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What is the Helicopter ‘Bow Salute’?

By S.L. Fuller | April 13, 2017
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Image courtesy of ITV via Facebook

Image courtesy of ITV via Facebook

The March 22 terror incident in Westminster, London, claimed several lives, including Police Constable Keith Palmer. During his April 10 funeral, BBC reported that thousands of police officers lined the street for the procession. More police personnel were in attendance from above, as photos and video footage show police Metropolitan Police helicopters in the "Missing Man" formation. As the images spread across the internet, so did the helicopter "bow salute," which can be seen in a video posted by ITV London.

"Two Met Police helicopters performed a 'bow' over central London in tribute to PC Palmer as his coffin was taken to Southwark Cathedral," said ITV.


"The helicopters created the ‘missing man formation’ salute – traditionally performed at funerals and memorials – and one performed the ‘bow’ salute over the cathedral," said Evening Standard.

But what is a "bow salute"? It was not something R&WI had heard before, so we asked around. And what we found is that all may not be as it seems.

Though the camera movement in the ITV video makes it difficult to tell, the helicopters were probably just flying forward when the nose dipped. The video footage may make it look more dramatic, but the nose of the helicopter generally dips when the aircraft begins to fly forward. The face that the dip was coordinated is what stands out.

"Fully articulated rotor and rigid rotor helicopters have the ability to maneuver in a way where the fuselage follows the cyclic rotor displacement resulting in a 'dip of their nose' with cyclic application," said Steve "Elroy" Colby, R&WI contributor and BD Analyst Principal at Sikorsky Mission Systems. "I’ve seen it done with a simple quick cycle forward dip to about 20 deg nose low, and I’ve also seen it done by backing up the helo and using a forward cyclic 'flare' to radically dip the nose to stop the rearward flight."

Bryn Elliot, R&WI contributor and editor of Police Aviation News, said that if it were not for the aerial footage, the "bow" probably would not have made headlines.

"It is not a set maneuver and has not been noted before," said Elliot. "The ‘bow’ was simply a coordinated mutual tip forward strategically performed over HMS Belfast to the east of Southward Cathedral where the funeral service took place. If it had not been captured on camera, few would have noticed and it would have been simply a fly-past."

We won't claim definitively that no such purposeful maneuver exists. R&WI asked airborne law enforcement units and scholars and did not find anyone who had performed the "bow" — although there were a few accounts of having heard of it before. If it is a custom, its genesis is obscure. One thing that is understood, however, is the Missing Man formation.

According to Smithsonian, the first Missing Man is approximated to have occurred in 1931. Originating in the military, it is a "V" formation with the left leg longer than the right because of the "missing man." Either that "missing" aircraft is not in the formation at all, or it makes a dramatic exit during the fly-past. You can read about it further in Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine.

Although the "bow" may not have actually been noteworthy during the procession, Elliot offered that the helicopters themselves were. "It is rare," he said, "for any police officer's service funeral to include a fly-past of any sort."


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