EXCLUSIVE — An all-female team of pilots conducted the Super Bowl pregame flyover for the first time this year – but the Navy staged the historic moment by booting several male aviators days before the big game.
An all-woman crew wasn't always the plan, with a handful of men picked and "very, very excited" for the flyover before they were abruptly told they were being replaced, an aircrew member told Fox News Digital.
"For us, getting to do flyovers is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said the member who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "especially for something of that magnitude."
The Navy's initial press release detailing the flyover on Jan. 26 said the event would commemorate a 50-year history of women flying in the Navy, but the original lineup of 15 service members only included three women, Military.com previously reported. The service members were honored with digital playing cards, similar to baseball cards, that were promoted on social media sites.
The aircrew member said the original team was assembled at the end of November last year and that the team soon began preparing for the event.
"Basically every Friday until Jan. 27, there was a teams meeting with the NFL and the Navy," the aircrew member said. The meetings included discussions on "crews, to discuss lodging, to discuss basically how we're going to execute" the day.
During this process, there was never any discussion about a plan to have female pilots participate – only talk of how the flyover would commemorate 50 years of women in naval aviation, the Navy member said.
Two days after the press release was sent out about the original lineup of aviators, the rug was pulled out from under the male pilots.
"The 26th was when the digital playing cards were released by the Navy via Facebook and Instagram," the aircrew member said. "Another teams meeting the following day on the 27th, and then the next day, Saturday morning, was when we all got phone calls telling us that we were no longer part of the flyover because … the mission had changed and they were prioritizing all-female aircrew for the flyover."
He added that the change of plans came as a surprise to everyone privy to the information, not just the original members of the flyover crew.
"It was kind of a surprise just due to the fact that it was so late and there had been so much press on it already," he said. "I think that was why it was so surprising." The Super Bowl was held on Feb. 12 – 16 days after the original crew was benched in favor of all-women pilots.
The source told Fox News Digital that the "hardest part" of being replaced for the flyover was explaining what happened to friends and family.
"This was one of the coolest things in any of our careers," he said. "And when you get reached out to by friends and family who had seen the release and were so excited … that was a tough day for everyone that was previously involved."
He added that the change of plans was not only difficult for the male pilots but also for the three female pilots on the original crew.
"The fact that it was based on gender and not on merit was not only difficult for the males who were no longer a part of it, but it was also difficult for the females who were a part of it based on merit originally," he said.
The change of plans was quietly made to the public with news reports and a "Good Morning America" segment that celebrated the all-female crew just days ahead of the Super Bowl. The segment made no mention of the Navy's original plan of having a team of both male and female aviators.
The Navy confirmed to Fox News Digital this month that it "made some changes" to its initial Super Bowl flyover plan, adding that the military branch’s goal was to "maximize the participation of our women naval aviators."
"The Navy made some changes to the initial lineup of aviators participating in the Super Bowl," Cmdr. Zach Harrell, spokesperson for the commander of Naval Air Forces, told Fox News Digital at the time. "Our intent was always to maximize the participation of our women naval aviators in the flyover to the greatest extent possible to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of women flying in the Navy, and it was an honor to be able to do that [at] Super Bowl LVII."
Harrell added to the outlet that the Navy always planned on commemorating women in the Navy but that the military branch encountered logistical obstacles before the game. He said that the January announcement on the lineup of pilots was "released before we had settled on the final lineup."
"There are several challenges involved in gathering aviators from several different squadrons, and with women as 20% of the population in the Navy, it makes it harder," he previously told Military.com.
Women make up roughly 20% of the Navy overall, but there are only between 7% and 12% women pilots, Military.com reported.