Susan "Sue" Owen '94 August 11, 2020 1:12 PM updated: August 11, 2020 2:11 PM
Video from the Aggie-piloted C-130H over Kyle Field on Nov. 2, 2019, by the 181st Airlift Squadron of the Texas Air National Guard, synchronized with video from inside and outside the stadium. The Association is proud to help pay aircrews’ hotel costs for A&M football flyovers.
“Our guy on the ground in Kyle Field, he calls us: ‘Instead of making it 10:50, make it 10:49 and 56 seconds.’ So we adjust: ‘OK, we’ll be there four seconds early.’”
Kyle Field flyovers are timed precisely — which is fitting, because they serve as training for military pilots’ critical ability to be at a given point in space at a specific moment.
The timing is a point of pride, as well, for aircraft to zoom overhead just as the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band finishes the national anthem.
“I know a window of four or five seconds doesn’t seem like a long time, but when the Aggie Band finishes and everybody cheers, you want to be right there overhead,” said Lt. Col. Brian Harper ’98, part of the crew that shook Kyle Field with a massive C-130H Hercules flyover last fall, just before kickoff of the Nov. 2, 2019, A&M game vs. UTSA.
Harper, a former commander of Squadron 5 in Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets, took us through the timeline of how his Texas Air National Guard unit executed the flyover.
Events started with Harper attending a Friday afternoon meeting with A&M’s athletics department.
“It’s a big round table that they do, with the yell leaders there, the band’s there, and the announcer from the stadium,” going over a script of every event in the hour before kickoff, set for 11:03 a.m. on that Saturday.
Harper said he’s taken part in a number of flyovers for North Texas sports events, from SMU and TCU games to a Texas Rangers baseball game, but was impressed with A&M’s organization. “A lot of flyovers I’ve done aren’t nearly as precise, but A&M does it really well,” he said.
“Sixty minutes prior to kickoff, they start a clock, and I mean, it is just beautifully synchronized to exactly what’s happening, to the second of how they want these things to go.”
“We depend upon the Aggie Band to start to the second, of course, so that everything is timed appropriately,” he said. “Fortunately, everybody’s really good at starting on time. During the round table meeting, everyone was looking at me like, ‘You guys gonna be there?’ I insist, ‘Look, I promise you, we will be there. That’s what we do,’” Harper said with a laugh.
Harper is the commander for the Texas Air National Guard’s 181st Airlift Squadron, based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. The squadron has deployed numerous times around the world in support of contingency operations and also assists state efforts including hurricane relief and COVID-19 response.
“Our particular mission subset is tactical airlifts and tactical airdrops. When we fly into a contested area, we’ve got to be on time over the target, down to the second.
“If we can do it over there, we can darn sure do it over the friendly skies of College Station for an Aggie football game. So that’s what I was telling the athletic department, ‘Look, this is where we make our money, this is what we do.’”
“We took off from Fort Worth, we went down to Easterwood Field (A&M’s airport), downloaded a pilot to be our liaison in the tower, and then we had a little bit of extra time, so we flew by the Quad, because they were doing step-off over there,” Harper said.
They were able to do the extra flyby because “we’re a great big airplane with a ton of fuel. Some of the fighters may not have the fuel to be able to loiter like we do,” he said.
Then they returned to Easterwood to wait a bit closer to game time.
“We took off about 10:30, and then we circled south of Kyle Field overhead Texas World Speedway. Down there is a great point to hold and wait for the timing. And then we set up our pattern, a holding pattern, and we fine-tune it as we’re holding: ‘OK, I want to be here at this point at this particular time, and from that point, once I’m done holding, I know that at this speed I can make it right on time.’”
Their squadron member in the airport tower is in phone contact with “the guy on the ground” — an A&M staff member, in this case a military science professor, who’s on the third deck of Kyle Field at the south end, and can watch both the game clock and the aircraft’s approach.
“They’re our eyes there at the stadium, and they’re watching that clock. Anytime the clock stops, for whatever reason, they immediately let us know” by relaying to the tower liaison, Harper said.
An 11 a.m. kickoff simplifies things, he said, because those are the first televised games of the day.
“If A&M has an afternoon or evening game, maybe there’s an earlier televised game that’s finishing up late, so they don’t want to start our game yet; we may take a little bit of a delay to get it on TV and synced up and everything. That’s where it gets kind of crazy,” he said. “They’ll pause — ‘OK, we’re going to pause the 60-minute clock.’”
