Sunday, May 13, 2007

Formation Clinic

This weekend was the long anticipated Ohio Valley RVators 4th Annual Formation Clinic, and by "long-anticipated" I mean that I've been stressed about it for months now. Combine the fact that it would entail two nights away from home base (which is, of course, two nights longer than I usually stay out, and the issue of inclement weather possibly stranding me somewhere is always a stress event for me) with the even more stressful fact that this would be my first time ever at the controls of an airplane that was deliberately placed just a handful of feet from another airplane for an extended period of time and you might understand why I was a little nervy about the whole thing. I have ridden as a passenger in formation flights before, so I knew exactly how much of a challenge this would be. The stress went beyond the concern over the loss of life, limb, or airplane, however. If you have ever read Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," you will recognize the fear of being the guy that "screws the pooch." In order of priority, being the pooch-screwer does fall below the fear of getting badly or irretrievably hurt, but not by much.

My fears of bad weather causing travel difficulties were alleviated by mid-week with a forecast for good flying weather across the entire weekend, but with the faintly desired hope for a weather induced cancellation now dashed, the butterflies in the tummy started swarming like angry hornets. I had done all that I could to prepare myself with the book knowledge that would be required, but even in that aspect I still had my doubts. The book knowledge mostly has to do with procedures and signals. Both are critically important in formation flying, the act of which is difficult enough when everyone is singing from the same hymnal but nigh on impossible if everyone is winging it, so to speak. The procedures were easy enough to comprehend and retain, but the signals used to direct various formation changes and the like were simply befuddling to me. One signal means "go from fingertip strong right to echelon left" and another somewhat similar signal means "go from left echelon to fingertip strong right," and yet another means go to "route" (whatever the heck that means) while yet another means "go to trail." I just couldn't get it all straight in my head, much less memorized to the degree that I wouldn't have to do a very slow database query in my head while flying the airplane in the most challenging and frightening situation I had ever been in. There simply is no time to be trying to remember what a signal means, and even less time to even consider consulting a cheat sheet. I was not in the least bit happy that I was so woefully under prepared for that aspect, knowing full well that the expectation on the part of the more experienced formation fliers was that newbies like me would arrive at the clinic with both cheeks attached, which is to say, there is no room to approach this kind of thing half-assed.

That situation was what it was, of course, and Friday arrived without regard for whether I was ready for it or not. As mentioned, the forecast was for good flying weather for the full three days, so Friday morning found me in the hangar getting ready to go. I knew I'd be carrying an instructor pilot with me, and with there being some chance that he would be taller that 5' 6", I removed some of the foam material from the passenger side seat cushion. I've noticed that a lot of the guys that ride with me are hunched over to keep from banging their heads against the canopy, so it seemed prudent to just go ahead and adjust the cushion. I did the same thing on my side two years ago, but since fully half of my passengers are children I had been reluctant to do it on the other side. I also packed up the canopy cover, tie down stakes, and gust locks in case I ended up with the airplane being parked outside. That turned out to be unnecessary as there was plenty of room to park in the big hangar, but again, my "both cheeks" mentality dictated that I arrive prepared for the eventuality.

The ride down to Parkersburg is only 35 minutes or so, which is a real bargain for me when you consider that there were people coming from as far away as Kansas City, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and points Northeast. Friday was a tad on the hazy side, which is a shame because Parkersburg is in a very pretty part of the country. I would like to have been able to do a little more sightseeing on the way down, but the haze pretty much washed everything out to the gray-ish hue that is normally the hallmark of July/August flying. Parkersburg is a normal airport by West Virgina standards, those standards apparently being "lop the top off a mountain and put down an airport." This type of airport always presents a visually daunting approach in that it gives the impression that landing just a bit short is going to result in a face-plant against the side of a cliff. The runway is huge by my normal standards at 6781 x 150 ft. so you'd have to be almost incomprehensibly incompetent to miss it, though. I was afraid the 150 ft. width might be an issue considering the problems I have sometimes with the 100 ft. width of Bolton causing me to flare high, but I beat the odds and made a fairly decent touchdown.

