What NOT to do on the day of your PPC by Scott Jackson [jayeandscott at telus.net]
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Having recently returned to the skies following a five-month repair, necessitated by a forced landing after a fuel-system problem (an aeronautical version of a wardrobe malfunction), resuming formation flying practice was a top priority.
The decision of who to invite to ride along as lookout pilot was easy: Vancouver A340 Captain Allan Snowie, as, many months ago, he had strapped in with me for the same exercise only to have us scrub when the alternator refused to come online after start.
About now, the intelligent reader would ask why two airline pilots in their mid-to-late fifties would subject themselves to the extremely-intense concentration and other rigors that formation flying demands. The biggest plus is the maintenance of very quick eye-hands and feet co-ordination, followed by the ability to precisely control the airplane to very finite parameters. One cannot discount the sheer rush and excitement of being so close to another airplane in flight, and the constant challenge of staying there.
Our small, informal team in the Fraser Valley includes two other pilots with similar backgrounds who have also built their own RV’s. Both recently retired off the 400, George Serviss (G1) flies an RV-4 appropriately sporting the name “Speedy One”, as it is lighter, narrower and has more horsepower. In fact, when we take off in trail, with three-second spacing on the roll, he usually is tail-end Charlie, but is always the first to join up on Lead.
George McNutt (G2) flies a very-well equipped RV-6A called the Underdog. Not sure why that is, as the instruments and avionics in his panel cost as much as my entire airplane.
Retired Captain Bryan Carr, military-trained in formation work unlike us, is reluctant to join as we occasionally call ourselves Snowflake Flight and he doesn’t want anything to do with pilots that call themselves “Flakes”. The name was bestowed by a Tower controller who thought we were too small and slow to call ourselves Snowbirds. Bryan has played in the past, but prefers to hang in a trail position, weaving in a protective cone around Lead’s tail; I guess old habits die hard.
Usually, if G1 is unavailable (amazing how busy these retired guys can be), his son Steve, who flies Dash Eight’s, will sub, but for this hop it will be just Underdog and the Imitutor. A two-ship is less wieldy and complicated than a three-ship, and I expect to be quite rusty.
The Imitutor is kept at a different airport than the others, so we alternate our launch sites. Sure enough, just as Allan arrives and strides out onto the ramp, after I’ve pushed the plane out to the line, dipped and sumped the tanks and checked it over, the Underdog comes whispering overhead into the pattern. G2 has brought Austin with him as his lookout, he is yet another RV builder and pilot.
After introductions, we retire to a quiet corner of the hangar for the all-important briefing.
A formation pre-flight briefing is necessarily lengthy and very comprehensive, and one of the absolutes of formation work is “no brief, no fly”; meaning one cannot join a formation in progress without a briefing. If the latecomer is known to the group and they’re already in the air, occasionally a briefing by radio from Lead is OK with everyone, but it’s not an optimum situation.
The rough format of the briefing begins with assignment of positions within the formation for the first part of the practice, as usually Lead will switch with one of the wingmen after they tire. Lead conducts the briefing, and he is chosen the night before so that he can gather the info.
Then we decide what we’ll call ourselves today, as we’ll be calling numerous ATC freq’s. Lead will then determine that all participants meet the minimum-fuel requirements for the hop (something a little incident I caused forced to be included), followed by a weather review and any notams that will apply. An inter-formation frequency is copied by all onto their kneeboards, this is spoken over the radio as Channel One, versus an actual freq so we can have some privacy, and the protocol for changing freqs is reviewed. It’s amazing how something as simple as this can go awry, and how quickly things deteriorate because of it. This naturally segues into a review of hand signals, both for routine commands and notification of comm problems. And this is not for show; we routinely launch from Canada’s third-busiest airport, and the airwaves are frequently so busy Lead can’t get in a single word.
A collaborative decision is made with regard to the practice area location to be used today, considering turbulence, traffic, transit times, and closeness of the all-important lunch stop, including the physical dimensions of the area we’ll claim for an hour.
These are common to all formation flights, and then the specifics of this particular practice are decided upon, and detailed minutely. Beginning with the Lead’s hand signals for cranking, canopy closing, establishing comms, switching to Ground, the taxi-out formation, the spacing in the run-up area, the hand signals when all checks are complete, the relative positions on the runway for the formation takeoff, considering the wind and the drift of Lead’s propellor vortex, the hand signals for ready to go from the wingman, the exaggerated head-nod from Lead signaling brakes release, the rate of power application, the liftoff and climb speeds to be used, the altitude to be used enroute to the practice area.
