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From the sky to the stadium, Major Hafdahl uses military precision

September 10, 2016 - A general view of the flyover prior to the women's singles final match between Karolina Pliskova and Angelique Kerber during the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY.

When U.S. Air Force Major Phil Hafdahl last saw Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was from the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle 500 feet in the air.

On Sunday, Major Hafdahl will have his feet firmly on the ground, ensuring that his colleagues in the sky complete their ceremonial fly-over with military precision.

Major Hafdahl of the 334th Fighter Squadron, based out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, will serve as the ground liaison for the flight, which will take place immediately prior to the men’s final.

Four fighter jets will pass over Arthur Ashe Stadium in fingertip formation at the end of the singing of “America the Beautiful.” A fifth jet will follow alongside the formation providing video footage and photography.

What makes the flyover special is the exact timing of the pass. The Strike Eagles will take off from Newark Airport in New Jersey and stay in a holding pattern over Long Island waiting for their cue.

When ESPN begins its live coverage, the F-15s begin their approach toward Flushing, traveling at a speed no faster than 300 mph. Air traffic into and out of LaGuardia and JFK airports is temporarily suspended while the jets complete their maneuver.

At 4:02 p.m. there will be a color guard presented by the United States Marine Corps, Sixth Communications Battalion, from Brooklyn, N.Y. Exactly one minute later, the in-studio ESPN crew throws the coverage down to the on-court presenter and, 30 seconds after that, there will be a moment of silence.

At 4:03:30 p.m. Tony Award nominee and star of the film Straight Outta Compton Corey Hawkins begins his performance of “America the Beautiful,” as Cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point unfurl the American flag across the court.

Hawkins' performance is timed to take two minutes, 16 seconds.

Since it takes the jets about five minutes to go from their holding pattern to above Arthur Ashe Stadium, they will start their journey before Hawkins begins his performance. Major Hafdahl will be providing the planes with real-time feedback from the roof of the stadium, instructing them to speed up or slow down depending on their location and the speed of the song. If Hawkins does not hold a note for as long as he did in his sound check and rehearsal, for example, the song could be over before the jets pass, so Major Hafdahl and Major Lance George will be in constant contact with his team.

If everything goes according to schedule, the jets will fly over the stadium at 4:06:17 p.m., three seconds before the song ends and as Hawkins is blasting out the final line, “from sea to shining sea.”

The eight pilots and weapons systems officers taking part in the flyover are Lieutenant Colonel Levi Hall, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Watson, Major Wade Maulsby, Major Don Martin, Major Rocco Botticelli, Captain Andy Lawler, Captain Jonathan Martin, Captain Meghan Booze. Major Taylor Wight will be flying a fifth plane carrying an Air Force cameraman.

Major Hafdahl was commissioned from the Air Force Academy in 2003 and went to Pensacola, Fla., for combined navigator training with servicemen from the Navy. He was selected to fly the F-15 and was initially stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho.

He later taught basic F-15 operations and returned to Pensacola to teach other fighter jet students before being transfered to North Carolina.

He deployed to Afghanistan twice, in 2007 and 2008, providing combat air support for troops on the ground, and he is expected to deploy to the Middle East in the coming months.

What makes Sunday’s opportunity special for Major Hafdahl is that he comes from a tennis family. Last year, he played in a men’s 3.0 USTA League in Escambia County in Florida while his wife Tricia was on a women’s 4.0 team in Altamonte Springs. Both teams won their regional tournament and advanced to the USTA League sectionals, held in Daytona Beach on the same weekend. Now they are introducing the sport to their three children, Colin, 13; Abby, 11, and Chloe, 9, and hope to inspire the next generation of young champions. 

For Major Hafdhal, the 2017 US Open marks the second time in six years that he is involved in the ceremony.

In 2012, he flew the lead F-15E Strike Eagle and described flying over lower Manhattan as one of his favorite memories of piloting the jet.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Major Hafdhal said. “It was the year after the memorial had opened and One World Trade was still under construction. It’s a pretty amazing experience to get to see the whole skyline form the sky and to look down into the memorial and over the Statue of Liberty as we flew over it. There are so few people that get to experience that. It’s one of the highlights of my time in the service. It’s an honor to be here.”