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Two F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets set to soar over Bigfork's Homecoming celebrations

Daily Inter Lake | October 6, 2022 12:00 AM

Bigfork High School will receive a rare honor as students there celebrate Homecoming on Friday with a flyover by two F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

While not uncommon at large sporting events, Pentagon officials have confirmed to the school this is the first sanctioned flyover of a K-12 high school event in more than a decade.

“It’s probably easier buying a house than it is to arrange a military flyover in the Flathead Valley,” organizer and Bigfork business owner Ryan Nelson said.

Flyovers have their origin in World War I, when the first combat aviators passed over battlefields after an engagement to let those on the ground count planes to learn if their mission was successful or if friendly aviators were lost. Today, the tradition of the military flyover has become a symbol of patriotism and power appropriate for events from football games to funerals.

The first U.S. military flyover of a public sporting event occurred at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on Sept. 5, 1918 when the 19,000 spectators gathered for the first game of the World Series between the Cubs and Red Sox were treated to a procession of more than 60 aircraft followed by a shutout pitching performance by Boston’s Babe Ruth.

The Bigfork flyover is the culmination of four years of effort, according to Nelson.

After three years of unfulfilled requests to the National Guard, Nelson was informed of the stringent military application process to procure flyovers and set out on a quest to secure one for Bigfork’s 2022 Homecoming festivities.

“Bigfork is a great community with a great school and we want to support them in any way we can,” he said. “We thought this would be a great shot in the arm for our teams and for the school during Homecoming.”

After getting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Pentagon, Nelson still had to find a military branch and base willing to take on the mission. He got lucky when his first choice agreed to participate — Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.

At 12:15 p.m. Friday afternoon, the pair of F-15s will pass over the Bigfork football field, one crewed by pilot Capt. Dan Dahlby and Weapons System Officer (WSO) Capt. Brian Mallery, both Montana natives, and the other by pilot Capt. Nick Herfol and WSO Capt. Jared Nash.

According to Dahlby, the pilots plan to approach the football field from the north and will pass over the center of the field fly between 360 and 420 knots (414 to 483 miles per hour) at an altitude of 1,000 feet with full afterburners before hugging the east side of Flathead Lake on their way back to Idaho.

The pilots also plan to communicate with the students by linking their radios with the football field’s public address system.

“When the Air Force sees the opportunity to share some morale and provide some enthusiasm to high schools, colleges or the public at large, we really like to jump on that opportunity. It’s also important for us to show young people that we exist and that this is an awesome job,” Dahlby said. “We enjoy giving back to the community and it is also a lot of fun. We will be going as fast and as loud as possible. It should be great.”

For Bigfork High School Athletic Director Matt Porrovecchio, the flyover is an amazing opportunity he believes comes maybe once in a lifetime.

“It really speaks to the community support we have here with Ryan (Nelson) putting the amount of time in it takes to get something like this done. I’m amazed he was able to pull something like this off. All the credit in the world to him,” Porrovecchio said. “I can’t wrap my head around how lucky we are and blessed to be the first K-12 flyover in a decade — here in Bigfork, Montana. It’s amazing that we have been gifted with something like this. Think about it. Who doesn’t want a flyover for their event? All the requests they must get and we get to have one in our little town.”

Reporter Jeremy Weber can be reached at jweber@dailyinterlake.com.