But on this day, Harper and crew had the timing under their control, making a four-second adjustment with no difficulty.
“We make the run in from the south to the north. I’m just looking basically at being right overhead the 50-yard line, the middle of the stadium at the time the national anthem ends. Oddly enough, at no time are we ever listening to the Aggie Band while flying — we are simply overhead at the time we agreed the band would finish.
“Shooting for the 50-yard line gives me a little bit of wiggle room. Because the experience for some people will be if they’re at the south end, ‘They were right overhead right at the last note of the national anthem!’ And for other people at the north end, they would go, ‘Ah, they were three seconds late.’
“So I kind of split the difference. Couple seconds early, couple seconds late, it’s going to look good and sound good either way.
“We opted to come across at 210 knots, and that is a speed that we would normally be flying at that low altitude in a C-130,” he said. “It’s just a comfortable speed for us, and allows our particular airplane to either accelerate or decelerate in order to make the time over target. I would imagine that each airplane is a little bit different in that regard, that the fighters might have to go a little bit faster, or then obviously some of the helicopters would be quite a bit slower.”
Conditions were excellent: “We were fortunate on the UTSA gameday, it was clear, beautiful skies. So we could see the stadium all the way from the Texas World Speedway,” he said.
Harper noted that they had a pretty big crowd aboard, including pilots Lt. Col. Kurt Anderson ’01, Lt. Col. Brian Kriss ’01, Maj. David Westfall ’01 and Capt. Matthew McBride ’11; navigator Maj. Steven Strube ’08, and flight surgeons Col. Ralph Walsh ’88 and Lt. Col. George Gibson (an A&M Health Science Center professor).
“I figured if there’s an Aggie in the squadron that wants to go do this, then let’s just put them on the plane and let them experience it,” Harper said.
“For me, it was just like a dream come true. I remember when I was a cadet, sweating at all these football games, looking up going, gosh, if I could ever do that one day, that would be super cool.”
The Association of Former Students is proud to help pay hotel room costs for the flyover crews as a small way to thank them and to contribute to this part of the football gameday experience that both inspires pride and connects with the Aggie value of selfless service.
All other flyover costs, from fuel to airport coordination, are funded by the military.
“It’s a training mission, and we’re using training dollars,” Harper said. “And we’re able to log training events that if we hadn’t been flying that day, we would not have been able to accomplish. When we go up in the air, we’ve got tons of requirements, and these flyovers help accomplish some of them.
“For us, it’s a balance,” he said. “It’s good training but also good advertising for us; that stadium is full of young Aggies, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re the Texas Air National Guard, we’re just right up the street, come see us!’ So we love doing that, too; that’s a benefit for us.”
Units that have interest in conducting an A&M flyover should contact their associated ROTC program at A&M, said Lt. Caitlen Dalton ’13, an A&M naval science instructor.
That is, a Navy squadron can contact A&M’s Navy ROTC; an Air Force squadron can contact A&M’s AFROTC; and Navy ROTC heads up the overall program, Dalton said.
“It does not have to be a former TAMU student flying,” Dalton said. “Any military squadron who is interested in helping show the public what military aircraft can do, can volunteer.
“Types of aircraft are usually active aircraft that the military currently uses. There are restrictions on the number of aircraft that can be approved for a single event, but other than that, there are very little restrictions on type of aircraft.”
The 2019 football season saw a wide range, nearly all piloted by Aggies, including a U.S. Navy E-2C Hawkeye, Texas Army National Guard Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters, F-16 fighters from the Air Force Reserve’s 301st Fighter Wing and two A-10 Warthogs from the 104th Fighter Squadron of the Maryland Air National Guard.
Harper said his unit, for one, would come back anytime.
“I know there’s a lot of Aggies in the military, a lot of Aggies in aviation, and everybody’s probably chomping at the bit to get a chance to go fly over the stadium. But you know, we’re just right up the road, too,” he said.
“If you ever need anybody to do it again, just let us know, and if you liked one C-130, we can bring back two, three, four, five, more than that next time!”
The Association of Former Students has a bold vision to engage 100,000 donors annually for Texas A&M by the end of 2020. To learn more, visit tx.ag/100Kby2020. To help us help more Aggies, make a gift at tx.ag/Give.