I was just in time to join some of the earlier arrivers for lunch at the airport restaurant (Mary's Plane View - highly recommended!!) where I had a meatloaf/gravy sandwich. Quite yummy! The rest of the afternoon was spent watching other planes arrive and chatting with the ever-growing group of pilots. I got a close up look at a recently completed RV-10, and I have to say that I found it to be quite impressive. I think the only way you could tell that it wasn't a factory built airplane is that there aren't many manufacturers could put together an airplane as nice as this RV-10:

The first official event of the clinic was in the early evening, when we all sat down for pizza and a briefing regarding the events and schedules for the weekend. We went through the roster of attendees, with each person standing up for an introduction. A computer spreadsheet was projected onto a large screen, and it was plain to see that each pilot had been assigned a color, either red, yellow, or green. When the spotlight fell on the first "red" pilot, we were all informed that "red" translated directly to "you scare us," with "us" being the non-newbies. When my turn came, I couldn't help pointing out that I thought that a fair assessment, but beyond that I also wanted to share that "red" also indicated that I was pretty damn scared too!

The next two hours were spent going through some of the more important things we would need to know, which unfortunately included the in-flight hand and aircraft signals that I still had not managed to internalize. The discussion helped some, but it really wasn't coming to me. I knew this was going to be a real problem on Saturday when this stuff went directly from abstract concept to real-life "must know," but again, you have to go with the brain you have, not the one you wish you had. By the time we got done with the classroom training, transportation to the hotel, and the lengthy check-in process, it was 11:00 and I was dead tired. Having had this stuff on my mind for the previous few nights had caused me some degree of restlessness for the latter half of the week, but that was nothing compared to Friday night. I think I got two or three hours of sleep in total, and even that was not a restful sleep. Dreams of echelon turns, pitch-outs to landing, and the various and sundry pooch-screwing opportunities simply would not afford me the rest that I knew I would need. The 5:30 wake-up call was moot, to put it bluntly.

I found that I had no appetite for breakfast, and only managed a nibble or two of a bagel. Upon arrival back at the airport, I did what I could to ensure that my airplane was up to the task, regardless of whether the pilot was or not. It was at least an hour before the first briefing, so I wasn't sure what I would do to distract myself and keep my nerves from getting totally out of control. In that, I got lucky. Rick was going to take the beautiful RV-10 for a quick hop, and asked if I could ride with another early riser to get some pictures for him. Always thrilled with the chance to ride in an RV-8, I was more than happy to jump in the back of the gorgeous Miss Izzy (please, do NOT take that part of the sentence out of context!) and take a ride. The air was glass smooth, and I think I got some very nice pictures for Rick.

Smoozer's RV-10

Kahuna's Super 8 (Hey Doug Reeves! Check out that prop arc - no gyro mount!)


Miss Izzy

Riding in the back seat of Miss Izzy

We made it back in plenty of time for the 8:00 briefing, which is a good thing in that these things are run with military precision and will start on time whether you are there or not. The first flight would entail me riding with an experienced formation pilot and watching/learning how the book knowledge worked in actual application. Now, I have ridden in formation before, but without the benefit of knowing even the little bit that I had been able to learn about what it all means. That, and the fact that I was nearly always busy taking pictures, meant that this would be my first real exposure to the full plethora of details involved in keeping everyone on the same page and heading in the same direction. I was assigned to ride with "Joker" in the back of his RV-8, which would be my second ride of the day in an RV-8. I figured that no matter how the rest of the weekend turned out, two rides in an 8 would be enough to justify the time and cost.

