Time on Target: The Sound of Freedom

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Chances are, if you read Battleland, you’ve seen pictures or videos of paratroopers jumping out of the back of an aircraft. But have you ever considered the small miracle it takes to arrive at that particular point in space at that exact planned time? In combat, there is little to no room for error when it comes to making it to a drop-zone, and it takes very skilled training to not only get it right, but to be consistent.

Even in the most realistic training scenario, it’s hard to duplicate the stress of real world combat. It is possible, however, to get close. Try swapping out that austere drop-zone, and replacing it with a stadium filled with tens of thousands of sports fans and television crews. I had the pleasure of training this way two weeks ago over Soldier Field in Chicago Ill. Just like planned, the stars aligned so the jetwash roared over the crowd of excited Bears fans at the completion of the National Anthem — and trust me, if we were off with our timing, someone would have noticed. Check out the video above — my C-17 shows up about a minute into the clip.

As with a real combat scenario, we needed a good plan going into the event, while preparing to adapt and overcome any issues encountered along the way. Something as small as the singer holding a single note for too long could have changed the Time On Target (TOT) and thrown the whole thing off. Thus, proper coordination ahead of time was key between the aircrew and the stadium.

The TOT was decided down to the second, days in advance, and from there the rest of the day was built backwards. Using advanced flight planning software, we built our track for ingress and egress over the stadium, fixed a point in space to orbit away from the field, and filed a flight plan to and from home station.

At first the day of the flyover felt like the start to any other day of flying. The day-of planning was uneventful, the preflight went as advertised, and before I knew it we were in the air and on our way to the Windy City. While the fans were undoubtedly tailgating outside of the stadium, I can guarantee not a single one of them was thinking about the flyover crew as we frantically scribbled numbers on notepads, crunched away at calculators, and programmed excel spreadsheets — all in the name of recalculating and validating that perfect moment.

When we were close enough to make radio contact with our ground controller, we verified to make sure everything was still on schedule, which is was. My crew made our last few speed and timing corrections, and headed toward the stadium. I’ve heard of other flyovers where the pilot’s wife would sing along with the national anthem over the radio, or transmit the raw sound coming from the speaker to enhance the pilot’s situational awareness. In our case, all we could hear was the roar of the crowd, and nothing discernible coming from The Star-Spangled Banner as we passed overhead the stadium.

With the stadium in our jetwash, we began our climb, and pointed the jet to our planned destination airfield nearby, all the while hoping for the best. Over the radio we heard a broken “You guys did great!” from our ground controller, but it was hard to tell exactly how well it went from our perspective. After landing and shutting down, the Chicago Bears had a rental car waiting for us. We arrived at the stadium just at the end of the first half, and the city of Chicago treated us like rock stars. They even let us on to the field to watch the remainder of the game!

After the game we got to the jet, accomplished some more training on our return leg to home station, and finally called it a night. It wasn’t until I was sitting at my computer back at home at around 230am that I was able to see the payoff for the week’s hard work. I hate to brag, but I say we nailed it!