From her perch on the roof of SoFi Stadium in California, Katie Spencer could see the Air Force Heritage Flight formation approaching and hear the powerful rumble created by the first-ever combination of a P-51 Mustang, A-10C Thunderbolt II, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II.
Below, through the translucent roof, she could see 70,048 fans and hear the gospel-tinged rendition of the national anthem performed at the Super Bowl by four-time Grammy nominee Mickey Guyton, once described as having “the voice of an angel.”
When the aircraft roared over top of her as Guyton hit the final note, Spencer dropped to her knees and wept uncontrollably.
“It was a release of emotion to see it all happen,” says Spencer (’08, Communications). “I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now. To see it all come together and that extraordinary display of air power, and the skills these pilots have, and the skills our aerial team has to get them there on time, and all of the efforts surrounding the flyover, it’s all culminating in that moment.
“There’s just this overwhelming sense of emotion. You feel relief. You feel gratitude. You feel … just proud … to be an American. I usually have a release of emotion, but not like this one. This was different.”
Spencer should know. This was the fourth Super Bowl flyover she has orchestrated in her position as manager of the Sports Outreach Program for the Department of the Air Force Public Affairs.
She has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, presented the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor to a female Air Force Service Pilot from World War II, pulled 9.6Gs in the back of an F-16 fighter jet and executed Air Force communication strategy in support of combat and nuclear operations.
But there’s nothing really like a Super Bowl flyover. And nothing really like this one.
“Nobody had ever seen this formation fly before—outside of a training course at an Air Force base,” she says. “And I saw it. And it was flying over the Super Bowl. It was a beautiful day, and there was not a cloud in the sky, and I was on the roof, and that jet noise just fills my soul.
“I can’t explain it. It’s hard to explain unless you’re up there and know all emotion that goes into planning. We were planning for a year. After Christmas and the New Year, it’s a full-on sprint. You have no time to think. You’re working on intuition and making fast decisions. You’ve just got to keep going. It’s long days.”
Oh, and one other thing: During a timeout in the third quarter of Super Bowl LVI in February, Spencer escorted the pilots out onto the field for an introduction and a rousing ovation.
“This was my fourth Super Bowl, but for these airmen on the flight line fixing jets until midnight so they could fly the next day, this is their one and only chance to get to the Super Bowl,” she says. “The fact that they get to go onto the field and have their name on the Infinity screen at SoFi Stadium and have everybody stand and cheer for them, this is a memory they’re going to have for the rest of their life. I’m so honored I get to be part of their story and make that happen for them.”
Spencer never envisioned any of this.
On her way to earning her communications degree, she interned with the Florida Everblades and Florida Panthers, and imagined going into sports journalism. But she graduated smack-dab in the middle of the Great Recession, and job prospects were diminished. Her mother, Karen, encouraged her to join the Air Force. Karen, who had served 33 years at Homestead as an Air Force reservist, then became relentlessly inspirational. Katie finally enlisted in December 2008.
“She just wouldn’t let up,” she says of her mother. “I had some reflecting time. I figured that fear wasn’t a reason to not do it. That’s what it was. I was scared of going to boot camp. Everyone’s scared to join the military.
“I wasn’t right out of high school. I had four years of college and had a degree and felt my life would go a completely different way. But I saw my mom and family having patriotism and love for country, and I felt a sense of responsibility. I wasn’t going to let fear ruin that. I’m so glad I leaned into that, because I can’t imagine what my life would be like without the Air Force.”
Spencer went to boot camp in January 2009, came back to Florida and worked at Homestead, then deployed to Afghanistan, where she was the commanding general’s photographer and public affairs liaison, going to different training sites as part of her “battlefield circulation.”
When she returned to the United States, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland in the 459th Air Refueling Wing. After a few years, she made good on her goal to become an officer and received her commission. In doing so, she needed a full-time civilian job, since her officer job was now going to be one weekend a month. She was approached by the Pentagon and learned the Air Force was looking for someone to run its sports programs and flyovers. She was hired in 2014, and poured her energy into building the program from the ground up.
Spencer essentially wears two different hats. Monday through Friday, she wears civilian clothes and works as a civilian at the Pentagon. One weekend a month, she reports for “drilling,” in which she works at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in the 512th Airlift Wing. In that role, she executes her military responsibility, gets paid militarily and is subject to all things military.
Her job as manager of the Sports Outreach Program is demanding, but it has its perks: She has been involved in some fashion with most championships for most teams and leagues, although she seldom attends them as she does the Super Bowl.
Looking back, she feels that FGCU prepared her for this role simply because she took advantage of everything it had to offer: She was student director of EaglePalooza, was a Zeta Tau Alpha sister, served as a senator in Student Government, was active in intramurals and as a lifeguard.
“I’m very fortunate,” Spencer says. “I definitely took a different path from my whole friend group. I’m the only one who joined the military. I still talk with my sorority sisters and friends from college. They’re all successful in their chosen fields. But I just took a completely different path.
“I get to work with sports teams and showcase our Air Force to the world in a super-fun way. I also get to wear my uniform and lead airmen. I have the best of both worlds, and while it’s stressful at times and a lot of work, I’m beyond grateful to serve my country as a civilian and as a military member.”