What's the "missing man" formation?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 14 2005 4:17 PM

What's the "Missing Man" Formation?

Your basic fingertip strong right, with a twist.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story hereThe Explainer now has its own free daily podcast; click here to learn more.

An expensive memorial. Click image to expand.
An expensive memorial

On Wednesday, veterans commemorated the attack on Pearl Harbor with a ceremony that included a 21-gun salute. Around the time of day when the attack occurred 64 years ago, a group of fighter jets flew by in the "missing man" formation. (Earlier in the week, a fleet of helicopters performed a similar tribute over a New York City memorial for a murdered policeman.) What's the missing man formation?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

A classic aircraft maneuver used to honor the dead or missing. The simplest type of missing man formation consists of four aircraft that begin in what's known as the "fingertip strong right" formation. That means they're in the shape of a V, with the right arm—from the pilots' perspective—longer than the left. Think of the relative positions of your fingertips when you look at the back of your right hand; the leader (or middle finger) has two planes (the ring finger and pinkie) trailing off his right wing and one (the pointer) off his left. As the V passes overhead, the plane in the ring-finger position peels away into the sunset, sometimes trailing a cloud of smoke.

Advertisement

The missing man formation can also be performed with three planes, with the ring-finger position left vacant. Or it can include far more than four planes. Fifty fighters in three formations flew over the memorial for JFK—the last group had one spot missing.

As a general rule, only pilots or military personnel get the missing man tribute. The Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, for example, merited high-profile missing man formations. In some cases, the formation flies over civilian funerals as well. The Texas A&M football fans who died constructing a bonfire in 1999 received the posthumous honor before an Aggies game. (Former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry also got the missing man formation; he'd been a pilot in World War II.) Anyone can order up a missing man tribute if they're willing to lay out some cash. It will cost you anywhere from a few hundred bucks to more than 10,000, depending on the type of planes used and the distance they have to travel.

Other classic formations include the "echelon," in which all the planes are arranged in a diagonal line—like a V with only one arm. There's also the self-explanatory "diamond." Starting in World War I, military fighters began using formations to stay together in low-visibility conditions and as a means to provide combat support. Over the years, tight formations were also used to escape radar detection. Air Force pilots still use the fingertip and echelon formations during some missions; only stunt pilots use the diamond (or the double-diamond).

Flying in close formation can be very difficult. Formation pilots say it takes 50 hours of practice to become a competent wingman and another few years of practice to become a leader. In general, pilots have a tough time staying in a tight fingertip for more than 15 minutes at a time. They can maintain a "route formation," in which each plane has substantially more room, for hours.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mike Stewart of Team RV.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.