This post has been updated to include additional information from the Navy.
The Navy will honor former naval aviator and 41st president George H.W. Bush on Thursday with a largest-ever 21-aircraft missing man formation as part of his funeral services in Texas.
Thirty F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets departed Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., today ahead of the Dec. 6 interment ceremony at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
A naval aviation official told USNI News that a missing man formation of this size is unprecedented and reflects Bush’s legacy as a naval aviator and ongoing relationship with the Navy’s carrier strike group community.
“Being selected to participate in this memorial is one of the highest honors a Naval Aviator can receive,” Rear Adm. Roy Kelley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement.
“In addition to being our president, he was also one of our brothers, flying combat missions off aircraft carriers during World War II. His service to our Navy and nation merits a tribute of this magnitude.”
Aircraft from Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103, the “Jolly Rogers”; VFA-143, the “Pukin’ Dogs”; VFA-32, the “Swordsmen”; VFA-83, the “Rampagers”; VFA-131, the “Wildcats”; VFA-105, the “Gunslingers”; VFA-31, the “Tomcatters”; and VFA-87, the “Golden Warriors,” all departed Oceana today ahead of their participation in the flyover.
Capt. Kevin McLaughlin, the commander of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, will fly the lead plane in the formation. His aircraft has been painted to list “President George H.W. Bush, 41” where the pilot’s name would typically go and “Barbara, First Lady” where the naval flight officer’s name might go.
Bush died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94, after a lifetime of military and public service. He enlisted in the Navy when he turned 18, just six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He became one of the Navy’s youngest naval aviators in history, earning his Wings of Gold at the age of 18. After being shot down during a bombing mission in 1944, Bush was rescued by a submarine and returned to flying as soon as he could get back to his carrier, USS San Jacinto (CVL-30). He went on to complete 58 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, according to the Navy.
In 2009 the Navy commissioned an aircraft carrier named after Bush, and the former president was involved in the pre-commissioning activities and kept in touch with the crew well after the ship joined the fleet.
To honor that ongoing relationship with the Navy, all the former George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group commanders were invited to the Monday afternoon ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. CSG commanders in attendance included Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. John Aquilino, Carrier Strike Group 4 Commander Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, retired Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, retired Rear Adm. David Thomas and retired Rear Adm. Gregory Nosal. Rear Adm. Will Pennington, who commanded USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) until January 2018, was also in attendance.
Thirteen current and former strike group and ship commanders were listed as honorary pallbearers for the Wednesday celebration of life ceremony to be held at the National Cathedral in Washington – a decision made by Bush himself in recent years as he planned his funeral arrangements: Adm. John Aquilino, Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, retired Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, retired Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, retired Rear Adm. David Thomas, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, Rear Adm. Stephen Evans, Rear Adm. William Pennington, retired Rear Adm. Brian Luther, retired Rear Adm. Gregory Nosal, Capt. Sean Bailey, and retired Capt. Kevin O’Flaherty. A USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) spokesman confirmed that current commanding officer Bailey was not able to attend in person, as the aircraft carrier is underway for training.
Additionally, about 115 sailors from the current Bush crew who represent all 20 departments on the ship were on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Monday when Air Force One – being dubbed Special Mission 41 this week while supporting Bush’s funeral arrangements in Washington and Texas – landed and unloaded Bush’s casket.