Riding along and watching the signals and experiencing the correct responses without having to devote any energy or attention at all to operating the airplane was exactly what I needed for it all to come together in my head. What I found is that all of the various signals in the books can be distilled down to just five or six fundamentals, and just like the various entries to your home airport, you can narrow down the decision tree you will have to follow to decode a signal to just a few options. For example, it reduces the complexity quite a bit just to know that the fingertip formation is essentially the default formation, and all formation changes are based on being in fingertip. So if you're in diamond or route, for example, all you have to watch for is the wing rock that directs you to return to fingertip. There are a few easily understood rules to live by, although I found that they can be difficult to avoid violating.

Fingertip formation

Each of the planes in the formation is assigned a number. Not surprisingly, the plane in front that is leading the flight is called "Lead" or #1. The solitary plane to his left is #2, although it is important to note that #2 can be either to the left or to the right of #1. It is not the side that he is on that distinguishes him as #2, it is the fact that he is the leaders wingman. The airplane directly across from #2 is #3, and the airplane behind and to the right of #3 is #4. These numbers matter in a number of ways, but one of the more important ways is in response to signals from lead.

For example, if lead gives a raised closed fist as a signal, that is a signal to #2 to cross under from whatever side of lead he is on over to the other side. That spot is, of course, currently occupied by #3, so in a way the raised fist is also a signal to #3, that signal being "you better make some room because #2 is coming over." Now if that raised fist is pumped up and down a couple of times, that means the signal is intended for #3. It means essentially the same thing to #3 as it did to #2: cross over to the other side. In this case, #2 really doesn't care because he doesn't need to do anything about it. He is not going to make room for #3 because #2 is always attached to #1. Rather than move into a gap created by #2 moving back, #3 will instead drop a little further back, cross under #2, and join on his opposite side. #4 doesn't care about the signal either because his job is pretty simple: follow #3 to the gates of Hell. He knows that if #3 is crossing under, then he needs to follow. Once they get over to the other side, though, he's going to recognize that he's now on the wrong side of #3, so he's going to continue moving over until he has crossed under #3. In either event (single fist or double-pump fist) the end result is going to be a transition from fingertip formation to echelon formation:

Right echelon. From another angle, and notice how they're stacked down:

Once that move is done, it is important to make a mental note that you are no longer in fingertip formation for two important reasons. First, if you are in echelon right, as shown in the picture, you know that lead will only turn left. Lead will not turn into the direction of the echelon because to do so would require the following planes to bank in the same direction, which in this example would a bank to the right. The reason they would not ever want to bank to the right is that they would immediately be "belly up" to the leader, which means they would not be able to see him. Since you can't follow what you can't see, going belly up to the leader is a cardinal sin of formation flying, and not easily forgiven. "Belly up" equals one really screwed pooch.

The more critical difference, though, has to do with how you do the turns. In fingertip formation, when the lead turns you will either climb or descend while maintaining the same bank angle as lead depending on whether you're inside or outside of the turn, all the while keeping a vertical position that if viewed from behind would look like one single wing extended across four airplanes. If it helps, imagine that the planes are physically attached with a rigid bar through their spars. As the bar turns, one end goes up while the other goes down. If you think about it, being #4 on the outside of one of these turns must be a royal pain with a 150 hp plane like mine because you'd not only have to climb, you'd also be going the longest distance around the turn. Lead in a 4-ship with me in #4 slot is going to be at idle, unless I use some of the hints I got from Joker. Still, I suspect those really aren't worth 30 more horsepower.

The difference with echelon turns is that the bar stays level, but the individual elements (i.e. airplanes) bank. Frankly, it's pretty uncomfortable. Rather than looking up or down at your lead (and that looking down thing is no picnic, mind you. My boys aren't going to drop for two more days), you're looking right at his belly, just a few feet (looks like inches!) away, right on your horizon. That sight is a bit unnerving for a guy that has spent the last 25 years trying to avoid seeing anything ten feet away from the exact same space he had hoped to occupy (alone!) in the next second or so. Scary. Believe me. Get-the-pucker-marks-professionally-removed-from-the-seat-cushions scary. But wait, it gets scarier!

