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Flights of a lifetime

'Surreal' flyover of Washington, DC, honors GA

“No fly zone” are three words pilots heed, so when permission to fly straight through some of the most restricted airspace in the world was granted to a cadre of general aviation pilots, they responded with giddy anticipation.

A 1953 Piper Tri-Pacer piloted by David Tulis, with brother Martin serving as safety pilot, flew with the "Post-War Boom" group, among 54 aircraft representing different chapters of general aviation's story to help celebrate AOPA’s eighty-fifth anniversary in Washington, D.C., on May 11. Photo by David Tulis.

The National Celebration of General Aviation D.C. Flyover on May 11 featured 54 aircraft flying from Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland to Washington, D.C., at 1,000 feet over the National Mall and many of the capital’s most prominent monuments, and within Prohibited Area P-56, created decades prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, to keep aircraft away from the U.S. Capitol.

The aerial parade, each pilot carefully screened and with required waivers in place, was the culmination of months of planning and preparation. AOPA secured support from Congress and permission from 11 government agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, the FAA, and the Transportation Security Administration.

Click on photos in the gallery below to expand and view captions.

Curtis Brown flew the Grumman HU-16 Albatross with copilot Jim Lund. Photo by Jake Teague. Cliff McSpadden fuels his UPF–7 Waco biplane 'Georgia Girl.' Photo by Jake Teague. A Beechcraft Baron running on avgas in one wing and General Aviation Modifications Inc. G100UL in the other added to its dual-fuel hours in the flyover. Photo by Stephen Schroeder. The Douglas DC-3 'Yukon Sourdough' was flown by Malcolm Van Kirk. Photo by Jake Teague. The Titan Aerobatic team presents Washington, D.C., flyover coordinator and AOPA Vice President of Airports and State Advocacy Mike Ginter, right, with an autographed photo during a celebration attended by participating aircraft owners, crew, and passengers the night before the flyover. Photo by David Tulis. Parade aircraft await the event under less favorable weather May 9. Photo by Jake Teague.

“Surreal” is how one pilot described flying over a segment of the nation’s capital that has been closed to GA traffic for decades. To be in a place with an aerial view that few living people have seen was “humbling,” “magical,” and “unbelievable.” according to many of the 54 pilots participating in the flyover. Even the most seasoned and celebrated aviators marveled in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It was so unusual because I’ve spent a lot of time flying in this region in the past 15 years and yet I have never flown in that airspace in that position,” said Dave Hirschman, AOPA Pilot editor at large, who flew a Van’s RV–4 and participated in one of only two formation flights within the flyover, alongside two Van’s RV–8 aircraft. Flying in the restricted airspace was a revelation. “It’s so close but it felt so foreign because it was all so novel,” he said.

The flyover comprised 15 different “chapters” telling the story of GA in the United States, from the Golden Age and GA after World War II to the GA trainer era, vertical flight, backcountry flying, seaplanes, corporate and business aviation, technically advanced aircraft, homebuilt aircraft, airshow performers, and other examples of GA aircraft that support public service missions.

Selected pilots and aircraft began arriving at AOPA headquarters (on the grounds of Frederick Municipal Airport) on May 8, and the variety and scope of the aviation story they would tell was on full display by the time the conga line of aircraft taxied to start the flyover on Saturday morning. A week of tumultuous skies had preceded the event with Friday being the most disastrous as rain soaked participants and their prized aircraft, parked along the AOPA ramp and on the flight line. Prized aircraft such as a Grumman HU-16 Albatross, a Howard DGA, a Spartan Executive, and a Douglas DC–3 shared the line in the rain with Van’s RVs, a Cessna 172, a Game Composites GB1 GameBird, and so many more, all with pilots hoping for clear skies in the morning.

  • AOPA President Mark Baker smiles from the flight deck of his Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing as he receives word that the airspace above Frederick Municipal Airport has been turned over to him to launch and lead the parade to Washington, D.C. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Bruno Brasileiro gets his Grumman AA-5 Cheetah ready for departure. Photo by Jake Teague.
  • AOPA President Mark Baker’s passengers are reflected in the chrome propeller spinner of his Beechcraft Staggerwing. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aircraft representing the Golden Age of aviation take off from Frederick Municipal Airport. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A perfect day in May for a stroll along the National Mall was punctuated by more than a few passing airplanes. Photo by Stephen Schroeder.
  • Wayne Boggs keeps an eye on departures from the tower at Frederick Municipal Airport. Photo by Jake Teague.
  • A crowd gathered at the airport to watch the aircraft, including this Fire Boss, launch for the capital, and return about an hour later. Photo by Jake Teague.
  • Bill Finagin flew his Pitts S2C straight-and-level over the National Mall. Photo by Jake Teague.

AOPA, the vital association representing GA and its pilots, organized the D.C. flyover as part of its eighty-fifth anniversary protecting the freedom to fly. The flyover and other events throughout the week for members and flyover participants were a part of AOPA’s birthday party.