This might seem like overkill, but, if you’ve been hanging grimly onto Lead’s wingtip for half-an-hour as a newbie, you’ll have no idea where you are, or maybe even who you are.
Routine in the practice area, after Lead has advised the nearest ATC unit of our location and intentions, commences with holding patterns-both left and right hand- in either echelon or vic formation (if there’s enough ships) followed by figure eights. This progresses into the same pattern with climbing and diving turns. Formation changes follow, from echelon left to echelon right, to vic and back to echelon, to in trail. Each formation has two degrees of closeness to it, the usual, tight, parade position, which Lead commands the wingmen into with a wing rock, and the looser, route or cruise position, which is ordered by a fishtailing from Lead.
The trail position would seem to be the easiest, but it’s entirely different, as each wingman must put his ship where Lead has been, and not simply follow him around the sky, otherwise they’d be constantly closing on him as they cut inside his turns. And if our instructor is flying Lead, we endure constantly-changing, and expanding, G envelopes as we concentrate on following him while the background beyond him changes from all-sky to all-ground. This is a lead-in exercise to basic ACM, or dogfighting, something many RV’s get used for.
The last maneuver in the practice area before a Lead change is the break-and-rejoin. Lead briefs the direction of the break, and the timing between the breaks. The wingmen must agree with the direction, lest Lead break into them. On a three-second break, the wingman would end up in a trail position, six seconds behind. Upon hearing, “Two’s in”, Lead rocks his wings signaling a rejoin, then commences a turn in the direction he wants the wingman to join up inside of. He then broadcasts his speed so that Two can establish some delta - or 'smash' - on him for the rejoin.
On the ensuing Lead change, Lead also lets the new lead know where he is, what he’s noticed traffic or turbulence-wise, commands the squawk transfer and a cockpit scan with fuel-tank transfer. This might seem like overkill, but, if you’ve been hanging grimly onto Lead’s wingtip for half-an-hour as a newbie, you’ll have no idea where you are, or maybe even who you are.
Leaving the practice area for the recovery to the airfield of choice, the formation is altered to allow either an overhead or battle break, or a formation landing. Sometimes the taxiway off the runway requires Lead to cross over the centreline to the wingman’s side, so it is covered in the briefing that Two will call, “Two’s on” to let Lead know that the crossover can be done without a risk of collision. An in-trail taxi-in is followed by swinging into the parking spots in unison and cutting the mixtures on Lead’s hand signal, as is opening the canopies.
The last elements of the preflight briefing involve emergencies, and how they are handled from within the formation. Basically, no one has overlapping wings, so that Lead can have an engine failure and just slide right back through the formation without endangering the wingmen. If he trades airspeed for altitude, he’ll even drift over top of the slot man in a diamond formation. The greatest risk of collision comes on the rejoin following a break, and a mis-handled rejoin is discussed, with the mandatory undershoot to reduce the risk.
Allan learned formation flying in the military a couple of years ago, but G2 and I recruited an ex-CAF pilot who spent seven years instructing on Tutors at Moose Jaw, so when he speaks, we listen. Although we had to bribe him for the first lesson, the rest he did for free, so enamored did he become with the RV’s. He thought they had the same stability, control pressure and response, throttle response, and visibility as his beloved Tutor, or closer than anything he’d flown since.
Before the first lesson, he spent considerable time generating computer images of overhead-views of various spacings, to get the look and safety factor just right. Taking the measurements from that, he then had us push and shove our planes around on the ground relative to one another while he spent much time crouching down and determining lines of reference. These were eventually determined to be: the outer aileron hinge superimposed on the spinner, the trailing edge of the wing in the middle of the wing( equal amounts of wing showing above and below the trailing edge) and a small contrasting diamond on the outboard edge of the elevator superimposed on the base of the vertical stab’s leading edge. A picture of the Imitutor taken from Underdog by Austin shows perfect positioning by G2.
Despite having generated all this explanation , I am still at a loss to describe how difficult it is initially to hold the aircraft in this position. On my first lesson, the instructor flew the aircraft into position off Lead’s wing, demonstrating the lines of reference, then handed control to this newbie while staying close to them.
