The Army-Navy Game in the Sky

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Photography copyrighted by Mike Colaner as labeled, or via U.S. military sources if unmarked.

The Army Navy football game is considered the greatest rivalry in all of collegiate sports. Ask anyone who has ever attended this annual meeting and they will tell you it is so much more on so many other levels before they leave you with either a GO ARMY, BEAT NAVY or a GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY cheer!

The Army Navy Game is competition in it’s purest form. The tradition of the Army Navy Game has gone on for 120 games dating back to November 29, 1890. The Navy currently leads the series with a 61-52-7 record. The esprit de corps of its participants, academy classes, fans and alumni is unequaled anywhere, including the skies above the game.

The first Military flyover of a sporting event dates back to Game One of the 1918 World Series. On September 5th of that year, 60 U.S. Army biplanes flew over Chicago’s Comiskey Park to open the Fall Classic between between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. Yes, I did say the Chicago Cubs in Comiskey Park, the home of the Chicago White Sox. But that is another story for another time.

The game draws many VIP’s including the President of the United States. Tradition is the President meets and sits with both teams during the game. This also brings along Air Force One, and the United States Marine Corps’ HMX-1 helicopters and Ospreys.

Once all of the pregame ground events have been completed its time for the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights and U.S. Navy’s Leap Frogs to conduct their ceremonial jumps into the stadium.

The Golden Knights new C-147A aircraft is utilized by both jump teams for the game.

The Navy Leap Frogs, who do not have a dedicated jump aircraft, utilize the Missouri Air National Guard 139th AW. The Air National Guard have provided a C-130 for transportation of the team across the country to and from the game and as their jump platform on practice day. Both teams showcase various parachuting techniques to enter the stadium trailing flags and colored smoke.

The Leapfrogs always stun the crowd with their unique use of side and down planes. During a side plane maneuver two parachutist are clipped together side by side. The parachutist then transfer to interlocking their legs before turning the parachutes onto their side and executing a rapid descent while intertwined together. They then separate just above the stadium and head for a midfield landing from opposing end zones.

The pregame ceremony is then capped off with the flyovers. The flyovers are precisely timed down to the very second that each of the services football teams are scheduled to break the tunnel and onto the field.

The Navy reserves the honor of the flyover to the selected squadrons pilots who are Naval Academy Graduates.

In the nearly twenty five years that I have been attending the game, I have witnessed the Army, Navy and Marine Corps conduct the flyover in various aircraft to include AH-64’s, F-14’s, F/A-18’s, F-35’s and MV-22’s.

The 99th Army Navy Game is my favorite flyover of all time. The game had a steady rain falling and a low cloud ceiling. As the Navy football team took to the field in a steady rain, nobody expected four Navy F-14 Tomcats in full swept wing configuration with afterburners lit, blasting over the stadium and filling the sky with Grumman Iron.

The flyover is usually limited to just one pass for each service. That was until 2013 when the Navy gave the flyover honor to the Blue Angels. The Blues made multiple pre-game formation and sneak passes over the stadium during a break of a snow storm before hitting the stadium with the football team.

The Army continued that tradition at the 119th Army Navy Game with the Army’s Apaches’s regrouping before making a second surprise pass over ‘The Linc’ in Philadelphia.

The maintenance crews sometime get into the rivalry by decorating their aircraft with either BEAT ARMY or BEAT NAVY depending on their service.

For the 118th Army Navy Game VF-103, ‘The Jolly Rogers’ had put their Commander Air Group (CAG) bird in the paint booth for a new paint job celebrating the squadrons past 75 years. It emerged the morning of the flight to Philadelphia for the game.

The game is traditionally played in December each year in the northeast since it was decided long ago to play the game at a neutral site between both Academies. Unfortunately, December weather in the northeast isn’t always ideal conditions for parachute jumps and flyovers. This years parachute jump and flyovers were scrubbed with just two minutes remaining prior to time on target for each mission due to weather. However, that did not deter the Army’s 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. They waited for a window in the weather and launched at halftime to conduct their flyover of five Apaches at the start of the second half of the game.

For the 118th Army Navy Game, snow moved in on game day. The Navy’s adhoc squadron consisting of VFA-37 ‘Ragin Bulls’, VFA-87 ‘Golden Warriors’, VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’ and VFA-213 ‘Blacklions’ scrubbed their mission as deicing would be a costly and time consuming operation that wouldn’t likely result in a launch.

The Army’s 10th Combat Aviation Brigade had a different idea. They manned their AH-64 Apaches and started their engines. The Army decided to conducted a hover test at 500 feet to see if they could be seen from the ground. They decided to standby in the six aircraft in case a window in the weather opened up for a chance at the flyby, but it did not.

I was to accompany the jump teams on the Golden Knights aircraft but their launch was scrubbed as well.

For the 119th Army Navy Game the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade returned with their Apaches. The Navy decided the F/A-18C Legacy Hornet would have the honor of performing the flyover for one last time. The honor went to VFA 34 ‘The Blue Blasters’.

The forecast of inclement weather does not mean the teams don’t meet, brief and prepare for their missions. At the morning briefing all aspects of the flyovers are discussed. From divert locations, aircraft assembly points, formation type, heading, altitudes and speeds are all established. This information is shared with the Philadelphia International Airport tower who controls the airspace around the stadium in Philadelphia.

At the 119th Army Navy Game, VFA-34 utilized a route of twenty nautical miles at an altitude of 2,000 feet, for a time of 3 + 20 (3 minutes plus 20 seconds) at 300 knots (345 MPH). The final push saw the ‘Blue Blasters’ drop to flight level 1,100 feet, extend their tail hooks and accelerate to 350 knots (402 MPH) for their flyover.

The departure route, obstacles and return to the airport are also meticulously planned. Nothing is left to chance. Every scenario from aircraft not starting up to aircraft dropping out of formation is discussed.

There was once a pause of five years of playing the Army Navy game after the 1893 game. Legend has it that an Army General and a Navy Admiral almost had a dual after the game. Today the loss is no less painful nor the win no more fulfilling. After the outcome has been decided these two rivals play out one final tradition, the singing the Military Academy’s Alma Matres. This is where the saying ’Singing Second’ matters.

‘Singing second’ is a term that both Academy’s firmly believe in. Following each game, the winning team joins the losing team and first sings the losing team’s Alma Mater to its Academy classes. Then the losing team joins the victors on their side of the field and sings their Alma Mater to its Academy classes. This act is a show of mutual respect and solidarity. They start the competition as bitter rivals and leave as brothers in arms.

As the 120th Army Navy Game comes to a close Army won the flyover but Navy won the game, sang second and closed this chapter with BEAT ARMY!

A special thank you to Atlantic Aviation, the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, the U.S. Navy’s Leap Frogs, VFA-34, VFA-37, VFA-87, VFA-103, VFA-213 and the U.S. Marine Corps HMX-1 for their hospitality and access to their flight line, aircraft, pilots and crews.

The photos are a culmination of the last five years of the Army Navy Game that I have taken along with those used by permission of the US Navy.

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Mike Colaner

Mike Colaner is a native of Central New Jersey and still resides there today with his family. I always had a fascination with aviation with both NAS Lakehurst and McGuire Air Force Base nearby to my boyhood home. Upon graduating High School, I went to work for Piasecki Aircraft Corporation at NAEC Lakehurst. I worked in the engineering department on the PA-97 Helistat project as a draftsman. I soon enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served four years active duty with both the 2nd Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. After completing my enlistment, I went to college and became a New Jersey State Trooper. I recently retired after serving 25 years and I am looking for my next adventure. I am very glad that I have been able to join this team and to share my passion with all of you.

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