Meet The Air Force Pilots Behind The Flyover At NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 In Charlotte
A flyover by the U.S. Air Force at the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday – Charlotte’s biggest NASCAR race of the year – presents a rare chance to meet the pilots.
At the race on Memorial Day weekend, they are eight pilots from NATO countries.
All eight are T-38 Talon jet instructors for the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program at Sheppard Air Force Base, near Wichita Falls, Texas. They include a German, a Brit, and six Americans, one of whom is from South Carolina.
“We’re mainly here to show our appreciation and respect for the fallen that have died, for Memorial Day weekend, saying thanks to the local community here and supporting the NASCAR race, as well,” said Maj. Joseph “Bird” Songer.
Songer is returning to the Carolinas for the first time in more than a decade after growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, and graduating from Clemson University in 2011. He has served in the Air Force for 10 years and taught as an instructor at Sheppard for four years.
“It’s really unique because ENJJPT is the only NATO fighter pilot training program,” Songer said. “It’s a multinational experience and it’s really cool to be able to come back and everything you’ve learned in your previous assignments, you’re able to impart that to people that are just joining the Air Force and teach them how to fly.”
Fourteen of the 30 countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization participate in the program. Abbreviated as "ENJJPT" by its members, the school is run by the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard. The school opened in 1981.
The program teaches lessons that are learned primarily outside of the classroom.
“The main thing is just perspective and knowing how our allies work together,” Songer said. “Building those relationships early on is the key.
“We’re not only teaching the basic aviation skills, but also aggressive maneuvering in team. We’re training for war in the end, so if you’ve had that perspective then it’s easier to impart that to others to prepare them. It’s a kill-or-be killed environment.”
Because of the high-traffic airspace in Charlotte, Songer is coordinating with Charlotte Douglas International Airport and other towers to establish “deconfliction plans” that include the pilot location, timing, and required airspace.
Just before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 at 6 p.m. Sunday, the pilots will coordinate with air traffic control at the Charlotte airport, Songer said, which operates the airspace out to about 30 miles from the airport, and 15,000 feet up.
How do the pilots time their flyover to coincide precisely with the conclusion of the national anthem?
“The timing itself is a math game based on going 5-6 miles per minute,” Songer said. “There’s also a system in the jet that will back us up on what airspeed we should be flying.”
The jets have two radios, one of which will be in contact with air traffic control, and the other with the pilots and with a Marine reserve aviator on the ground at the speedway. This communication enables last-minute adjustments.
First Lt. Kristyna “Snap” Smith, another of the eight instructor pilots preparing for Sunday’s flyover, is one of only two female T-38 Talon instructor pilots out of 267 at Sheppard.
“We are the only NATO pilot training unit, and for a lot of nations, we’re actually their only source of fighter pilots,” Smith said. “It's a fantastic opportunity to get to learn so much about the different cultures that we’re going to be interacting with, and we build a lot of our joint-op experience through this training.
“Right now, I’m working on my master’s in international relations, which, particularly working with the ENJJPT group has been fantastic,” Smith continued. “Getting to actually talk to the NATO nations themselves and see their perspectives going into an international relations degree is honestly invaluable.”
The Coca-Cola 600 will be Smith’s first NASCAR race. She said she is excited about the event.
“They like to go fast, and we also like to go fast. I can get behind that,” she said.
Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted the pilots on a tour of the track Friday, introducing the pilots to Greg Walter, the track's executive vice president and general manager.
“We’re so excited to be here. We are so happy to support the community and get a chance to see what Charlotte, North Carolina has got,” Smith said. “We are just extremely happy to get to bring a little bit of what we do to the community here.”
Grace Wesoly and Vlada Maznytska are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news. Elvis Menayese also contributed to this story.