flyover

On a mission: F-16 Falcons, in formation. The supersonic jets do a pass over downtown Telluride each year during the Fourth of July Parade. (Photo courtesy of Frank Crebas)

For many, the highlight of Telluride’s Fourth of July isn’t the parade, the volunteer firemen’s barbecue or even the fireworks.

Instead, it’s a heart-stopping event that seemingly comes out of nowhere, lasts just moments and leaves an indelible impression.

“It” is the annual military flyover conducted by F-16 Falcons, supersonic jets captained by pilots from the 120th Fighter Squadron wing of the Colorado Air National Guard. Before you can hear them, you see them. Suddenly there they are, shrieking over the box canyon.

The planes are overhead for mere seconds, but their reverberative power lasts.

“Regardless of your political affiliation, and whatever you think about what’s been done or isn’t being done in Washington, these flyovers are emotional, and they make you proud,” Telluride Tourism Board President Michael Martelon said. “IMAX movies don’t touch this. The sound shakes your soul. The planes are so close, you can almost see the buildings quaking.”

The squadron, which is known as the Redeyes, has served the U.S. since 1923, according to an article in the Sky Hi Daily News, its pilots having flown “the P-51 Mustang, F-80 Shooting Star, F-86 Sabre, F-100 Super Sabre, A-7 Corsair,” and lately, the single-seat, single-engine Falcon.

Maj. Kinder L. Blacke, USAF, the 140th Wing Executive Officer, said the Falcons are 1,000 feet above ground, hurtling along at 287 mph (250 knots, in pilots’ parlance) when they make their pass over spectators. The jets’ trajectory does “seem a little more aggressive than you might usually see,” she allowed. And it involves a lot of strategizing: “The pilots have to maintain minimal altitudes, and keep their distances from each other and the ground. There’s a lot of precision involved.”

Indeed, because these flights involve “coordinating with people on the ground and precise timing and whatnot, we call it a training mission.”

In the box canyon, ground coordination took place the day in advance of the event, with crew at the Telluride Regional Airport. “They called us on the radio and let us know they had a request for a Fourth of July flyover” — which Telluride makes every year  — “and would be in our airspace,” said airport manager Kenny Maenpa. The morning of, according to Maenpa, the pilots “probably called again before they took off” — from Buckley AFB, in Aurora — “asking if there was anything they should be aware of. They gave us an approximate time range that they’d be flying through.” Despite the overwhelmingly loud and powerful impression the jets made, “This was not a screaming flyby with your hair on fire,” as Maena put it. “The whole thing went off really smoothly.”

Not everyone who requests an appearance by the Falcons on the Fourth gets their wish granted. “We determine approval based on the number of attendees at each event, in order to justify the amount of tax dollars being spent,” Maj. Blacke explained (during a budget sequester in 2013, the jets were grounded entirely). “Generally, the events we support know that we’ll be flying by between 9 a.m. and noon,” she added (an event that requested a flyover around 7 p.m. this year was out of luck).

“On the day of the event, the lead pilot will take a look at both the weather,” which must be good or flyovers will be cancelled, “and where we can logistically get to where we’re going on one tank of gas.”

This year, the Falcons’ booming trajectory took them over a total of six Fourth of July gatherings, including the Columbine Valley Fourth of July Festival (on the Front Range) and parades in Granby, Redstone, Monument and Telluride. The jets overflew two events in the San Juans. In addition to downtown Telluride, the Falcons screamed over the “Fourth of July Celebration of America’s Birthday” at Silverton Park, in Silverton.

The whole thing — “the entire mission,” as Maj. Blacke put it — was over in about an hour and a half. Before parade goers in Telluride were queuing up for their slow-cooked pork in Town Park, in other words, the Falcons’ commandeers were likely back in Aurora in time for lunch with their families. They were the lucky ones: Most members of the Colorado National Guard are currently deployed in Afghanistan. “More than 300 members of our unit are over there right now,” Maj. Blacke said.