Sunday, June 2, 2013

2013 Formation Camp - Vintage Wings of Canada

 By Peter Ashwood-Smith 

One of the great advantages of flying a single seat aircraft is that you are alone! Unfortunately one of the great disadvantages of a single seat aircraft is that you are also alone! So it is a great experience when two single seat aircraft get together for formation practice. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to fly a wings length away from Rick Volker in his beautiful Sukhoi SU-26 on the first day of the Vintage Wings formation camp. Rick is an air show and competition aerobatic pilot that regularly performs at the Vintage Wings air show and also performs at air shows in the US. Rick is also an Air Show Competency Examiner or “ACE”.. which means he tests air show pilots.

So while the warbirds and Yellow Wings birds of Vintage Wings of Canada were practicing, Rick in his famous pink and white Sukhoi 26 and myself in my Pitts S-1T headed off for some practice.

Now last year I also attended the formation camp and did 3 or so sorties in the Fleet Finch and the Tiger Moth, and one spectacular 12 ship formation with Rick and 4 other Pitts and 6 or so Harvards. 

The training last year was invaluable as we did a number of formation flights during the season as part of our operations. Therefore having experienced formation/military pilots show us the ropes from the passenger seat of the Finch or Tiger Moth was tremendous. I actually had one of the new snowbird pilots in the rear of the Finch with me for several of my formation flights last year.

Formation flying is very demanding and not something we just jump into. There is a considerable amount of pre-flight planning ( at least an hour or so per hour of flying) and the Vintage Ground school stresses all of the details of what should be done and what to do when things don’t go quite as planned. So when Rick and I fired up our engines we knew exactly what we would be doing... certainly little to no room for winging it.

The formation flight really begins the moment you start the engine because we taxi both airplanes together and backtrack runway 09 at Gatineau. We turn around and depart side by side. Rick is on my wing right from power up and I can hear the roar of his 360hp radial as I lead us out west of Gatineau to the Buckingham area where we have a reserved block of airspace to practice in. I’m wearing my Contour HD camera, and so the entire flight is recorded and I've attached a few interesting shots from my helmet mounted camera. The video is also pretty impressive and I will try to upload some to Youtube when I get a chance. There really is no better seat in the house!

Above, shortly after take-off, Rick takes lead and I practice Right Echelon. Trust me its much closer than it looks in the picture!
I practice switching sides. Rick gives hand signals to send me from side to side. A raised fist in the cockpit and I am being instructed to switch sides. So yes, you have to be close enough to see the fist, finger etc. signals from your leader.  While we do use the radios, its often more efficient to have hand signals when there are many aircraft in the formation.

One of the worst things that can happen in formation is losing sight of your lead. With a biplane there are lots of bits of wing to obscure your vision, here Rick pops out from behind my wing as I change sides. Changing sides I always like to drop down below so that there is plenty of separation in fact we try to keep separated both horizontally,  vertically and laterally for added safety.
Here is Rick back between my wings in full view. I find that the cross of the landing and flying wires is a useful reference. I try to place it on a particular part of Rick’s plane and keep it there. .. its not easy.
Here we are flying ‘trail’.  Essentially I’m behind and a bit below Rick. He is twisting and turning, climbing and descending and I have to stay in position. Again the top wing makes things tricky.  Also Rick’s plane produces wake, just like a boat and just when you think you have a nice smooth spot, your plane starts to slide left or right as it goes into or out of the wake. Not a lot, but a bit like the sensation of a water skier crossing the wake of the tow boat, or when your snow skis get stuck in a rut and follow it despite you wishes.
Rick is a very experienced air show pilot, so to make things more interesting for him, we did a few formation loops and he also did some inverted formation practice. He kept the distance a bit wider for the inverted formation for safety reasons .. it's very, very difficult.

Rick Volker, mild mannered dentist by day, kick-ass air show entertainer on the weekends, does a little inverted formation practice.
After a minute or so inverted Rick rolls upright and my helmet camera captures him knife edge towards me rolling upright. The video is impressive and his roll had very little deviation in altitude or heading ... both of which are pretty important when rolling so close to another aircraft.
Finally its time to head home, Rick leads us back and I drop into right echelon for the 10 minute flight back to Gatineau.
I take over the lead as we are approaching Gatineau. Rick pops out to my Right Echelon and as he gets into position I glance back to make sure he is in position. The camera captures my quick look.
At this point we power up (and his prop noise resonates in my cockpit) and we drop towards the runway at about 180MPH, fly down the runway and then do a break to landing. Essentially I roll away from Rick, pull up and start a steep left turn to the downwind and Rick does the same thing a few seconds later. I land before Rick, roll to the end of the runway for safety while Rick lands behind me and only uses the first half of the runway.

Back on the ground we debrief, which is a discussion of what went well, what did not go well and any suggestions for improvement. Rick made a number of suggestions, most notably on my position and recommending that I move forward a little bit for better visibility of his hand signals.

