The History of The Missing Man Formation

 

Pilots fly this magnificent and solemn aerial maneuver for presidents, potentates, astronauts, and other pilots of note as a tribute and showing of love, respect, and camaraderie for a brother pilot.

This maneuver is sometimes flown with the wingman spiraling off or it is flown consistently with a hole where another should be.

 

This formation has been rumored to have begun when British fighter pilots over the funeral of Manheim "The Red Baron" von Richthofen as a sign of respect by his fellow aces.  The formation does find its birth in World War I.  

It is British in origin and it was used infrequently and privately during the War.  The first written account of the maneuver shown publicly is by the RAF in 1935 when flying over a review by George V. Prior.

During World War II, it evolved into a ceremonial traditions as part of RAF programs.  The United States first began the tradition in 1938 during the funeral for MG Westover with over 50 aircraft and one blank file.  The Missing Man formation in the United States was still seldomly used until the Second Indochina War, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia when the public at large caught its first glimpse.

The USAF Thunderbirds were the first military aerobatics unit to ever perform the maneuver.  They flew it for the first time to honor the men and women who were then POWs in Vietnam.  Aerial demonstration squadrons have now adopted the formation and perform it during ceremonial events such as National POW-MIA Recognition Day, Memorial Day, during funerals and at interrment of repatriated remains of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.