A Golden Flyover
February 19, 2008 | 7:45 P.M. EST
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - History was made over the weekend at Daytona International Speedway both on the ground and in the air.
Prior to the sold-out crowd watching Ryan Newman take the checkered flag in the 50th running of the Daytona 500, the audience had their eyes glued to the skies just before the green flag dropped.
The world-renowned U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds also made history at DIS as the demonstration squadron performed the flyover for the first time to start the "Great American Race."
"This was our first event of 2008 and we were extremely excited to be in Daytona to show our pride and our professionalism and precision we can do to get the race kicked off right," said Kirby Ensser, who piloted the No. 3 right wing F-16.
Following singer Trisha Yearwood's rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner the six F-16's flew over DIS in the delta formation doing nearly 400 mph, each trailing a plume of smoke.
"There's a lot of radio communication going on, there's a lot of adjustments with air speeds and timing," said Lt. Col. Rob Skelton, Operations Officer, about the flyover. "We do our best to literally make the TOT (Time over target) within just a couple of seconds so it gives the effect that we want to do. Part of our jobs as the Thunderbirds is to help inspire people, and that is exactly what a fly-over at the National Anthem does."
Along with NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway, the Thunderbirds are also celebrating an anniversary.
"It's a true honor to be part of the 50th anniversary," said Major Scott Poteet, who flies the No. 4 jet as slot pilot in the diamond formation. "It's our 55th year so we are all kind of sharing an anniversary as such. There's a lot of hype involved and it's an excellent opportunity to come down here and show everyone what the Air Force is about and interact with the NASCAR environment."
Last week some of the jets arrived early to give ride-alongs, with the remaining jets arriving on Friday afternoon at the Daytona Beach International Airport.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jamie McMurray and FOX commentator Jeff Hammond were some of the lucky ones that had the chance to fly in the F-16.
"Hammond and McMurray were very excited about what we were doing," said Major Tony Mulhare, advance pilot and narrator. "They both wanted us to do more maneuvers. They did well throughout the maneuvers. They got to experience 9 Gs, nine times the force of gravity. Your body is not designed to pull that many Gs and go that fast when we turn a roll. Neither of them got sick."
Last year, Kyle Busch flew with the Thunderbirds, which are based in his hometown of Las Vegas at Nellis Air Force Base.
At the time he was driving the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports and the pit crew team wore the Thunderbirds upside down No. 5 sticker on their pit crew helmets for the rest of the year following the flight. The number on the jet, piloted by Major Samantha Weeks, is upside down because the plane spends a majority of its time inverted in air shows.
At 850 horsepower per Sprint Series car, the entire Daytona 500 field didn't match up to the power of one F-16.
"In full afterburner, the F-16 is capable of 29,000 pounds of thrust," said Skelton. "While there is no translation from pounds of thrust to horsepower, our informal calculations are about 55-60,000 horsepower."
The entire Thunderbirds team consists of over 130 personnel, but the officers each carry a number just like the drivers in the Cup Series.
"The number means a lot to us," said Poteet. "It's the position we fly. So amongst our selves there's a lot of rivalry. We had the opportunity to fly over the Las Vegas race last year and had the opportunity to go down in the pits. I saw the No. 4 car (Ward Burton) and of course I had to take my picture next to it."
Captain Elizabeth Kreft, the public affairs officer, shares the same number with race winner Newman - No. 12.