Fifteen Feet and Closing

At formation flying school, invading your neighbor’s space becomes an art form.

On a May morning we are high above the Mississippi Delta on what looks like a collision course with another airplane. It is a spot on the horizon, which gets bigger and bigger until it fills our windshield, then whooshes overhead as we slide under it.

Terry Calloway is learning formation rejoins. He is one of the 94 general aviation pilots attending a formation flying clinic at the Greenwood-Leflore Airport to practice an art that is primarily the domain of military fliers and the few who fly formation aerobatics for a living.

It’s hard work making airplanes perform in harmony—wings perfectly aligned, speeds evenly matched, every dive and turn synchronized. When gracefully flown, formation is a pleasure to watch and delightful to perform. But when awkwardly flown, airplanes bob and weave like clumsy dancers, and the danger of a collision looms large. Pilots who arrive here as novices will depart with some 20 hours of solid formation flying practice. They won’t be experts, but they will have learned how to focus their attention and effort on holding position a few feet from another airplane.

The clinic is four days of intense flying, all-day training, endless storytelling, and after-hours partying, all hosted by Vernon Ricks and a tax-exempt corporation called The Airmen. Ricks has been putting this on for his friends for the last 26 years. The participants are a mixture of novices and experts, civilians and military men, who have come to learn, to relearn, to teach, or to practice. The names, faces, and even title change with the years; this year it is Vernon’s Pilot Party, a Yak Club Regional Formation Event (last year it was the Greenwood Formation Clinic).

As a kid, Ricks was inspired by the formations of Stearmans, Vultee BT-13s, and Republic P-47s that flew at Greenwood Field, an Army Air Corps base. He planned to be a military pilot, but first he began cropdusting in a Stearman. Flying from the airport to farm fields every day, he learned formation from a fellow cropduster.

While dusting one morning in 1959 his military flying dream was shattered, along with most of the bones in his body. As he flew under low-level electrical wires, a flock of blackbirds enveloped his airplane, blinding him. The Stearman slammed into a levee. “It crippled the fuselage behind me and nearly tore off one of my feet,” he says.

Ricks spent a long time in the hospital and on crutches. “I felt embittered, singled out, and hurt,” he says. “Then, one day in the early ’70s I woke up. I was lucky to be alive and I felt like I owed in some way. Somebody ought to help people learn formation flying. Why not me?”

 When I land at Greenwood in my Super Cub, I am directed to Kimmel Aviation, where I park among T-28s, L-39 jets, SIAI-Marchetti Sf.260s, Glasair IIIs, Bonanzas, Yak-52s, T-34s, T-6s, a Stearman, a Great Lakes, and a Navion. Ricks’ wife Valley is greeting and registering participants and collecting the $100 fee that covers cold drinks, lunch, and dinner in the hangar or poolside at the Ricks house.

Before long, pilots are out front admiring one another’s airplanes. Ron Wasson, an American Airlines pilot, is here with his CJ-6A, a Chinese military trainer. “Where I live, in Colleyville, Texas, there is only one of them—mine. Here there are four,” he says. “I flew thousands of hours of formation in C-130s in the Air Force, but now I fly 727s for a living. If you bank more than 10 degrees, the little old lady in the back is screaming bloody murder. So I’m here to do some four-ship formation.” James Goolsby, another CJ pilot, nods. He flies for United Airlines and learned formation flying in the early 1960s in a Piper Cub when he first started flight instructing. He will act as a check pilot at the clinic. All the instructors are volunteering their time because they love flying formation—talking about it, teaching it, and hanging out with other formation pilots.

This year’s clinic begins on a Wednesday morning and ends after a catfish fry on Saturday night, but pilots fly in and out all week. Some just come to visit friends. Some stay long enough to take a check ride to renew their Formation and Safety Team card, which qualifies them to fly non-aerobatic formation at airshows. Others, serious about polishing their skills, will accumulate 15 to 20 hours of formation practice. Some, like Terry Calloway, Stu Goldberg, and Ritchie Jones, have never had any formal formation instruction. Others, like Scott Patterson, a retired Air Force Wild Weasel squadron pilot, and Mark Lauritzen, a retired Marine and former Blue Angel, used to fly formation for a living.

Training begins with a morning briefing for the newcomers in Kimmel Aviation’s huge hangar. At 8:30 a.m. they are spread along tables drinking coffee or leafing through their textbook, the T-34 Association’s formation flight manual.

Ricks, a tall, silver-haired man with a booming voice, describes the lay of the land: level farmland to the west, hilly woods to the east, radio towers in various quadrants. The landmarks called Cotton, a bunch of warehouses, and Gator, the swamp, will be Initial Points—IPs—where flight leaders will report their positions to the Greenwood control tower.

Ricks also sets the tone of the week—this is work, not play—and talks to the participants about getting the most out of their time here. He wants them to fly four times a day. “Don’t dawdle when you could be flying,” he says. “If you want to talk to your buddy, talk to him tonight.” Then he talks about getting FAST-rated.

