By Brandon OConnorDecember 11, 2019
Before toe meets leather and the Army-Navy Game starts Saturday, fans in Lincoln Financial Field with be treated to an aerial spectacle from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Six AH-64 Apache helicopters from the brigade will perform the Army flyover that annually takes place before the game. After being tasked with the flyover a few months ago, the brigade immediately set out to find a way to make the flyover special and unique, which led them to pack as many U.S. Military Academy ties into the six cockpits as possible.
During the flyover, 10 of the 12 pilots will be West Point grads. The pilots will include a former Army football player, the sister of a current cadet who is a taking part in the marathon team's ball run, a member of a Gold Star family and leading the formation in the Gun One position will be the 2013 and 2019 recipients of the West Point Association of Graduates Nininger Award.
"There's no doubt that it's a bucket list item," said Maj. Anthony Fuscellaro, USMA Class of 2005, the 2013 Nininger Award recipient and current aviation brigade executive officer. "Especially for me, I'm from Philadelphia. I've gone to all the Army-Navy games as a cadet obviously, but a lot of Army-Navy games since I've been an Old Grad. I've always enjoyed the atmosphere. The flyover from the Army perspective is a huge motivator. It brings a lot of enthusiasm for the cadets and for the football team."
Capt. Lindsay Gordon Heisler, USMA Class of 2012, a company commander in the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, received the Nininger Award in October and will join Fuscellaro in the cockpit of the lead helicopter.
"I'm really excited, I think being Gun One, it'll be really cool to see the stadium," Gordon Heisler said. "The aircraft behind us, they're going to be so focused on what we're doing. I think we're going to be able to enjoy the flyover a little more because we can look out in front of us and see the stadium and watch the football team run out to the field."
Once the pilots were chosen, the six helicopter crews began practicing their formation and timing for the flyover. Four of the helicopters will form a diamond pattern in the air and the other two will flank the left and right corners creating a pyramid shape for those watching from the ground.
The helicopters will only be one rotor disk or roughly 40 feet from each other throughout the flyover, making it a high-risk maneuver Fuscellaro said. To make sure they have the spacing right and can time the flyover correctly, the crews have done at least 15 practice flyovers in the weeks leading up to the game at a local high school football stadium.
They will then take more practice runs once they arrive in Philadelphia for the game.
"As we go inbound over the stadium, you're dealing with not only the airspace of Philly International, which is a somewhat complicated area, but more so you're dealing with the environmental factors as you head over Interstate 95 and toward Lincoln Financial Field," Fuscellaro said. "We will be pulling the wind off the highway and will be low enough that we will actually feel that."
The Apache helicopters will be the second flyover of the game as Navy planes will also conduct a pregame flyover, but the rivalry on the field extends to the air as Fuscellaro said, he has, "no interest in a Navy flyover whatsoever."
Fuscellaro entered West Point as a plebe in 2001 and was able to celebrate a win over Navy with his classmates during his first Army-Navy Game experience as a cadet. They rushed the field and celebrated, not knowing it would be the last one Army would win for more than a decade.
"I was so happy at the end of the game and kind of the experience of the weekend in general," Fuscellaro said. "Then ironically, that was the last win I saw in my career until I was a major. I never would have predicted that had I thought about it as a plebe."
Gordon Heisler didn't get a chance to see Army win during her cadet career, but she had her own field rushing experience in 2016 when she attended the game with family and friends and saw Army snap the 14-game losing streak.
Now, as they flyover before the game Fuscellaro and Gordon Heisler say they hope they can help motivate the football team as the Black Knights look to secure their fourth straight win over the Midshipmen, while also inspiring current cadets to pursue a career in aviation upon graduation.
"We're trying to inspire cadets who are standing there in that stadium to think, 'Hey, that could be me someday,'" Fuscellaro said. "You know, to have a female cow (junior) look up and say, 'That's Capt. Lindsay Heisler. She was the Nininger winner. She's flying over the Army-Navy Game and I could be her in a few years.' That is an awesome thing to be a part of."