On the plus side, now that you're in echelon there's really only one signal you have to be watching for. If you remember that you can't get to any other formation without going back to fingertip first, the only logical signal you can get is the wing rock that tells to do just that. This is one of the personal revelations that finally simplified the whole thing down to something I could understand and remember. No matter what formation you're in other than fingertip, all you have to do is be watching for that wing rock. Whether it be route, trail, extended trail, echelon right or left, or whatever, the next thing you do (with one exception to be discussed later) will be to go back to fingertip.

Once you realize that most of the formations you will be in have only one way out, the exception being echelon which has two possibilities that I'll get to soon, it really gets down to where you only need to watch for the other "go to" commands when you're in fingertip formation. And there aren't all that many of them anyway:

- #2 cross under: Fist. #3 better be watching for this too. He needs to get out of the way. It would be bad form to be surprised by, or the cause of, the arrival of an unexpected #2.

- #3 cross under: Double pumped fist. #3 will cross under, but #2 gets a rest. #2 better remember he's now in echelon if Lead turns and you can be assured that Lead will turn. #4 just follows #3 and crosses under once they get around and behind #2.

- #4 drop to a position behind and between #2 and #3 (Diamond formation): extended thumb thrust backwards, then 4 fingers. I can't see why #2 or #3 care, other than they now know the next signal will be a rejoin, and that #3 should probably help out by repeating the signal to #4.

- Trail Formation. Elevator wag. Everyone cares about this for reasons that we will get to. #3 will have to drop back to make a gap for #2. #4 drops back behind #3.

- Route Formation. Rudder wag. You won't forget this one since it's kinda like taking a rest for your eyes, although you still have to pay attention to lead. Lead will also give you a chance to address your growing compelling need to look at the oil pressure gauge. You'll want this one.

The exception to the "rejoin is all you can get" rule is the pitch-out from echelon. The signal for it (near as I could tell) is an extended wagging finger (no, not that finger), followed by a number of fingers extended to indicate the number of seconds each pilot should wait before following the previous plane into the pitch-out. The pitch-out is essentially a maneuver designed to space the formation out into a single-file line. This could be in order to fly what is called extended trail (more or less follow-the-leader kinda far behind) or to space the planes out on downwind for landing. The pitch-out for landing is different than the pitch-out to extended trail in that it is also accompanied by a power reduction (in the case of a fixed pitch prop like mine, all the way back to idle) to get the plane slowed down for flap extension and landing.

One of the most important things I learned in my ride-along came while we were rejoining from echelon back to fingertip. We were #2, and we had been flying on #1's left wing. When we received the wing rock signal to come back to fingertip, if I had been flying I would have gone right back home to the left side. Lead, however, had started a rejoin turn (it being easier for us to catch up to lead if he is in a turn because we could cut the corner and get a distance-travelled advantage) to the right, and another fundamental tenet of formation flying is that #2 always joins Lead to the inside of the turn. So, with lead turning to the right, the proper place for #2 to rejoin was on the right. I'm glad that I realized this as a passenger rather than as a pilot!

As we headed back to the airport in fingertip, I kind of impressed myself by thinking ahead (and make no mistake, formation flying is all about anticipating rather than reacting, so this brief flash of brilliance was a good thing) and realizing that we would have to receive the signal to go back to echelon soon since the pitch-out to landing requires that the formation be in echelon. Beyond that, I also knew that it would be right echelon since the pitch-out would be to the left. The point is, I knew exactly what signal was coming next, and I also had a pretty good idea of what would come after that.

