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.
History of the POW/MIA Flag”
In 1971, Mrs. Michael Hoff, an MIA wife and member of the National League of Families, recognized the need for a symbol of our POW/MIAs. Prompted by an article in the Jacksonville, Florida Times-Union, Mrs. Hoff contacted Norman Rivkees, Vice President of Annin & Company which had made a banner for the newest member of the United Nations, the People’s Republic of China, as a part of their policy to provide flags to all United Nations members states. Mrs. Hoff found Mr. Rivkees very sympathetic to the POW/MIA issue, and he, along with Annin’s advertising agency, designed a flag to represent our missing men. Following League approval, the flags were manufactured for distribution.
On March 9, 1989, an official League flag, which flew over the White House on 1988 National POW/MIA Recognition Day, was installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as a result of legislation passed overwhelmingly during the 100th Congress. In a demonstration of bipartisan Congressional support, the leadership of both Houses hosted the installation ceremony.
The League’s POW/MIA flag is the only flag ever displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where it will stand as a powerful symbol of national commitment to America’s POW/MIAs until the fullest possible accounting has been achieved for U.S. personnel still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
On August 10, 1990, the 101st Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, which recognized the League’s POW/MIA flag and designated it “as the symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation”.