Fifteen Feet and Closing

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

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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.

Because FAST is a warbird organization, its cards apply only to warbird-type airplanes with a low wing and a bubble canopy. More than half the pilots at Ricks’ clinic are in civilian aircraft. Thirty-nine of them fly Bonanzas.

Until recently, a Bonanza was the most unlikely formation-flying airplane imaginable. It is the Volvo of the flying world, a roomy, stable, fast, cross-country single-engine airplane. But in 1990, Bonanza pilot Wayne Collins started an annual event called Bonanzas to Oshkosh, a mass flight to the Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Wisconsin. Now Bonanza pilots all over the country want to become formation pilots. They could get a card from Formation Flying Inc. in Round Rock, Texas. But FFI doesn’t teach, it only gives exams, so the Bonanza pilots come to Ricks.

 Because Ricks has put on a lot of these clinics and has heard pilots grumble, he gives them fair warning. “Don’t take the critiques personally,” he says. “Don’t put your feelings up on your shoulder. The pilots who are flying with you are ex-military or professional, fly-for-hire pilots, so you are going to hear from them, especially if you do some dumb things.”

After Ricks’ briefings, Kim Pruyne addresses the newcomers. A retired Air Force pilot who flew big transports and hurricane hunters, Pruyne drills them on formation discipline, terminology, procedures, and hand signals. He covers the formation flying manual in detail, reviewing terms like “station keeping” (holding position), “sucked” (too far back), “acute” (too far forward), “gimme some” ( a call from the wingman to the leader to reduce power), “pitch-outs” (breaking away from the pack), and “kiss-off” (split up to land), as well as formations like fingertip (four aircraft arrayed like the fingertips of one hand), echelon (all wingmen on one side of a lead aircraft), trail (one after the other), and diamond (see photo, p. 26).

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