down a lake with people watching on the shoreline," Harris said. "I also liked doing San Bernardino because that's where I was born and raised." 

Even though Harris and his four person flyover crew had to work on the holiday, the appreciation from the public makes it worth the sacrifice. 

"The city of La Habra or Redlands calls and are so just so thankful that we went to their event. Folks get pretty proud when they see a big ol' Air Force plane overhead right when it's supposed to be," Harris said. 

In addition to the crew on the plane, nine maintainers from the 452nd AMXS came in for launch crew duty three hours before takeoff to open the aircraft and start the pre-Deployment checklist. Four more maintainers came in for recovery duty, not leaving until 8:30 p.m. Saturday night. 

"The 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard (F-16s) does a great job of supporting Southern California flyovers also. They did a large number this year too," Harris said. 

Each flyover event had to pass a twofold approval process. Event coordinators must get approval for their event from the Air Force and the 729th must have permission to fly over the location at the designated time.