Fifteen Feet and Closing
At formation flying school, invading your neighbor's space becomes an art form.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
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.