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Stearman Formation Flying

Formation Flying - June 2005

Ernie Persich and Andy Geosits flying off Andreas' wing in June 2005

Formation Flying - June 2005

Rick Gregory and Andy Geosits flying in Formation over Hollister

Formation Flying - What is it all about?

Andreas Hotea

Stearman Formation Flying Clinic


Hollister, CA

I have watched various Stearman flying formation over the years and always wanted to fly in a formation myself. Last year the local formation clinic usually organized by Bill “Anchor’ Austin at Nut Tree Airport, in Vacaville, CA was not held, and Anchor was not sure he was going to organize one this year, either. Anchor is a JLFC (Joint Liaison Formation Committee) Safety Pilot. He also serves as the West Coast Coordinator for the JLFC, his primary responsibility being to assist people who want to hold formation clinics in other geographical areas. As such, he encouraged me to organize a clinic myself.

Anchor is also the organizer and lead pilot of a 4-ship Stearman squadron called the Spirit of Freedom Squadron. Their mission is to honor the service and sacrifices of the men and women of the armed forces who make our freedom and way of life possible. The squadron does this by displaying their airplanes, as well as conducting formation demonstrations, fly-overs, and missing-man formations at civic events, memorial services, parades, air shows, fly-ins, and other suitable venues. They also honor shut-in veterans by flying missions over veterans hospitals, and if requested, even their individual homes.

To get things started, I sent a few e-mails around and soon we had three students, willing and dedicated to spending one long weekend learning Stearman formation flying skills - Andy Geosits, Rick Gregory and I. For training efficiency we needed a fourth ship to be able to fly two, two-ship formations. Ernie ‘Hollywood’ Persich, who is a JLFC qualified two-ship lead pilot, volunteered to fly dedicated lead. Hollywood took this opportunity to freshen up his lead skills and take some well-needed time off from a busy schedule at his shop, Vintage Wings and Wheels, where he maintains all the airplanes which were flying at this formation clinic and many more additional Stearmans and WWII type aircraft. Anchor provided me with a steady list of things to take care of and stuff to check out. ‘How to organize a Formation Flying clinic’, written by Anchor – a very valuable document for everyone who is interested in doing this, was a great help for me. Anyone interested in this document should contact him by e-mail (he’s listed in the SRA roster). The first thing I needed was a location. I was concerned about the weather in Hollister, CA (KCVH), since quite frequently we have fog from the Pacific Ocean until late into the morning. Other locations further inland were considered, but finally we decided to use Hollister. The risk was worth taking because we were all familiar with the airport. The next task was to find additional JLFC instructors. Anchor recommended John ‘Travis’ Hodgson and Tom ‘Linus’ Lambrick. Luckily, both were available and volunteered to train us.

Beate, Hollywood’s wife and my fellow Austrian, was the heart of our group. I was aware of the situation I was in; if I was to participate in the clinic I had no time to take care of the details during the three and a half days. Beate volunteered to take care of our physical well-being. The goal of the clinic was to fly as much as possible and we did not plan for much time to get breakfast, lunch or dinner.

We ordered the required reading material from the JLFC Secretary/Treasurer Tom Gordon, at the following address:

3210 South County Road 23

Loveland, Co 80537

Tel: (970) 667-2048

Day 1 - Thursday

The first day of the clinic, Thursday evening, began with a ground school. Having been advised to study the written material beforehand, we all showed up for class prepared to take the written exam. Afterwards Anchor discussed safety and operational information, and Stearman specific items. It was hammered into our heads during ground school that standardization was the key to safe formation flying. No matter who you fly with – if everyone is JLFC trained – you all should ‘speak the same language’ in the air. We were also taught the standard reference points to look at on the other aircraft, in order to maintain proper position and separation.

Day 2 - Friday

We were assigned to two, two-ship elements and off we went. Every safe formation flight starts with a good briefing. The whole flight is discussed. What is our call-sign? Which frequencies do we use? How are we going to join-up? What maneuvers are we flying? How steep do we turn? How we’re going to break up the formation before landing, and so on? We made sure we reviewed the hand-signals and discussed what kinds of landings we planned to make, how to taxi back to the ramp, and how we coordinate to shut down our engines at the same time. Engine starting at the same time is a bit tricky, as some of our engines have inertial fly-wheels, and others don’t. We finally agreed on an additional thumbs up signal to be passed between pilots when all fly-wheels are up to speed, so the engines start at approximately the same time.

