Fifteen Feet and Closing

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

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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.

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