He knows what comes next, and there’s no other way to learn but just dive in and get dirty.
Within a few minutes, frantically phugoiding, rolling and yawing and pumping the throttle, I was sweating profusely, gasping so hard my mouth was dry, and having trouble seeing through the sweat pouring off my brow, which had easily overpowered the suede browband in my helmet. I unzipped my flying suit and opened the airvent all the way, but it didn’t help.
And this was just flying straight and level, in smooth evening air over the ocean. I stressed the engine from idle to full power over and over and over. From three G’s to weightless and back again.
For example, I notice that I’m drifting backwards slightly, in that the aileron hinge is in front of the spinner. So I add power, more than necessary to just arrest the slide, so that I can accelerate back into position. This naturally unbalances the forces at work, which makes it climb a tiny bit, but, this close to another object, the displacement is greatly magnified, so I have to lower the nose to get back down. The increase in power also causes the airplane to skid, being a short fuselage with a relatively-powerful engine. The skid is either into or away from Lead, depending on which side of his I’m on, but it requires a correction either way. The correction for this either involves or results in a slight roll, so there’s that to consider as well.
While I’m stirring away trying to control all this, I notice that now I’m too far forward, so reduce the power, setting in motion the opposite of all the above.
Luckily, just as I’m subconsciously doubting the relevance of my motives in learning this new skill, the PIO’s gradually start damping down in magnitude. I almost catch my breath and my heart stops making the parachute harness jump around on my shoulders and I can see again when Lead rolls into a gentle turn.
And this is the weirdest feeling so far: I’m above Lead, banked towards him, and feel for all the world like we’re about to fall on him. And I instinctively do what all newbies do: press top rudder so I don’t crash into him. This, of course, requires considerable opposite aileron to match Lead’s turn, which slides me into the exposed structure of the cockpit side, squeezing my left arm between the airplane and me, which I need to keep pumping that throttle.
It’s called dishing, and the instructor had briefed that it would happen, he didn’t mention that we would feel powerless to do anything else. It takes several turns before the fear of falling into Lead begins to dissipate, and relax a little on the rudder, which makes everything work a little better.
The worst fright I gave myself occurred when, for the first time, and as briefed before departure, Lead gently rolled from a left turn continuously into a right turn. I knew it was coming, but stopped as I came wings-level while Lead passed through level and then suddenly realized that I was looking down through the top of his canopy and he was still rolling towards me. I hauled mightily on the stick just as my instructor was putting his hand on it and zoomed up out of danger. He said it wasn’t close....
As an indication how intense this is initially, on my second lesson, I lead initially, then flew on the wing back to the airport for the break and in-trail landing. Upon shutdown and unstrapping, I climbed over the fuselage side onto the wing and jumped the foot-and-a-half off the trailing edge to the ground.
You can imagine my surprise when my feet hit the ground and the rest of my body just kept on coming. I crashed to my knees, instinctively putting my hands out to prevent a face plant, looking point-blank at the tarmac and my instructors shoes. I shakily tried to stand up, but could only muster a half-lean against the fuselage side, wondering why the airport was experiencing such a strong earthquake. Nausea reared its ugly head, and my legs were trembling so bad I daren’t try to stand any taller.
The instructor thought this very funny, and I remember slowly raising my head to see him laughing at me with his arms folded across his flying suit, “ That’s an adrenaline overdose, it’ll go away after a few lessons.”
And it did.
Don’t begin to think that the wingman does all the work. Flying Lead presents a whole different set of problems. It’s as if you’re now flying a huge airplane, with five or more times the wingspan of just yours, that is very ponderous and slow to manoeuver. Any slight adjustment to attitude that we would normally make without a second thought is magnified throughout the formation. In the last few seconds during a formation landing, the lineup had better be perfect, as any bank at all by Lead would put the wingman perilously close to the ground, and they wouldn’t even know it. Even the direction of a turn must be considered in advance, to avoid putting ourselves between the sun and the wingman, forcing him into a risky sunshot.