Pilots who want to fly formation in airshows must have a formation card issued and renewed annually by one of three organizations: FAST, the Formation and Safety Team; the International Council of Airshows; or Formation Flying Inc. FAST is for warbirds, ICAS is for aerobatic fliers, and FFI is for everyone else.

There is no formation rating outlined in the Federal Aviation Regulations, and there is no civilian rating that requires formation flying skills. But since pilots were choosing to fly formations at airshows, ICAS decided that something needed to be done to standardize this type of flying.

Until then, all the warbird groups had their own sets of rules, terminology, and hand signals, some based on Navy procedures, some based on the Air Force, some invented on the fly. Airshows that launched gigantic formations included pilots from these diverse groups. FAST was born in 1993 to standardize the practices of a conglomerate of warbird organizations, such as the Confederate Air Force, the Valiant Air Command, Warbirds of America, and the Yak Club. FAST is the only group with an established training program. Ricks’ clinic follows FAST procedures.

Because FAST is a warbird organization, its cards apply only to warbird-type airplanes with a low wing and a bubble canopy. More than half the pilots at Ricks’ clinic are in civilian aircraft. Thirty-nine of them fly Bonanzas.

Until recently, a Bonanza was the most unlikely formation-flying airplane imaginable. It is the Volvo of the flying world, a roomy, stable, fast, cross-country single-engine airplane. But in 1990, Bonanza pilot Wayne Collins started an annual event called Bonanzas to Oshkosh, a mass flight to the Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Wisconsin. Now Bonanza pilots all over the country want to become formation pilots. They could get a card from Formation Flying Inc. in Round Rock, Texas. But FFI doesn’t teach, it only gives exams, so the Bonanza pilots come to Ricks.

 Because Ricks has put on a lot of these clinics and has heard pilots grumble, he gives them fair warning. “Don’t take the critiques personally,” he says. “Don’t put your feelings up on your shoulder. The pilots who are flying with you are ex-military or professional, fly-for-hire pilots, so you are going to hear from them, especially if you do some dumb things.”

After Ricks’ briefings, Kim Pruyne addresses the newcomers. A retired Air Force pilot who flew big transports and hurricane hunters, Pruyne drills them on formation discipline, terminology, procedures, and hand signals. He covers the formation flying manual in detail, reviewing terms like “station keeping” (holding position), “sucked” (too far back), “acute” (too far forward), “gimme some” ( a call from the wingman to the leader to reduce power), “pitch-outs” (breaking away from the pack), and “kiss-off” (split up to land), as well as formations like fingertip (four aircraft arrayed like the fingertips of one hand), echelon (all wingmen on one side of a lead aircraft), trail (one after the other), and diamond (see photo, p. 26).

Formation flying evolved during World War I as a means of mutual protection for aircraft venturing out to reconnoiter. A lone scout, concentrating its attention on ground forces and unaware of threats from the air, would be vulnerable to attack. But with another along to watch for fighters, chances of survival rose. Soon the principle of safety in numbers led to gaggles of defending fighters gathered around a leader for the protection of one or more scout aircraft performing reconnaissance or adjusting artillery fire. Between the wars, a more ceremonial kind of formation, the aerial parade or air tattoo, entertained crowds at celebrations.

Although the civilians at formation flying school aren’t looking for enemies, they must fly with a military-like strictness. “Formation discipline means you do what you said you were going to do,” says Pruyne, business-like in his flightsuit. “Don’t get a harebrained idea while you are in the sky. You can change things, but the idea is to talk about what you are going to do. Formation discipline says you do what the leader says, not what you want to do. One of the things most leaders tell you to do is to shut up, mostly.” This is one of the fundamental tenets of professional formation flying: Shut up and fly. Neither explain nor complain. Make no excuses.

There is one more drill. Pilots must walk through their upcoming flight, responding to the leader’s waves, hand pumps, elbow bends, and pointed fingers as if they were all airborne. The students line up, four to a group, and try not to feel silly as they walk around the ramp in flightsuits and shorts. When they can perform an imaginary flight impeccably on the ground without turning the wrong way or crashing into each other, they are ready to fly.

Now formations take off. While they are gone, the wind picks up—across the runway. Most of the formations make a pass down the runway when they return, crossing the threshold at several hundred feet, with one, two, or three airplanes in right echelon formation off the leader’s wing. Mid-field, lead gives the kiss-off signal, racks his airplane into a tight left turn, and peels off toward the downwind leg of the runway entry pattern. The others follow suit and land well spaced out.

The Bonanzas, however, follow a different procedure. Since they are training for their en masse arrival at Oshkosh, they must learn to land in formation. The first Bonanza formation that returns today is landing in “vic,” a V-shaped formation, with the wingmen on either side of lead. Perhaps they don’t see that the wind has picked up across the runway.

