If weather allows, Langley jet will grace Trump inauguration

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

Lt. Col. John Echols of Langley Air Force Base hopes to lead a four-jet flyover at the presidential inauguration Friday.

Only Mother Nature can trump him.

Gloomy skies and rain are forecast for Washington, D.C., Friday, so the fate of the flyover is up in the air. But Echols and his fellow pilots had to be ready and rehearsed the flyover Thursday in the skies over Langley.

It gave Hampton residents a show that the president-elect might not see.

According to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, each branch of the military will perform a flyover as its respective units appear in the parade.

Echols commands the 94th Fighter Squadron, part of the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley. The squadron was picked because of its proximity to the nation's capital, but the choice also has historic significance.

The 94th traces its lineage to World War I, and its roster included the famous ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Its distinctive logo includes an upside-down Uncle Sam's hat, earning it the nickname "The Hat in the Ring Gang."

Echols, who was unavailable for an interview but answered questions in writing, said he plans to lead the four-aircraft formation in his F-22 Raptor. Joining him will be the F-35, the newest addition to the fleet, along with the older but battle-tested F-15E and F-16.

The F-15E is from Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina. The F-16 comes from Shaw AFB in South Carolina, while the F-35 has flown in from Eglin AFB in Florida.

Echols said the mixed formation "truly represents how we fight" because the strengths of each aircraft complement one another.

There are no special challenges to flying in close formation because all pilots learn this in their initial flight training, he said.

"For example, our squadron recently returned from flying combat operations in the Middle East, where it was not uncommon to rejoin in close formation on an aerial refueling tanker along with other coalition fighters," he wrote.

But this will be the nation's capital, not the Middle East.

"You don't go flying over D.C. all the time," Echols said. "There are security protocols we will adhere to and will be flying a very specific route, requiring precise location and timing."

He approached Thursday's rehearsal as he would any combat mission.

"It's much like any combat training sortie," he said. "We are presented with a scenario, we plan against that scenario, brief the plan, then go out and execute. Then we come back and debrief everything: our plan, how we executed, everything. That's how we get better and that's how we'll prepare for Friday."

Is he nervous?

"I don't think nervous is the right word," he replied. "I'd say focused is a better characterization. Our team is well-trained and very focused on accomplishing any mission we are given, whether this is in combat, training or a high-visibility flyby."

Iffy outlook

The weather is the wild card in this scenario. As of Thursday, prospects for a Friday flyover were iffy. But Donald Trump wouldn't be the first new president to have it rain on his parade.

Mother Nature has whipped up some doozies for presidential inaugurals, according to National Weather Service, which has a page dedicated to inaugural weather.

The most tragic story came in 1841,when President William Henry Harrison took the oath on a cold, blustery day. Already suffering from a cold, he gave a one hour, 40 minute speech and rode a horse to and from the Capitol with no hat or coat.

Harrison developed pneumonia and died one month later.

His inaugural occurred in March. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, set the start-end date for presidential and vice presidential terms at Jan. 20, moving it up from March 4.

The first January inaugural was held in 1937 with Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a total washout, with sleet followed by rain. After taking the oath, Roosevelt rode back to the White House in an open car with half an inch of water on the floor. Total rainfall on that day was 1.77 inches — still a record, the NWS says.

President John F. Kennedy's inaugural gets the nod for causing the worst traffic jam, at least by 1961 standards. Eight inches of snow fell before the ceremony, and thousands of cars were simply abandoned. Kennedy got through the day on four hours of sleep.

President Ronald Reagan earns the distinction for both the warmest and coldest January inaugurals. It was a balmy 55 degrees for his first swearing-in in 1981. Four years later, wind chills in the -10 to -20 degree range forced the ceremony indoors, and the parade was canceled.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
72°