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Fifteen Feet and Closing

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

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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.

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