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
(Page 2 of 6)
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.