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Air Force disciplines pilots for low Iowa flyover

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FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2010 file photo, United States Air Force T-38C Talon jets of the 25th Fighter Training Squadron perform a flyover before Iowa's NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Iowa City, Iowa. The Air Force on Wednesday, March 23,

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2010 file photo, United States Air Force T-38C Talon jets of the 25th Fighter Training Squadron perform a flyover before Iowa’s NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Iowa City, Iowa. The Air Force on Wednesday, March 23, 2011, faulted a pilot for flying too low and too fast during a spectacular military flyover before an Iowa football game last fall, saying he had been punished for violating rules and was leaving the service.

Charlie Neibergall, File, Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Air Force pilots who participated in a spectacular flyover before an Iowa football game were disciplined for flying much too low and too fast, and the flight leader is giving up his right to fly military aircraft, the Air Force said Wednesday.

The four Talon T-38 Trainer jets were at an altitude just 16 feet above the stadium's press box when they wowed 70,000 fans inside Kinnick Stadium before Iowa hosted Ohio State on Nov. 20, the Air Force said.

The jets cleared the scoreboard by 58 feet, and their altitude of 176 feet above ground level was far lower than the 1,000-foot minimum elevation required for flights above a populated area such as a stadium, the Air Force investigation concluded. The jets also approached speeds of 400 knots, above the limit of 300, during both the flyover and practice runs the day before, the investigation found.

Flight leader Maj. Christopher Kopacek violated not only speed and altitude rules, but failed to document and report to superiors altitude and speed deviations from the flight plan, and made a false statement during the investigation, the Air Force said.

Leaders of Vance Air Force Base near Enid, Okla., called for the investigation days after the game as video of the flyover started circulating on the Internet. Spectators said they were amazed by the jets' speed and precision and how close they came to the top of the stadium. Fans erupted in cheers and later gave the pilots an ovation when they were introduced during the game.

"While I understand that fans attending the game enjoyed the flyover, rules are in place to ensure everyone's safety," said Col. Russell Mack, commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing, which conducted the investigation. "We appreciate the opportunity to perform flyovers and thank the University of Iowa for the chance to showcase our abilities. However, this was a serious breach of flight discipline and it was necessary to take administrative action against all of the members involved."

Kopacek was punished under the military code of justice and negotiated a legal agreement with the Air Force, said 1st Lt. Katie Roling, an Air Force spokeswoman. Under the deal, he agreed to request to give up his pilot wings that allow him to fly, forfeited $6,316 in pay, received an official reprimand and signed a waiver allowing the Air Force to discuss what happened publicly.

In exchange, the Air Force agreed not to court martial him and let him leave the service on his own accord, Roling said. Kopacek, an Ankeny native, was planning to leave the Air Force shortly after the flyover and the investigation and discipline has delayed his departure, which still is in the works, she said.

She said five other pilots — three who flew jets and two who acted as ground controllers — received administrative discipline for their roles in the flyover. All six pilots, who were part of the 25th Flying Training Squadron, were grounded during the investigation. All except Kopacek were approved to return to flying status after it was concluded, she said.

"Maj. Kopacek got the harsher punishment due to the fact that he was the flight lead and carried that extra responsibility," Roling said.

Reached through e-mail, Kopacek said he needed to consult with his attorney before he could grant an interview. But he added, "I would definitely like to refute much of the Air Force's standard rhetoric that they throw out."

Roling said the allegation of making a false statement against Kopacek was particularly damaging given the Air Force prides itself on integrity. She did not release what he was accused of lying about, but Kopacek told the Des Moines Register days after the flyover that he and the other pilots had clearance to fly at an altitude of 500 feet.

The investigation found Kopacek did not ask for and did not receive permission to deviate from either the speed or altitude restrictions governing the flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration's gave Air Force investigators radar data that verified the jets' speed and altitude during the flyover, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

University of Iowa officials have said they requested the military flyover to honor veterans who attended the game, which Ohio State won 20-17. Asked whether that was a mistake, UI spokesman Tom Moore said it would be inappropriate to comment on the incident.