Remember The Fallen With This Chilling “Grumman Cats” Missing Man Formation

On this Memorial Day, we give thanks to all who have served and sacrificed, and especially those brave Americans who gave their life in defense of our nation. Although we debate the defense issues of the day here on The War Zone, one thing that is undebatable is the fact that freedom isn’t free, it has been paid for in lives cut short, dreams unrealized and incredible valor by far better people than I. 

We also cannot forget our greatest allies, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with our forces to confront evil. Just like our heroes, many of their country’s finest were sent on missions for which they wouldn’t likely return. In an a new age that seems to be marked by decreasing international unity and wavering appreciation for alliances, it is worth remembering America’s best friends on the battlefield as well. 

One way our air arms honor those who have passed is by performing the missing man formation. A fingertip arrangement that sees the third aircraft pull-up into a steep climb, ascending to the heavens while leaving a solemn empty spot in the formation from which they departed. It is an incredibly moving sight, and some have done it better than others. 

One of these displays in particular was especially unique and downright fantastic. In 1996, at the NAS Oceana Air Show, legendary high-time Tomcat pilot Dale “Snort” Snodgrass flew the missing man in a Tomcat alongside three other legendary “Grumman Cats.” All piston powered aircraft, these included F8F Bearcat, F6F Hellcat, F7F Tigercat. Not only does Snort stay in position with the comparatively slow-flying WWII fighters, but he does so with the Tomcat’s wings swept fully back. The climb out is just chilling.

Here’s another clip of the formation a 2:21, but you may want to watch the whole thing because it has Snodgrass’s whole two aircraft routine with the Tomcat and the Tigercat, it is truly an amazing thing to behold:

The missing man formation aerial salute dates back to the 1930s, with its origins emanating from Britain, and there have been a few variations over the decades, but the “finger four” formation, with a division of aircraft and the number three pilot pulling up into a steep climb over the target has become pretty much standard by now. 

Dedicated funeral and memorial flyovers, which often include missing man formations, are especially important within the culture of military aviation and among aircrews who are tasked to fly them. There is a special connection that exists and a drive by military aviators to honor their fellow warriors. I have personally seen aircrews go to great lengths to execute these flyovers even in the most abhorrent of conditions—a testament to the esprit de corps of America’s flying forces. 

Although fast jets certainly give one heck of a performance, other aircraft, including helicopters, execute missing man formations as well. And one place where the missing man formation occurs periodically is over Arlington National Cemetery

The peace on this hallowed ground is interrupted from time-to-time with the thunder of roaring jets overhead—a thunderous cry stating one more of America’s cherished warriors is on their way to the heavens.  

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Tyler Rogoway Avatar

Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.