First flyover in U.S. aviation history

By Scott A. Rowan

What began on the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 continues on to this day, with the only difference being that Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first plane—little more than a glider with a small, home-built engine— has morphed into F-15 Eagles and other fighter jets screaming across the sky. Either way, the result is the same: man-powered flight and the awe it inspires in witnesses on the ground.

Game 1 of the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox featured the very first military flyover in world history.

On September 5, 1918, 60 army biplanes flew over Chicago’s Comiskey Park as a demonstration of patriotic pride, urging support for U.S. soldiers and sailors serving in World War I. Today, the military flyovers that fans everywhere enjoy are often the highlight of the game. F/A-18A fighter jets, C-17 cargo jets, F-117 stealth fighters, B-2 stealth bombers, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and even historic prop planes frequently grace professional sporting events and major entertainment gatherings across the country. All of that pageantry began back in 1918 with the Cubs and the Red Sox.

Let’s get the most obvious question out of the way first for Cubs fans: Why was the game played at Comiskey Park rather than the Cubs’ home field, Weeghman Park (later renamed Wrigley Field)? As usual, the answer is money. Comiskey Park was larger and could therefore hold more spectators. Charles Weeghman, whose restaurants were losing money at the time because of food rationing and depletion of the homeland work force, needed the extra income. So he bargained with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to use their larger ballpark to allow increased ticket sales.

With that out of the way, the next question is: Why have a flyover at all? The answer was the same in 1918 as it is today: moral support for our military and an attempt to increase recruitment. Military leaders recognized the potential that sporting events present: a captured audience that can be influenced to act after being inspired by a demonstration of military might. Wendy Varhegyi, a member of the air force’s public affairs department, explained the “why” behind flyovers to the Orlando Sentinel in 2008:

We look at these events as a way to get our message out to a more diverse audience than traditional routes. We look at sporting events as a way to reach a unique audience that is typically of recruiting-age interest.

In other words, the military hopes that the awe-inspiring moment of seeing some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world will make many in the audience want to enlist.

Such sentiment would have been overwhelmingly true in 1918, when the sight of 60 planes ready for war was a true show of force by the United States government. After all, the flying machine had only been invented 15 years earlier. The government created the U.S. Air Force in 1907 and gave it the overview of “military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.” In 1912, the air force had only nine planes in its fleet (they had built eleven, but the first was given to the Smithsonian Institute and the second was destroyed in a crash). By 1915, the number of planes had risen to 23.