Riding with Joker
(photo courtesy of T. Chang, another 'Red' Newbie)

Given that my job on that flight had been to pay attention and learn, learn, learn, I considered the mission to be a resounding success. I was now far more aware of what to expect when it came time for me to fly in just an hour or so, and that was to some degree a comfort to me. That said, I was by no means calm about the impending leap from rider to driver. The next flight would reverse the roles Joker and I had played: he would now be riding in my airplane, and I'd be flying. The briefing was at 10:00, and by this time I felt like I had a pretty good idea as to what was going on. I understood everything that was briefed, and there's a lot to be said for that. I was assigned the #2 slot, so I would be flying wingman on lead. We were a three-ship flight, so #3 would not have anyone flying wingman for him. That kept things a little bit simpler, for which I was grateful. We also briefed that rather than the normal formation takeoff (which entails two airplanes taking off side-by-side on different sides of the runway, an idea I found to be particularly frightening) we would follow lead at five second intervals.

After a very detailed briefing as to what we would be doing and when, we headed for the airplanes. This is where my nerves really took over and caused some basic mistakes. For example, we had briefed that the initial check-in on the radio would be on our assigned in-flight frequency, but I dialed in the tower frequency instead. Joker caught the error and we didn't miss the check-in, but that was strike one. We taxied out in staggered formation (planes alternating between the left and right side of the taxiway) and I noticed the first down side to formation in a side-by-side like my RV-6: I couldn't see Lead's elevators. When it came time to move back into single file in preparation for our run-ups, Lead would signal it by flapping his elevators up and down, and I wouldn't be able to see it. Joker could, though, and he gave me a nudge when he saw it.

We lined up and did our run-ups, and here came strike two: I still had my flaps down. Normally this is something I never forget, but with all of the other things running through my head I was becoming somewhat overwhelmed. Again, Joker caught my error and reminded me to get the airplane fully and properly configured.

We lined up for takeoff with me on the left and Lead on the right, and there was plenty of room. That runway is huge! The five second spacing on takeoff didn't really turn into the reprieve I had expected, though. With full fuel and a runway that's uphill in both directions (they didn't lop quite enough off of the middle of the mountain, in my opinion, and the runway has a notable crest in the middle) I just couldn't keep up with Lead. I finally dragged Papa into the air and started my turn to the left to join up with Lead. The way this is supposed to work is that I would position Lead in my canopy such that his vertical stab was lined up on his opposite wing, but I had a couple of problems doing that. First of all, he was so far away by that time (and understand, it was my responsibility to tell him that I couldn't keep up - I just didn't do it) that I couldn't really see enough to ensure that I had the proper line. The second thing is that if I banked to turn more inside of him, he dropped out of sight below the cockpit side. All in all, it was a terrible rejoin, and I believe at one point I came awfully close to going belly-up to lead, which as I'm sure you remember, is a pooch-screwing of the highest order.

We eventually caught up and I had my first experience in trying to hold the proper line. In RV formation flying, there is an imaginary line running through the outside aileron hinge on the wing up and through the propeller spinner. If you have the aileron hinge lined up properly with the spinner, you are correctly positioned in two dimensions: forward/backward and up/down. Much like being on the correct radial line of a VOR, though, in that you don't know how close or far away you are. You can be on the correct line 10 feet away, or you can be on the correct line 100 feet away. It doesn't really matter because you're still in position, albeit maybe not as close in or as far out as Lead would want you.

If you are ahead of the line, you are "acute." If you are behind the line, you are "sucked." Which, I might add, isn't as fun as it sounds. You also want to be "stacked down," which means you are below the leader. The absolute worst place to be is "high and acute," because this is a dangerous place indeed. It means you are flying right alongside another airplane, quite close, and if he were to turn in that direction, you would both have really bad days. I was to find myself precisely there any number of times, as it turns out.

So, we got closer and closer, and I struggled to stay on the line. I was high, I was low, I was acute, and I was sucked, pretty much in all possible permutations at one time or another. Keeping the airplane precisely positioned on the line is a lot like balancing a marble on the tip of a pencil: it doesn't want to be there and it requires constant adjustments to keep it there. These adjustments have to be very precise, quick, smooth, anticipatory, and it pays to remember that a little bit of adjustment goes a long way. It is critical to anticipate the adjustments that need to be made because once the marble starts to fall off, it's far too late to catch it.

