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Navy carries out secret mission to drop ping pong balls on Army rivals ahead of annual football game

By Haley Britzky, CNN

It was a crisp December afternoon as three small planes circled above their objective, making 12 total passes overhead as they dropped leaflets from the aircraft, watching as they fluttered softly to the ground.

A form of psychological warfare, leaflet drops can be used to persuade or intimidate an enemy force or attempt to communicate with a population under enemy control. This most recent mission was like those one might see in a time of war — except for the fact that it was conducted over the US Military Academy at West Point, and the propaganda in question was, well, this:

“Beat Army,” read the leaflets, which were accompanied by a colorful array of ping pong balls. “Fly Navy,” others proclaimed.

The “air-to-ground spirit mission” that occurred just before noon on Monday is the latest in a long tradition of rivalry and pranks the US Naval Academy and West Point launch against one another on this hallowed week each year for each institution: The week of the Army-Navy football game. On Saturday afternoon, the future of the US military’s officer corps will face off in Philadelphia at the 123rd such game, which always draws crowds of students as well as top military brass.

A news release from the Naval Academy confirmed that at 11:59 a.m. on Monday, five midshipmen led three flight crews for the Piper PA-28 Cherokee Warriors to New York for Operation Black Knight Falling, which ultimately dropped an unknown number of ping pong balls and leaflets.

“Twelve delivery passes dropped ‘Beat Army’ and ‘Fly Navy’ leaflets, along with ping pong balls, over Army West Point’s ‘The Apron,'” the USNA release says. “Army cadets could be seen breaking formation and running for cover.”

As the midshipmen completed their mission, the release says they flew down the Hudson River to “take a pass around Lady Liberty” before flying back south to “the better service Academy along the Severn River.”

Cmdr. Alana Garas, a US Naval Academy spokesperson, told CNN on Tuesday that additional details regarding Operation Black Knight Falling were unavailable due to mission details “being held at the highest Naval Academy classification levels.”

“However,” Garas said, “I can tell you this was well-planned and safely executed in accordance with Naval Academy Spirit Mission guidance. Desired effects were achieved! BEAT ARMY!”

A statement from the West Point public affairs office on Tuesday confirmed the Naval Academy’s mission, but said that while they completed 12 passes, “unfortunately not all the drops hit the intended targets.”

“Hopefully, Navy football players will have better aim in Saturday’s rivalrly against the Army Black Knights who are dialed in and poised to score,” the statement said.

While West Point’s statement said there was no planned retaliation against the Naval Academy, a video on a popular Instagram page that frequently posts about West Point appeared to show a group of cadets quietly sneaking around the Naval Academy’s campus in the dead of night, pulling off one prank after another.

The video, captioned “Spirit Mission 2022,” shows the cadets hanging flyers and flags throughout the campus, including outside the superintendent’s home, placing small toy soldiers on classroom desks and even stopping for a quick midnight snack in the dining hall. It’s unclear when the alleged prank occurred.

Pranks between cadets and midshipmen leading up to the Army-Navy game is a tale as old as time, though they have varied over the years. The stunts often include the kidnapping — and subsequent return — of the opposing school’s animal mascot. The decades-long tradition went sideways last year when West Point cadets went to take the Navy’s goat mascot, and accidentally grabbed the wrong one.

Instead of grabbing the current mascot, Bill No. 37, the cadets took Bill No. 34, the former mascot of the academy who has since retired.

But no matter the method of prank, the rivalry will be in full force on Saturday as the Navy Midshipmen attempt to defend their 2021 win.

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