Once, leading a three-ship in echelon right on a left-hand downwind for a low pass down the runway at our lunch stop, I glanced over my left shoulder at the runway and guessed that I was in perfect position for a turn to the base leg. I crisply snapped the Imitutor into its usual 45-degree bank, only remembering I had two wingmen on the outside of the turn after I was wingup. By then, it was too late to take some bank off, as I would be rolling into them, and I looked out behind my right wing just in time to see Underdog sliding back into formation. Of Speedy One, number Three that time, there was no sign, I’d spit him out of the formation. But, true to his name, he zoomed up into position like he was on a rubber band. Neither G1 nor G2 said anything, it was just a given that now I’d be buying lunch for all. Sigh. Luckily retired guys don’t eat much....
And the learning curve is unlike anything else, even in aviation. Instead of occasional plateaus, the instructor warned us about it being saw-toothed: know what we’re doing one trip, back to square one the next. Frustrating, and inexplicable.
The concentration required can generate its own problems. After five or six lessons, the instructor cleared us to fly solo wingman, and one Sunday I was flying with his wife as my lookout while he was riding with G2 as Lead. A couple of miles offshore, about six miles south of the American border, he fishtailed me out of parade position and called for a cockpit scan and tank change. I glanced at the tank gauges, noticing that the tank I was switching away from was reading empty, but not actually seeing it as I was focused elsewhere.
A short while later, back in parade on the left wing and the inside of a turn, I realized that Lead was pulling away and my throttle was firewalled. A quick glance inside indicated the fuel-pressure warning light was on, a glance at the gauge showed zero pressure, and the tank the engine was drawing from was indicating zero.
Simultaneously rolling out of formation and heading for shore, I declared an emergency with Lead, switched tanks (to the other one also indicating zero) and selected the backup boost pump on. The engine recovered quickly, and we did a precautionary landing at a farmer’s strip just north of the border. Mrs. Instructor gave me a hug for saving her, I felt such a fool for concentrating so hard that I overlooked the basics and put our lives at risk. The rest of the Snowflakes decided that I had just given myself a new call sign: Bingo. I hate it, but it keeps me humble...
An unexpected aspect of our practicing occurs when we check with a Tower for overflight clearance and they hint in the broadest possible way that there is a gap in the circuit if we’d like to come on down for a low-and-over, or an invitation to flyby at a Canada Day celebration or fly over a cenotaph at 1100 on Remembrance Day. I guess we don’t look that bad...
On this day that Allan flew with us, I flew the first half-hour on the wing, then we flew Lead for G2, then Allan flew on the wing, and his formation-flying skills were impressive and he seemed to be expending very little effort to stay in position.
When we tried our first break, three seconds after Lead broke away to our left, Allan did just like I had been doing: bank and yank.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t used to the light elevators, and I remember looking vertically downward at him and wondering why my head was so heavy and what was that rushing sound in my ears? I noticed we’d bled off forty knots of airspeed and then dragged, with great effort, my eyes up to the G-meter on the glare shield: it was registering a sustained five G’s.
The turn took very little time and Lead suddenly appeared, not six seconds ahead, but in perfect position, had we wished to be in close trail. We had to chop the throttle to idle and cross-control in a mighty skid to stay behind.
I suspect we both had taken a few steps down that short path to a power nap - the G-LOC.
The subsequent recovery to the airport and echelon-right landing meant that I did my first-ever cross-cockpit formation landing, which, except for the Imitutor trying to eat a couple of runway edge lights, went well. Landing one’s airplane by looking at another’s wheels and the ground beneath them certainly is interesting.
(click any image for a 800x600 enlargement)
We gathered in the coffee shop for lunch and a debrief. This pleasant time of soul-bearing and ridicule by one’s peers was cut short as Allan’s PPC showtime was fast approaching. A quick dash through the tunnel under the Fraser River followed changing out of his flightsuit.
Showing up with just minutes to spare, a routine briefing and examination of paperwork was followed by strapping into the sim and launching for fun-and-games for the next four hours.
How he did is confidential, suffice to say that, after the double-workout of the day, he was a little slow egressing from his seat at the end of the session, with the observation that he wouldn’t have any trouble sleeping that night.
And just how do I know this for a fact?
I was the Check Pilot!
The amazing thing is that this is what the Imitutor looked like on the 4th of July last year. Daughter Vanessa-standing looking at what she rode through, and dressed in loose-fitting clothes as she's scratched and cut everywhere - soloed in it within two lessons of it getting back in the air. What a Christmas present for Dad...
History of the accident: http://www.vansairforce.net/articles/Imitutor.htm