The missing man formation (sometimes instead flyby, flypast, flyover or overflight) is an aerial salute performed as part of a flypast of aircraft at a funeral or memorial event, typically in memory of a fallen pilot, a well-known military service member or veteran, or a well-known political figure.
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 two pairs of aircraft. 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.
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 earlier that year.
On June 9, 2004, during the State Funeral of President Ronald Reagan. As the caisson paused at 4th Street and Constitution Avenue, 21 Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, flew over in missing man formation.
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.
In November 2014 the state memorial service for former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who had served as a navigator in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, concluded with a missing man formation flight conducted by four RAAF F/A-18 Hornet fighters.
On 29 March 2015, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's Black Knights attempted to fly the missing man formation as an aerial salute to long-serving former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during his funeral procession from Parliament House to the University Cultural Centre of the National University of Singapore, but could not, due to rain and low overcast cloud and low visibility; they flew over, above the cloud.
On March 11, 2016, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the Warthog, perform a missing man formation flyover at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The Warthogs flew over the burial service for retired US Air Force Col. Avery Kay, considered the father of the A-10s.
On September 18, 2017, missing man formation was performed by three Sukhoi-30MKI of the Indian Air Force during the funeral ceremony of Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh in New Delhi.
In October 2017, Spanish Air Force performed a missing man formation as a tribute to two pilots who died in separate accidents within a week.
On Friday 22 February 2019, around 8:45 am, a "finger-four" missing man formation was flown over Sheffield, England as part of a flypast of aircraft to honour the 75th anniversary of B-17 "Mi Amigo" crashing after returning from a mission.
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. This was done during the 2001 Dura Lube 400 at Rockingham by Jeff Gordon, in honor of Dale Earnhardt following his death the week before at the Daytona 500. Similarly, the pole position on a starting grid can be left empty for a standing start.
After the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, in the next race in Monaco, the first two grid positions were left empty and painted with the colors of their home countries flags - Brazil and Austria, respectively.
The missing man formation is used by American football teams to commemorate the death of a teammate. This is performed when on the first play in which the fallen player would have appeared the team takes the field with only 10 men, leaving their position in the formation open.
On September 1, 2007 the USC Trojans college football team performed the missing man. After scoring their first touchdown, USC lined up for the PAT without a kicker in tribute to teammate Mario Danelo who died just after the 2006 season.
On September 3, 2016 the Nebraska Cornhuskers college football team lined up in punt formation without a punter on their first fourth down in their game against the Fresno State Bulldogs to honor punter Sam Foltz, who died in a traffic accident on July 23, 2016. Fresno State declined the resulting delay of game penalty.