The U.S. Air Force has been flying the B-52H Stratofortress since before the NFL held the first Super Bowl in 1967, but this week, America's oldest bomber joined in a first-of-its-kind flyover to mark the start of the big game.
The B-52H, which dates back to the early 1960s, had to keep in line with its B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit cousins over Tampa's Raymond James Stadium before the kickoff of Super Bowl LV. The flyover was timed perfectly as singers Jazmine Sullivan and Eric Church hit the final notes of the "Star Spangled Banner" -- thanks to coordinated efforts from the pilots, crew and ground liaisons, and other support aircraft.
"Our job was to basically set up the route to fly over the stadium," said 1st Lt. Alex Sisco, a B-52 weapon systems officer, or WSO, in charge of the flyover's mission planning.
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The B-1s came from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota; the B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri; and the B-52Hs from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. The aircraft designations -- B-1, B-2 and B-52 -- added up to 55 in honor of Super Bowl 55.
Their call signs were DRAGO 51, 52 and 53.
Backup plans were in place: Each team brought a spare aircraft in the event of a maintenance issue or weather delay. The teams were also ready to switch out an airframe entirely if needed. Each bomber had the flight plan loaded and filed ahead of time.
Two B-1s and a B-52, affectionately called the BUFF, held a practice run Feb. 5 ahead of the game. Each aircraft crew had briefings that included maps, the staging area where the bombers would come together prior to the flyover, altitudes, flight time, weather and more.
According to fiscal 2017 data, flying a B-52 costs roughly $48,000 per flight hour, a B-1B is about $94,000 and a B-2 flight rounds out to roughly $122,000 per hour. With roughly 18 hours of flight time including the practice run and the mission, the flyover likely cost close to $4 million.
On the day of the big game, the three met up ahead of time in the Gulf of Mexico, nearly 100 miles offshore. About 30 minutes prior to the flyover, they were seen flying around just before they moved into tight formation. The bombers received updates from a liaison on the ground who let them know when each event -- presentation of colors, singer H.E.R.'s rendition of "America the Beautiful," and finally, the national anthem -- began and ended so they could adjust their flight.
To time it just right, Sisco said they calibrated their speed to around 280 miles per hour. "It's really just simple math. We use the winds and our computers on board, as well as just real simple math, slight geometry," he said.
The bombers were 250 feet apart from wing tip to wing tip.
"That's pretty close. I mean, the B-52 is 185 feet wide," Sisco said.
"We're not used to flying that close to those two planes all the time," added Maj. Michael Webster, a B-1 weapon systems officer at Ellsworth. Both Webster and Sisco were in charge of navigation during the flyover.
While bombers of the same type often fly in formation, doing so with three different aircraft -- one capable of supersonic speeds, one stealth and one less nimble -- is unusual. So, out over the water, the crews took time to get "comfortable" with what their formation was supposed to look like, Webster said.
Getting timing down to the second is a part of planning for any flight, whether it's for a sporting event stateside or a show-of-force flight with partners and allies overseas, he added.
Webster was recently part of a dynamic force employment bomber flight, or the Pentagon's high-visibility bomber patrols, in the Pacific. Successful execution no matter where the mission takes place is always the goal, he said.
Webster, on the B-1, gave a nod to the team lead, Capt. Sarah "Gucci" Kociuba, who piloted the B-2. Kociuba was unavailable to speak with Military.com for an interview.
All of the "pilots did a great job, keeping in formation and looking good," Webster said.
The B-1 had four crew members on board for the flight. While the long-range bomber is a bit younger than its B-52 counterpart (it dates back to the mid-1980s), it has still had maintenance issues for years. So making sure things ran smoothly was a priority, Webster said.
A B-52 typically has two pilots, a weapons officer and an electronic warfare officer, but can have up to five crew, according to the Air Force. For the flyover, the B-52 had seven on board, including a crew chief and a spare pilot.
"With these long-duration sorties, it's good for the pilots to be able to switch out; the B-52 is a heavy airplane to fly," Sisco said.
The planes were in the air an average of eight hours, depending on the locations they hailed from. The B-52s did a training mission on their way back to Minot; the BUFFs didn't have to refuel since they "had the range to fly out there" and back, Sisco said.
The B-1s practiced refueling with a KC-135 Stratotanker from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, said Webster. It was not immediately clear whether the B-2s needed to refuel.
Despite the fanfare, some people took to social media to question the necessity of a flyover amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with businesses shuttered, people out of work and virus cases rising across the U.S.
For the airmen, they were just doing their job.
"I think that flyovers are just another way for us to practice and sharpen our skills," Sisco said.
He and Webster agreed that the day was something special.
"I've only been in the airplane for about two years, and I've gotten to go on a couple different flights across the world, and it's great getting to go out there and do the mission that we're meant to do. But when we get the opportunity to do something like this. .. it's a great feeling to get asked to do something so big," Sisco said.
"I was just really, really honored to be there. [There have] only been 55 Super Bowls, and so being a part of the [community[ that have actually gotten to fly over a Super Bowl is an incredible honor," Webster said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.
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