When Saturday dawned to clear skies and subdued breezes, everyone involved in this massive undertaking drew a huge sigh of relief. An early morning briefing was led by Mike Ginter, who was the air boss of the overall operation (and AOPA’s vice president of airports and state advocacy), and veteran airshow air boss Wayne Boggs, who would lead operations in the tower at Frederick Municipal Airport. They set the tone: excited anticipation with a strong emphasis on safety.

“This,” said Ginter, a retired U.S. Navy aviator, “is not the time for original thought. We need every pilot to follow the briefing exactly, unless you declare an emergency.”

He mapped out the precise timing and route, which had been months in the making by AOPA Chief Fight Instructor (and flyover safety officer) Mike Filucci. Each aircraft had a time for takeoff, marked down to the second. Boggs in the Frederick tower would direct the departures, while Ginter whisked off in a Beechcraft Bonanza to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to watch the plan unfold from the control tower there.

“During the briefing I tried to drive simplicity,” Ginter said, noting that each pilot’s primary mission was to maintain the assigned altitude and airspeed and remain calm, knowing they would not be in danger of being intercepted by the military or sanctioned by the FAA for airspace violations that normally would apply in the Flight Restricted Zone.

The line of aircraft was led by AOPA President Mark Baker in his Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing. He led the first of the 15 chapters with the call sign “Golden One.” Boggs told him: “Cleared for takeoff at your assigned time.” Baker lifted off Runway 23 at exactly 11:38 a.m., followed by aircraft representing their chapters in aviation history with call signs such as “Boom,” “Trainer,” “Rotor,” “Bush,” “Built;” “Sport,” “Growth,” “Airshow,” and “Safety.” Aircraft chapters were spaced minutes apart based on their assigned airspeeds.

Earthrounder Adrian Eichhorn in a Beechcraft Bonanza, right, leads the way to the runway at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.
Zoomed image
Earthrounder Adrian Eichhorn in a Beechcraft Bonanza, right, leads the way to the runway at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.
A Titan Aerobatic Team North American T-6 Texan passes the Frederick Municipal Airport tower. Photo by Jake Teague. The Howard DGA-15P passes the Washington Monument, part of the Golden Age chapter leading the flyover. Photo by Chris Rose. The Titan Aerobatic Team provided the finale, tracking down Independence Avenue with smoke on. Photo by Chris Rose. The Titan Aerobatic Team gives the crowd on the National Mall something to look at. Photo by Chris Rose.

The flight took the aircraft south to the Potomac River, turning left toward the U.S. Capitol at the Lincoln Memorial, up Independence Avenue and the National Mall, passing the Washington Monument under the pilots’ left wings, and turning right at another prominent Washington landmark, the Smithsonian Institution's “Castle,” to depart for home.

Baker passed the Washington Monument at a punctual 12:06 p.m. and was back at Frederick by 1 p.m. Reagan National Airport was closed just for one hour and Frederick for two.

When Baker landed, he was ecstatic but clearly exhausted: “It takes a lot of work to keep her at 90 knots,” he said of his Staggerwing. “We fought a lot in the air.” But his grin and thumbs up said it all: Every bit of muscle work was worth the effort.

“Wow. That was amazing. I want to thank the entire group for its commitment and time over the last year and pulling this incredible event together,” Baker said. “People have volunteered their airplanes, their fuel, and their time, so I want to give a big thanks to them. And the agencies—they were so excited about this special day. A lot of people came together and worked hard to make the flyover something special.”

The event was livestreamed on YouTube from video cameras placed atop buildings in downtown D.C. along the route. Commentators Tom Haines and Miles O’Brien kept pace with the incoming aircraft, narrating their background and history. Haines is the former editor in chief of AOPA Media and O’Brien is a noted aviation journalist. Both are avid pilots.

The video was shown live at AOPA’s National Aviation Community Center at Frederick, while thousands more watched on their iPhones and tablets. Frederick residents lined the streets surrounding the airport, enjoying the spectacle from their cars, folding chairs, and blankets. Pilots reported seeing thousands of spectators on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. As of May 14, the video livestream had more than 50,000 views.

“From start to finish, this special event could not have been more amazing,” said Ginter. “I can’t thank enough the countless people who made this day happen—from the team at AOPA to our government partners, sponsors, and all the pilots and aircraft owners who gave of their time and aircraft. And best of all, the weather was as spectacular as the event.”

A view of the Grumman Albatross from the National Mall. Photo by Stephen Schroeder. The Titan Aerobatic Team follows the parade route out of the city. Photo by Chris Rose. The youngest pilot flying in the D.C. Flyover was 17-year-old Madelyn Baltrotsky, a high school senior and multiengine-rated pilot who works at Frederick Flight Center's Advanced Aviation with Tim Larkin (left), picutred with AOPA's Kevin Show. Photo by Erick Webb.
Julie Walker
Julie Summers Walker
AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
Topics: AOPA Events, People

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