Off we go! Each student gets a passenger – one of the instructors. I start off as a lead airplane for my section. Andy is behind me flying his first flight as a wingman. After takeoff, once your wingman is at a safe altitude – you begin a shallow turn and allow your wingman to join the formation. I fly as instructed by Anchor, mostly straight to help Andy’s training on station keeping. After a while it’s my turn to fly wingman and I give Andy the signal to take the lead. Whoom! He is gone. I have a stock 220 hp Continental engine and have no chance to keep up with his 275 hp Jacobs engine with a constant speed prop. ‘Give me some’, I call on the radio, the standard request for him to slow down. It helps and I slide into a ‘really wide’ formation. It takes some guts to fly that close to another aircraft. The first instructor I had a decade ago told me to avoid flying close to anything in the air. This still sticks in my head and I have to force myself to get closer.

I began to learn that making timely small changes with the stick and the throttle is the main formula for good station keeping. Flying formation is taking all my concentration, but I am still all over the sky – too high, too low, being sucked (behind the bearing line) and being acute (in front of the bearing line). I am flying sucked behind Andy and at this point I am happy about it. This is good enough for me. After landing we go to the de-briefing. The whole flight is analyzed. I am told by my instructor that I should not be satisfied flying out of formation. I should try to get back into formation as soon as I see any deviation. OK, I get it. Next time I’ll do it better. We prepare for the next flight with another briefing. This flight will basically be the same routine as the first flight – except better station keeping. Anchor also wants to add some turns rather than straight and level flight. In this flight I learn that the wingman must slows down a bit when the lead turns towards him, and that the wingman must speed up a bit when the lead turns away from him, as the wingman is flying a wider turn at that time. The wingman stays in the same relative position during turns. All reference points still apply. After this flight we debrief again. The instructors are very careful to give us a recommendation for a better behavior after each criticism. If you did something wrong, then they tell you what you could do to make it better next time. This teaching technique helps me learn. I am not left repeating my mistakes. Instead I am given positive feedback and constructive criticism to apply to future flights. We still have time for one more flight on Friday. We stay in the same group. I am flying with Andy, changing lead halfway during the flight. Rick is flying with Hollywood as his dedicated lead. This time the turns are getting steeper and faster. Though it is not possible to stay in perfect position all the time, the goal is to pass through this perfect position as often as possible with as little relative motion as possible. It makes more sense to me now. I am learning how to coordinate my power, airspeed, altitude, and position needs better, so I don’t have to work so hard. I also learn to never let lead out of my sight. I am able to glimpse away to check oil pressure and oil-temperature, but just for a split second. The first position change we are instructed in is the cross-under, where the wingman flies from the left to the right side of lead, or vice versa. As a wingman I must make sure that I don’t come up too early (close) to my lead, but rather stay out a bit and move in on the bearing line. A few reference points are discussed regarding the cross-under. How far should the wingman fall behind? How low should he fly? When is it time to come up to the right level? All this is important and you want to be sure to remember this information. We are having a good time, going out for dinner and doing a bit of hangar-flying. I really enjoy the time I fly lead as there is not much to take care of compared to the wingman (Little did I know then the next day would prove me wrong).

Day 3 - Saturday

During the first flight we practice breaks and re-joins. The lead turns away from the wingman in a peel-off and rolls wings-level after 180 degrees of turn. After a pre-determined time the wingman follows. I tend to climb during break-turns, a mistake that Anchor points out to me over and over again. After you radio your lead that you are in-trail (flying behind him) he turns gently to one side. The wingman re-joins the formation on the inside of the turn. We have discussed the right cut-off angles and the visual reference points to use when you are too far out to use the reference points that you normally use when you are flying close to the lead. It takes a few attempts to get the right feeling for it, but once you see it a few times, it all makes sense. “Keep the lead at the horizon”, I still hear Anchor in my ear.