At the end of day one I had logged two 45 minute flights with Rick. The weather then went sour and we had to pack it in for the day. I did not mind, I was pretty tired by then and I enjoyed cleaning the bugs off my plane in the hanger with the rain coming down outside.

Day two and the weather forecasts are for showers in the morning. Today I will be flying formation with Rob Fleck, the Vintage Wings president,Rob flew F-104s in the military and now flies the P51 and works at Air Canada flying around North America. In the rear seat with Rob is another retired F104 pilot and retired Emirates and Ward Air Airbus Captain by the name of  Vic. So no shortage of skills to help me and I'm determined to learn as much as possible.

The flight is somewhat similar to the previous days practice, except longer.  We flew nearly an hour and did a wide variety of positions, changes etc.

At one point I got out of position so that Rob's aircraft entered the blind spot behind my upper wing. Naturally this is not good but this is where the excellent training from Vintage Wings pilots and invited speakers pays off.  My safe way 'out' is down so I pop down a few hundred feet and tell Rob “2 is blind at 1500ft”. He responds with his altitude “lead holding 1700ft” We are now safely separated in altitude and can arrange to rejoin again. My helmet cam captures this sequence. You can see how his plane disappears behind my upper wing and I just fly under and down to safety.

Rob is clearly visible on the left between my wings
Our relative positions change in the turn and Rob starts to become obscured.

All I can see now are Rob's wheels.

My safe way 'out' is down so I pop down a few hundred feet.
After letting me practice for a good 30 minutes, we change lead and I fly so that Vic can practice. He seems not to have forgotten much because every time I look out he's nicely in position.  After one hour its time to head back and I tuck in tight for a nice arrival and overhead break. We taxi in, shut down and again go through an extensive debrief which lasts nearly as long as the actual flight. Vic gives me some great advice on positioning and also suggests humming to myself to loosen up a bit. Rob adds a few other helpful suggestions and its time to end for the day as the weather is once again turning.

Sunday is our mass formation flight. The idea is to put three different formations in the air one after the other and to fly them all towards a given target so that they each overfly at exact times with about a minute between them. This is complicated by the fact no two aircraft are the same, with three of them cruising at about 80mph, 3 more cruising at 150mph and the fighters in the 200 mph range. The briefing is done in two parts. First is a detailed brief of how each formation will takeoff, head to the target, and leave the target and how each will maintain safe separation from the others. Next each sub formation has its own briefing for what each individual aircraft will do. I'm given the number three position in a flight with the Harvard and Rob's RV8.  We took off first one after the other spaced by about 10 seconds or so and then formed up on the RV.  The fighters took the runway after us and then the trainers. Three plane formation, in a V shape, is a bit more tricky because now you have to position yourself relative to the lead but also to set fore and aft spacing so that it matches the guy on the other that it looks nice. On a calm day this is hard. Sunday the winds were about gusting at 25 knots so there was a lot of bouncing around. Imagine three speedboats in choppy seas 10 feet away from each other.  A lot of work but I find Vic's suggestion to hum seems to help me relax. I find myself wondering if the young men flying fighters off to war hummed to themselves to lesson the tension.

Rob led us out to the Petrie island area where we orbited for a few minutes and then turned inbound as close to our calculated run in time as possible. The time from there to Dow's lake and the the tulip festival had been calculated so that we would arrive at 1.37 sharp but I believe we were 30 seconds early.  Hopefully the folks at the festival enjoyed the overflight but being in formation I had no time really to look down. 
This is what I saw for about 1 hour.
After overflying the "target" we followed our pre-planned route back to Gatineau and the slower three aircraft were just landing as we came overhead for our break. 
Here you can see we have repositioned from a V formation into echelon left.
And next comes the break, a few seconds between we each bank hard right and join the downwind.
Fellow pilot Blake Reid took these photographs from Rob Fleck's RV-8, which was leading our little formation.
The John Gillespie Magee Harvard over downtown Ottawa. Down below thousands watched as we made a majestic formation flypast of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

Blake captures me with smoke on for the flypast

The fighters arrived about 45 seconds later and landed more or less immediately after us. Quite impressive to get 10 aircraft airborne, over a target and back again with such precision and safety.

Again there were post flight debriefings. First the individual flights debriefed, and then we had a mass debrief. A number of items were noted for improvement (timing, reducing landing congestion) but nothing serious or safety related.

All in all it was a very enjoyable but intense 3 days. In total I flew about 3.5 hours in formation, learned a lot,  and met more great people.

A big thanks to Vintage Wings for hosting this event and sharing this highly specialized knowledge and a special thanks to Rick Volker and Rob Fleck for the invaluable one-on-one training in the air.

The following weekend I was back to the little Yellow Wings planes and a share of 50 eager young Air Cadets to take flying in the Finch. I will try to write a blog entry about it too.

Peter Ashwood-Smith is a veteran aerobatic pilot and a Fleet Finch pilot for Vintage Wings of Canada .

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