As Gladys Knight finishes singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will roar over the stadium. About a hundred million people will be watching on TV and in the stands for a tradition at 51 of the last 52 Super Bowl games.
The Thunderbirds are a high-speed, death-defying squadron of fighter pilots steering F-16 jets through awe-inducing maneuvers. Often mere feet from one another, they wow crowds at air shows and sporting events around the world, reports "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Dana Jacobson.
"Definitely a little bit more excitement. Could be our biggest event of the year," said Lt. Col. Eric Gorney. Also known as Thunderbird 7, he's the operations officer charged with planning the weekend's flyover.
"The trickiest part is getting the timing just right," Gorney said. "The first thing to remember is we're going 400 mph. So we can't just stop and hover… And the other tricky thing is that we have committed to the flyover. We have started flying in about a minute prior to the national anthem even starting."
In addition to training in the skies above Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the pilots work in simulators – their screens filled with the Atlanta cityscape. But nothing beats the real thing. During a practice flyover soaring above Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we got to go along for the ride of a lifetime.
Of course, none of the practice matters if the TV cameras miss the money shot.
"I just hope they've got their timings right and it happens when it's supposed to happen," veteran football director Mike Arnold said. "Thank God it's a military plane. They're normally on time and they're normally spot on."
Arnold has directed hundreds of football games for CBS Sports. Sunday he'll direct his fifth Super Bowl.
"I mean that flyover happens in about two seconds so you better be on it because… they're not going to circle around the stadium and do it again for you," Arnold said.
"Is that more stressful for you, Mike, than actually doing the game?" Jacobson asked.
"Yeah, I've got a lot of experience covering football games. I've got less experience covering flyovers, so it is a little more stressful, believe it or not," Arnold said.
Adding to the uncertainty: the weather, which will dictate whether the stadium will have its iconic roof open or shut – and if the flyover can be captured from inside the stadium as the fans will see it. It's a lot to coordinate, requiring each person to focus on his or her role.
"So we'll have me as Thunderbird 7 in the control room. We'll have Thunderbird 8 up on top of the stadium with a radio talking to the pilots. And so I'll be there with a computer, a little spread sheet, hacking the clock at the end of each line of the national anthem to make sure we're on time," Gorney said. On time for when Knight sings those famous last words of the national anthem.
"It's 'land of the free, home of the brave,'" Arnold said. "So when those words come I'm probably going to be looking up to the sky, looking for those planes."
"It's all down to the timing, the director's worried about the timing. He's reliant on you. Who are you reliant on?" Jacobson asked Gorney.
"I'm reliant on Gladys Knight to execute on script on time," Gorney responded. "Hopefully we can sit down and have lunch. Maybe I can talk to her about how important that is."
"I say I'm gonna do it and you guys will know exactly when I'm gonna do this line right here," Knight said, laughing.
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