One of the cardinal rules of formation flying is: “Never fly belly up to your lead”. This means that when trying to (re)-join and you are coming in at too high of a closure speed, you should never try to correct your closure speed by banking away from your lead so steeply that you lose sight of him (he disappears under the belly of your airplane). If you can’t see him you are in deep trouble. Knowing this rule makes me hesitate coming in for a (re)-join. There are just too many things to take care of. We also start flying in-trail. The lead flies steep turns, climbs, and descents while you are behind his tail. You sure learn how to trust your lead, and it makes sense to put the most experienced pilot in the lead position. Finally we are flying echelon-formation again. How easy it seems. You have to figure out how to anticipate what to do next. I see the correct reference points start to get out of proper alignment, and almost without thinking I already have reduced power and here is the correct reference point again at it’s perfect position. What a beginner I was just yesterday! Landing, de-briefing (I guess I was farther behind the lead in the in-trail-portion of the flight than I thought), a new briefing. More breaks and re-joins are on the plan and a change in the grouping. I will fly with Hollywood as my lead and Linus as my instructor. This will give me more practice time, as I will not fly lead. I really enjoy flying wingman more than lead, because lead has lots of things to take care of. Strange how quickly you appreciate an experienced lead. I sympathize with Andy, who had to fly with me as his lead. But then Hollywood seems to be impatient. I am flying a cross-under, and as soon as I come up on the other side I see the signal for ‘stack-up’ and ‘come in closer’. What the heck. Did he not give me the cross under signal just a few seconds ago? After a while I do appreciate his help to put me in the perfect position as soon as possible. We are practicing lead changes and flying lazy eights in echelon position. This is the worst portion of the training so far. I see the hilly environment in the corner of my eyes while I try to stay in formation with Hollywood and the hills appear to be crawling up on me during the turns where I am on the inside. Lead surely will hear about this during de-briefing. It all comes down to trust. Once you fully trust your lead you can be assured that he takes care of you and would not let you fly into the ground. I did not really know how far we were from the ground – I guess I am still flying with tunnel-vision – focusing too much on the lead and not seeing anything else.

Day 4 - Sunday

Rick’s ear-infection flared up again and he had to stop flying. I am teamed up with Linus again. Hollywood is my lead. We review all maneuvers and add another one - In-trail with steep turns by the lead. Linus shows me how staying close to the lead makes it easier to follow him. The flight is over. We take a lunch-break at Harry Halajian’s hangar, the “temple” for local Stearman pilots and a haven for the local pilot community. Harry has restored 8 Stearmans over the years and knows everything there is about this beautiful aircraft. Which starter goes with which engine and how do I get parts to work? Just ask Harry. He knows.

Linus recommends me to Anchor for the check-ride. He reviews all important signals and maneuvers before I am handed over to Anchor. Hollywood gives me a standard briefing – a short flight in the practice area with a few maneuvers and re-joins. Nothing special. What I don’t know yet is that Hollywood got instructions from Anchor to throw in a few curve-balls. For example, Hollywood is signaling me a frequency change without widening me out first. I am not running into the trap. The flight was uneventful. I am doing a reasonably good job. Only the climbing part during a cross under was too close to the lead. Anchor keeps a stone face after we land. Not a sign whether I pass or fail. We de-brief. I realize that all ‘mistakes’ by Hollywood were requested by Anchor before the flight (Hollywood, you *@#%$^%). Finally, the words I was waiting for. “Congratulations! You passed!”. What a burden off my chest. Andy passes his check-ride and we are relieved, but very tired. Three days of intense flying, briefing and studying have taken their toll.

The cost for the 3½ days was about $600 per person. This included study material, food, hotel rooms for the instructors and AVgas for our support planes. This amount did not include our own AVgas and our own lodging. Beate and Ernie ‘Hollywood’ Persich from Vintage Wings and Wheels donated their time and conference rooms for briefing- and dining. All instructors donated their time. We just paid for their food and lodging. Depending on the number of instructors, the number of students and other circumstances, the price per student may vary.

In general, I am not really a team-sport person, but flying formation is the right mixture of individual accomplishment and working as a team. Everyone in the formation has to give his or her best. I really do love it. It is yet another dimension in flying the Stearman.

The sun is low on Sunday evening and we are taking three Stearmans up for a short flight into the sunset. Anchor flies lead from the front seat of my ship; Hollywood flies # 2, and Travis # 3. You can see the sun reflecting on those beautiful yellow wings. What a joy! We are flying together like clock-work,

AND THAT’s what it is all about!

Pic 1: References for wing-formation: Note: This picture was taken from the front-cockpit – so the tail does not line up with the wingman’s N-strut, but with the inner strut from the photographer’s point of view.

Hollywood flying dedicated lead.

Picture by Tom Bukowski.

Pic 2: Andy flying in formation with Hollywood after his check-ride.

Picture by Tom Bukowski.

Pic 3: Andy sliding into position for a re-join

Picture by Tom Bukowski.

Pic 4: Andreas is handing lead back to Hollywood and sliding back into formation.

Picture by Tom Bukowski.

Pic 5: The participants of the formation clinic in Hollister, CA in May 2005: Left to right: Rick, Andy, Travis, Hollywood, Tom Bukowski (photographer), Linus, Anchor, Andreas

Picture by Barbara Courtney.

Pic 6: Andy, Rick and Andreas getting their planes ready for the first flight of the day

Picture by Tom Bukowski.

Pic 7: Rick and Andy in echelon formation over the field.

Picture by Tom Bukowski.


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