2020 “Arsenal of Democracy” Flyover
On December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast a radio fireside chat from the White House stating, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice, as we would show were we at war.” On December 7th 1941, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by Japanese naval and air forces. With this unprovoked and dastardly act, a state of war existed between the United States and the empire of Japan. The following day, America was officially at war.
Over the next four years, America’s “Great Arsenal of Democracy‘ would produce over 300,000 aircraft for the Allied war effort. In celebration of the 75th anniversary to the end of World War Two (WWII), a small part of that existing inventory was scheduled to fly in formation over the nation’s capital. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the observance, originally scheduled for May 8, was postponed to Friday September 25, 2020.
The genesis for the Arsenal of Democracy (AoD) recognition dates to 2014 when Missouri congressman Samuel Bruce Graves Jr. and the Commemorative Air Force’s Chief of Staff, Doug Rozendaal bore the idea. An executive planning committee consisting of The General Aviation Manufacturers Association, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Commemorative Air Force (CAF), International Council of Air Shows (ICAS)and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) was formed to organize and carry out the 2015 70th anniversary flyover. That same committee and model was in place for the 75th anniversary.
January 2019, a bi-partisan resolution- “The 75th Anniversary of World War II Commemoration Act” – was passed by congress and signed by the president,creating a law directing the Dept. of Defense to establish a nationwide commemoration recognizing the end of hostilities to WWII. That act provided the AoD planning committee with lawful authority to garner support from the FAA, TSA, FBI, Capitol Police,National Park and Secret Services; all of whom embraced the effort with enthusiastic cooperation. With fourteen months lead-time, AoD’s Air Boss and AOPA vice president, retired U.S.N.Capt. Mike Ginter, along with Air Boss Wayne Boggs, began the process of procuring U.S., Canadian and British vintage warbirds for an aerial parade.
The community of warbird owners and pilots were well known to the air bosses. Drawing on the CAF, air museums and privately owned aircraft from around the country, they were very selective in choosing pilots for their skills and reputations. All had to be FAA formation-certified. Those planes within the FAA’s Experimental Exemption Category had to receive waivers proving their use would be done so safely and in the public’s interest. Limited by space and cost, 103 aircraft were invited to attend. Ultimately, seventy-five of those agreed to take part, some from far away as San Diego, CA. Always a concern with vintage aircraft, just prior, ten canceled due to maintenance issues.
The sixty-five participating aircraft were assembled among two Virginia airports. Four bombers at Manassas, with the remaining sixty-one at Culpeper.The flying program, written by ICAS, called for twenty separate formations of disparate aircraft starting with the Civil Air Patrol and concluding with a Missing-Man tribute, to the playing of “Taps.” These aircraft represented, in chronological order, historically significant WWII battles.
On practice day Thursday, separated by two-minute intervals, the formations took off in orderly waves and proceeded to four hold points around Washington, DC. At those four points- named Eisenhower, LeMay, Nimitz and Doolittle- the aircraft held in layers at various altitudes ranging from 4,000 to 1,000 feet. As the planes were called in to fly over the mall, those at the lowest altitude were first to depart the hold points. The remaining aircraft were then “spun down” in sequence, as if on a spiral staircase, to eventually the lowest altitude, before joining the aerial promenade down the mall. Air Boss Mike Ginter employed this scenario drawn from his flight experience as Operations Officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. The procedure is called “collapsing the stack.”
From time of take-off, the entire flight was under the control of five FAA air traffic controllers utilizing five separate radio frequencies- one for each hold point and one for down the mall. Wayne Boggs, located at the Potomac TRACON and Mike Ginter, in Reagan National control tower, kept in touch with each other as they worked side-by-side with the controllers. While Reagan National was closed for two hours, the larger challenge was keeping the aircraft away from nearby Dulles Airport. The fly-by was to be conducted at an air show aspect, at 1,000 feet, not to exceed 165 knots and be completed within 75-minutes. For security reasons, on Thursday, the aircraft did not depart the hold points to enter the capital region, but instead returned to their respective airports.
Because warbirds, equipped with machine guns and bomb bays, would be flying within blocks of the White House, the Secret Service ran background checks and approvals on all pilots and crew. On Friday, the day of the scheduled flyover, the airport ramps were locked down by the Secret Service. Only pilots and ground personnel were permitted entrance through a TSA-style check point. Before taxiing for take-off, no planes on the ramp moved without instructions from the Ground Marshallers. There were twenty CAF Marshallers on hand safely directing aircraft ground movements. Before becoming a Marshaller, these dedicated volunteers must graduate from a CAF marshalling detachment ground school and be well versed in aircraft mechanics.
On Friday, several planes launched but reported to the air bosses that the weather limits did not meet the required minimum 2,000-foot ceiling and five-mile visibility. Saturday’s conditions proved to be no better. Had the AoD fly-by taken place, the aerial show of force would have been the largest flyover of WWII aircraft since the 2015 70th anniversary. The formations would have flown over the newly dedicated Eisenhower Memorial, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the National World War II Memorial, where an Honor Flight of WWII veterans had gathered. The 75th anniversary of the end of WWII was a historic milestone and may have been the last opportunity for living WWII veterans to personally witness the commemoration. The “Arsenal of Democracy” flyover was eighteen months in planning and cost about a million dollars, all through volunteer donations.
Just as in 2015, the 2020 flyover recognized the significant role air power played in the Allied victory while also acknowledgingand thanking those men and women who selflessly served on the battlefield and labored on the home-front. During WWII, the United States had a moral imperative of coming to the rescue of repressed people and restoring democracy to their countries. Honoring the “Greatest Generation” reminds the younger generation about how America and the world came together to fight tyranny.
And, a special thanks to the warbird community. The China virus prevented them from attending 2020 air shows, offering rides for hire, or opening their facilities and museum to the public. All of which provide much needed revenue to help maintain and keep their historic planes in the air. In this difficult year, it would have been easy for them to beg-off from participating in the AoD. Instead, the pilots and crews embraced the effort with a spirit of patriotism, sacrifice and a strong enthusiastic desire to take part in this historic event honoring WWII veterans. The AoD was the nation’s largest gathering of warbirds in 2020. Currently, there are no plans for any future AoD events.
Note: A very BIG “Thank You” to Mike Ginter for his time and kind considerations. Much appreciated!
Please note, further photo coverage will be posted in our sister publication ClassicWarbirds.net during the next few weeks!