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World Series 2001
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11/05/2001 12:41 PM ET
Stealth bomber flies over Game 7
By Troy E. Renck
MLB.com
Left Field PHOENIX -- Four hours before Game 7, a gaggle of uniformed men stand down the right-field line at Bank One Ballpark.

One, however, immediately diverts stares in his direction. He's Lt. Colonel Mike France, a bald-headed, easy-going Air Force pilot instructor. Outfitted in his green jumpsuit and holding his trusty legal pad, France is fighting a combat mission with the pterodactyls in his stomach.

"It's kind of funny," says France, whose call sign is naturally Frenchy. "But I am nervous."

France has taught some of our country's Top Guns at Luke Air Force Base, including heroes who are currently in the skies above Afghanistan. But recently his role changed. He's no longer the commander of a squadron. With retirement in arms reach, he is now in charge of special events and flybys, work that leaves him more stressed than he ever was in a cockpit.

"I would rather be on a mission," France says. "But this is nice because it gets people excited about the Air Force."

Flyovers have added glitter to sporting events for years. Very few moments can match the goosebumps created by F-16s zooming overhead in a finger-four formation. As the eyes and ears on the ground, France frequently relays the praise to the pilots, using words like great and fantastic.

But Sunday's routine, even for France, was a little different. Befitting baseball's final game on the final day, the Air Force added a twist to the pregame, replacing its F-16 squadron with a single B2 Stealth.

If the name rings a bell, it should. It's the most expensive plane ever built, known affectionately as the Invisible Bomber. It's capable of doing things that have yet to show up in video games or PlayStations. Nothing can detect this boomerang. Not normal radar -- or even Double-Doppler radar for that matter. It even blacks out the stars as it silently pierces the clouds -- thus the transparency nickname.

"That's a billion dollar plane you are talking about," France says. "It's very impressive."

Yet, the craft's deftness in our nation's defense doesn't necessarily translate to sporting events. The coordination involved in flyovers, you see, is drunk with details, as France's smirk reveals. To make 'em, well, fly, France must tediously catalog a myriad of components.

The most important are obvious: the length of the national anthem and FOX's hiccups during commercial breaks. So before the game, France or one of his partners breaks out the stopwatch and times the artist's rendition. For example, Melissa Ethridge's segments broke down like this in France's notebook.

    -- 21 seconds to Whose Bright Stars
    -- 43 seconds to Rockets Red Glare
    -- 1:07 to Oh Say Does That Star-Spangled Banner Yet Wave
    -- 1:42 to the last note, held for 10 seconds; add five "just-in-case" seconds.
"We are up in the booth communicating with the control tower, letting them know how far ahead or far behind we are in the schedule," France says. "When we use the F-16s, we launch six of them just in case. Once they make that final turn at North Mountain, it takes them a 1:17 to get here and cover the last seven miles. We can delay them for a little while. But there's a point where they can't turn around."

On Saturday, France admitted that his pilots lucked out. The break took longer than usual, but with Ethridge's help, the planes dropped jaws of the sellout crowd as she dropped the final note.

Sunday they weren't as fortunate -- though probably few noticed the difference. At a little after 1 p.m. Arizona time, Capt. Dave Thompson departed from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. After four hours in the air, he began a holding pattern outside of town.

This is a cool honor under any circumstance, but for Thompson the opportunity to fly the Spirit 8-1 mission held special significance. He grew up in Arizona, graduated from Tempe's Marcos de Niza High School. His parents, Jim and Margaret, were in the stands at Bank One Ballpark.

"Naturally, he was excited," says France of Thompson, whose call sign is Skipper. "How couldn't he be?"

At 5:24 the roof opened, setting the stage for the surprise. At 5:44, trumpeter Jesse McGuire began blaring the anthem as flash bulbs sprinkled the stadium. But the clocks, whether because of an extended TV timeout or a late musical start, didn't mesh. Thompson, cruising around 1,000 feet above the park in the B2, zoomed by at 300 mph while McGuire was ambling toward the last verse.

Strangely, the mix-up was awkwardly marvelous. The standing-room only crowd screamed in astonishment as the Batman-inspired plane whipped through the still-blue backdrop. The conclusion: So what if it was a few seconds off.

"The deal is that we get a little bit of attention. And that press coverage is worth flying a (bomber) in from Missouri," says France, who grew up in nearby Glendale. "You can't compare this to what we are currently doing for the country. This is just fun. I am on the field for Game 7 of the World Series. It leaves you a little giddy."

Troy E. Renck is covering the World Series for MLB.com.