In the moments just before kickoff at the Steelers' home opener tomorrow, thousands of fans in Heinz Field will turn their attention to a couple of rookies.
Navy Lt. Meagen Varley and Lt. John Lynn -- die-hard Steelers fans -- will be flying one of the two F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets roaring overhead at the conclusion of the national anthem.
Veterans of thousands of hours of flight time, including numerous missions over Iraq, they will be making their first fly-by, a tear through the sky over a public event that never fails to stir a roar from the fans.
It's a gig that the Pittsburgh natives spent months trying to secure.
"I started calling about once a week last winter until I finally got through to somebody," said Lt. Varley, 27, a native of Dorseyville. "We looked at the schedule and figured out a good day, and it happened to be the home opener."
Lt. Varley joined the Navy upon her graduation from Fox Chapel Area High School in 1998. She immediately picked out Lt. Lynn, a member of her squadron, as someone from home.
"He's got a pretty sweet Pittsburgh accent. So I knew he was from Pittsburgh," she said.
Lt. Lynn, 30, graduated from Baldwin High School in 1995 and attended Robert Morris University before joining the Navy. He's been flying jet aircraft -- mostly F-14 Tomcats -- for more than six years, landing on aircraft carriers and soaring over Iraq.
He and Lt. Varley were in the Persian Gulf when the Steelers played in the Super Bowl in February 2006. They each finished a mission into Iraq and were back aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in time to see the kickoff via satellite television.
"There were a bunch of Steelers fans, about 30," Lt. Lynn said. "There were some Seahawks fans, but the executive officer we watched it with was a big Steelers fan, and he would not permit any of them in his ready room.
"We all had Terrible Towels. I had mine, my lucky one. I flew with it in my bag that day."
"I actually have pictures of me in the cockpit over Iraq with a Terrible Towel the day of the Super Bowl," said Lt. Varley. "I sent them home and said, 'We're going to win.'"
Apparently, she said, the military does not frown on such things.
"It's good for morale," she said.
Both pilots have seen their share of danger in the Mideast. Both have lost friends and comrades. Yet neither one could imagine doing anything else.
"Everybody that's in this business for a couple years, you know people who are no longer with you," said Lt. Lynn. "I've had my share of minor emergencies, but nothing major."
"The most dangerous part is flying around the aircraft carrier," Lt. Varley said. "We don't really have people shooting at us to the extent that the guys on the ground [do]. We're relatively safer in the air than the ground troops are.
"Honestly, I think most aviators feel very fortunate to go be able to go into a combat zone and protect the troops on the ground. We have an amazing force that we bring into the fight. Even if we're not deploying weapons, we can scare off the enemy. Just the sight of a jet can make enemy troops move away from our troops. So anything we can do to help them out, I know all of us feel very honored and privileged to do so."
Both pilots returned to the United States last year and are stationed in Virginia Beach, Va. with the VFA-213 Blacklions Squadron. They returned to Pittsburgh last night in the Super Hornet that they'll fly over the stadium tomorrow. With them were Navy Lt. Matt Nieswand of New Jersey and Lt. j.g. Jeff Firme of Colorado, the men who will be piloting the other F/A-18 in the fly-by.
The fly-by itself is pretty routine. They'll take off from Pittsburgh International Airport, fly out over Homestead, where they'll circle and wait for their signal, then make a straight flight over Heinz Field going 250 knots about 1,000 feet up, coinciding with the end of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"There's no special training for this," said Lt. Lynn. "We apply the same principles used in daily missions. It's just timing. Anyone of us could pretty much do one of these.
"And these are the Navy's cutting-edge fighter jets right now with all the latest and greatest electronics. It's quite a capable aircraft."
"Coming in is going to be great, flying up the river, come right over Point State Park, right up on the city," said Lt. Varley, who will be piloting the jet. "Coming up on the stadium and seeing all the fans. It's going to be quite the treat."
Both pilots will be carrying their Terrible Towels. And there will be a video camera taping the trip from the cockpit.
Below them, amid the thousands of cheering fans, will be the two pilots' fathers. Jim Varley will be watching with his daughter, Marci, Lt. Varley's twin sister.
Jake Lynn and his wife, Maureen, will be seated in Section 535, Row FF, six rows from the top of Heinz Field, where they'll almost be closer to their son overhead than they will be to the playing field below.
Mr. Lynn has had two season tickets to Steelers games for almost 40 years, when the team played in Pitt Stadium and he went with his father. Now, he'll be watching his son in the sky.
"No, I'm not nervous," he said. "The nervous part was watching them come back from the Persian Gulf. Now, that was something that got you uptight. That one got me. This one here ... I'm just going to be glad to see it."
After the fly-by, the pilots will return to the base, where they will jump into cars and take the more-traditional route to Heinz Field. They hope to be in seats provided by the team before halftime.
Still, it will be hard to imagine anything taking place on the field that will compare to their game opener.
"What Steelers fan doesn't want to go back and do a fly-by?" Lt. Varley asked. "I mean, it's a natural instinct."
Dan Majors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.