An airplane wing generates turbulent air, which normally streams behind its wingtips like horizontal tornadoes. When pilots fly close formation they learn to steer clear of these corkscrews. When the wind blows down the runway they flow straight back behind each airplane. But today the wind blows these vortices across the runway, from the Bonanza leader toward Elliott Schiffman on the left. The lead aircraft lands smoothly, and the right wingman is settling down. But Schiffman is caught in their vortices. His airplane begins to roll to the right, toward the other airplane. He fights for control, then finally realizes he has to slam the airplane onto the runway to stop the roll. He does—and blows a tire.

“It flipped my wing,” Schiffman says later of the turbulent air. He is an orthopedic surgeon and apparently is used to thinking calmly under pressure. “I had full left rudder, full left aileron, and I was helpless, drifting to the right toward the plane on my right. It was like skidding on ice. All of a sudden you are along for the ride. You try, but the forces are more than you can control.”

In 1973, I learned the same hard lesson, landing in formation at the Du Page County airshow in Illinois and dinging a wing. I flew formation aerobatics for four years and learned never to let my guard down near the ground or when close to another airplane. Even when your attention is riveted on the airplane in front of you, things happen fast.

 During the week I’m in Mississippi, I fly with a number of pilots: Guy Moman Jr. in his Yak-52, Ritchie Jones in his flying club’s Bonanza, Bill Billups in the Glasair III he built, Steve Leonard in his SIAI-Marchetti, Terry Calloway and Stu Goldberg in their Bonanzas, and John Murphy in his L-39. Even though I have thousands of hours of formation flying experience, I am just like the other students, intoxicated by the magic of sailing through the air so close we can see one another’s grins.

Back on the ground, I stroll through the hangar to listen to debriefs. The cheery nervousness of the morning has given way to serious discussions. Everyone makes mistakes, and they are analyzed, in excruciating detail, so everyone can learn from them. There are long faces and disgruntled looks from men who are surprised to learn how many mistakes they could make on a one-hour flight. Flying that one considers crisp and precise is labeled by another rough and impossible to follow. The training is tough—and hard on the ego.

The lead pilot must lift off the runway gently so the other pilots can follow him.  He must roll into his turn smoothly or his wingmen are caught off guard. Safety pilots debrief their charges. “What speed did you use on liftoff?” one of them asks. The pilot mumbles something. “Well, keep it on the runway longer next time and lift off smoothly. Lead has got to think about the guys behind him. Look at both your wingmen before you roll into a turn. Make sure they are looking at you.”

Rejoins are one of the hardest and sometimes most breathtaking maneuvers formation pilots learn. It takes experience to gauge how fast you are overtaking the lead airplane and even more experience to slide into position without overshooting. Wingmen, afraid of moving toward lead too fast, creep too slowly. Bolder beginners overshoot and have to make their airplanes slide under the leader. Most aircraft have no air brakes, so moving toward another airplane for a rejoin, then stopping exactly where you want to be, takes lots of practice—and lots of mistakes.

Pilots are taught about trajectories, cut-off angles, and fixing the other airplane in a spot on the canopy and watching the rate at which its image grows. “If he starts going back, you are going to have to roll out, or you are going to go acute on him,” safety pilot Scott Patterson explains. “Roll out, then slide back. Or, if he starts going up on you, get back on the line.”

“Remember, the lead is cutting one big circle and you as wingmen are cutting smaller circles on the inside of that,” says Randy Hatchell, another safety pilot. “So what you want to do is basically parallel exactly what he is doing, then slide in.”

Later I fly with Stu Goldberg in his Bonanza. “Watch the rate at which the other plane gets bigger in your windshield,” I say, “then pull off your power and watch for that rate to slow up. You have to really concentrate. Try to see the moment when it looks like his plane hangs in the air. Add the power back right there, because in the next instant he’ll start moving away from you.”

Patterson and Hatchell have been flying with Dick Schmidt and Bruce Holecek, who have their own L-39s and are new to formation but have spent 10 or 20 hours practicing together. Patterson and Hatchell explain the mechanics of rejoins to them. Schmidt looks impatient and says, “That is something that we really understand, but I just have trouble doing.”

“This is a learning school and everybody has trouble doing it until they have done it a lot,” Patterson says. “It is not something that comes natural.”

“I’m batting about 60 percent,” Schmidt says.

The debrief goes on for an hour, each facet of the flight meticulously examined. All over the hangar it is the same: various stages of bewilderment, annoyance, exasperation, and perspiration. The only ones beaming are the military pilots, who seem to have dropped 10 years from their faces as they dig into their memory banks for the years when they were younger and did this every day.

On Sunday a few people slip out early, but many linger. Schmidt and Holecek are still flying with instructors, trying to get the most out of their time here. Before they finally leave, they decide to meet back here in October with all the other L-39 pilots in the country.

Some, like Ritchie Jones, Sean Davis, and Glen Wimbish, know they will get together back home to practice. Others, like Steve Leonard, hope they will find someone with a similar airplane and experience. Clyde Zeller, who instructed all week, says, “People found it harder than they thought it was going to be, like boot camp. Thirty years from now, when they see each other they’ll say, ‘We were at Greenwood together.’ ”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.