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The missing man formation is an aerial salute performed as part of a flyover of aircraft at a funeral or memorial event, typically in memory of a fallen pilot. The formation is often called the "missing man flyby" or "flypast".
Several variants of the formation are seen. The formation most commonly used in the United States is based on the “finger-four” aircraft combat formation composed of a pair of two-aircraft elements. The aircraft fly in a V-shape with the flight leader at the point and his wingman on his left. The second element leader and his wingman fly to his right. The formation flies over the ceremony low enough to be clearly seen and the second element leader abruptly pulls up out of the formation while the rest of the formation continues in level flight until all aircraft are out of sight.
In an older variant the formation is flown with the second element leader position conspicuously empty. In another variation, the flight approaches from the south, preferably near sundown, and one of the aircraft will suddenly split off to the west, flying into the sunset.
In all cases, the aircraft performing the pull-up, split off, or missing from the formation, is honoring the person (or persons) who has died, and it represents their departure to the heavens.
In 1936, King George V received the first recorded flypast for a non-RAF funeral. The United States adopted the tradition in 1938 during the funeral for Major General Oscar Westover with over 50 aircraft and one blank file. By the end of World War II, the missing man formation had evolved to include the pull-up. In April 1954, United States Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg was buried at Arlington National Cemetery without the traditional horse-drawn artillery caisson. Instead, Vandenberg was honored by a flyover of jet aircraft with one plane missing from the formation.
The Delaware Air National Guard flew the missing man formation over the Dover International Speedway on June 3 2001 to honor NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr, who had perished in a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 race on February 18.
In December 2004, as a final tribute to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands's former military role in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, three modern F-16 jet fighters and a World War II Spitfire performed a missing man formation during his funeral.
The missing man formation was flown at a family memorial service in Indian Hill, Ohio on 31 August 2012 in honour of former American astronaut, US Navy pilot, and test pilot Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.
The missing man formation is also used in various types of motorsport to commemorate the death of a driver, rider, or official. In case of a rolling start, during the pace laps before the race begins, the driver in the pole position drops back a row into the second row and the field paces with no vehicle in the lead position. Similarly, the pole position on a starting grid can be left empty for a standing start.
In drag racing, the variant of the missing man formation only is put into place if a driver has lost his/her life sometime before the race but after having qualified. Should that happen, the deceased driver's lane remains vacant for what would have been his/her quarterfinal race and the opposing driver, who must cross the finish line without being disqualified in order to proceed, will slowly drive their car (referred to as "idling") down the track as a sign of respect for the fallen opponent (a recent example occurring when Robert Hight did this in honor of Scott Kalitta, who was killed in a qualifying crash in 2008).
The missing man formation is also used for the motorcycle Rolling Honor Guards. A common formation of motorcycles is five in front of the hearse: two motorcycles in tandem (#1 and #2, left and right, from the perspective of the hearse), two motorcycles directly in front of the hearse, in tandem (#5 and #6, left and right, as noted), and a solo rider in the resultant #4 position, and the missing motorcycle (in the #3 position) representing the fallen. This is performed for both the loss of a person who was a member of the motorcycle club/organization, or, may be provided as a sign of respect by groups such as the Patriot Guard Riders.
Several movies and TV series show the missing man formation.
Echoes of Honor, by David Weber, opens with a funeral in which this formation is performed by five Javelin Training Aircraft. The missing man formation has been a standard flyover procedure at the conclusion of the National Anthem at every outdoor Super Bowl since Super Bowl VI. This formation was also used during the pregame ceremonies of Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, in tribute to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium which hosted its final sporting event.