These adjustments are made with throttle and rudder, with very, very little joystick input. Well, in theory that is. The idea is to use the rudder to move left and right rather than the ailerons for two reasons: the first is that you don't want to roll so much that you go belly-up, and the second (and more important) reason is that it makes the formation look sloppy from the ground. Another cardinal rule of formation flying is to assume that someone on the ground is going to take your picture at any given second, and no one wants to be the guy out of position in Granny's scrapbook.

My first experience with station keeping was that I wanted to ride too high rather than use the correct sight line to keep me stacked down where I belonged, I was over-controlling on both the stick and throttle, and I was barely using the rudder at all. I also was not anticipating the changes I'd need to make quickly enough, if I managed to anticipate them at all. I could go on and on about this, but the fundamental issue was that I was in react mode, not anticipate mode. That, and my normal light touch on the stick had mysteriously been transformed to a white-knuckle death grip. I imagine some of this is to be expected the first few times, and I do think I got better at it as I gained experience, but I had a hard time with it. I can't say that I was disappointed when we received the RTB (return to base) call from Lead after what had to be simultaneously the shortest and longest half hour I had ever spent in an airplane.

As we approached the airport, we moved into the echelon as expected, and as we headed down the runway I knew to expect the signal for the pitch-out. The signal is a wagging finger, followed by a number of fingers indicating the timing of the desired spacing. In this case it was two fingers. The big event that I would wait for then is the "kiss-off" signal from Lead, upon receipt of which I would smartly move my eyes to "eyes forward," count to two seconds, enter a 60 degree bank to the left, pull in pitch for a 2G turn (I over pull - I like a lotta G in my normal flying) to follow Lead, and immediately pull the power back to idle in order to slow down to 100 mph flap extension speed.

Which is almost exactly what I did, except for one critical omission: I didn't get the power out. Before I knew it, I was caught up to Lead and had to go wider out on downwind to go past him (going through him not being an attractive option, after all), which really, really isn't what #2 wants to do. Strike three (if you don't count various other indiscretions of lesser magnitude - those were fouls, I suppose) and beyond that, I was now high and fast in the pattern. This might be a good time to mention that the ghost I feared the most in the days and weeks leading up to this moment was that I would blow the landing with a knowledgeable RV pilot aboard, and boy-howdy did I find myself reading the recipe for exactly that. As it turns out, though, the actual landing wasn't so bad. Granted, that's not much to hang your hat on in comparison to the pitch-out and the other sins, but it was something.

Pitch-out to land

The next step was the debrief. The debrief is an essential element of formation flying, and it is the absolutely perfect time to find someplace to store your ego for awhile. Formation flying is serious business, and if you too thin-skinned or too wrapped up in the ego of it all, formation flying really isn't for you. Honest, constructive criticism and no-holds-barred analysis of your performance is the order of the day, and it is the only way to improve. And no matter who you are, or what you've flown, or how long you've been doing it, there is always something that can be improved. Part of the attraction of formation flying in the first place is similar to what addicts people to golf: it is a beautiful thing to see when done perfectly but a really ugly thing when done poorly, and perfection is impossible to attain. Also like golf, it rewards you when you are successful, and it punishes you when you are not. The phrase "even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then" is applicable here, albeit a better phrase might be "even Dave Gamble finds the line now and then." And, just as in golf, success is fleeting. You're only as good as your last shot. And that squirrel may find a nut now and then, but he has a heck of a time keeping it.

In debrief we went through the few times that I had found the proper line, and the many times that I hadn't. We talked about my debacle of a pitch-out, we talked about the slow rejoin after I bogged the takeoff, and we talked about a bunch of other stuff. The nice thing is that Joker made a point of mentioning that he had not once taken control of the airplane, not to absolve himself of any blame, but to tell everyone that I was the blind squirrel that had found a nut. Lead, taking into consideration that this was my first hop, told me that it was an impressive performance. I gotta tell ya, that was worth a million bucks to me. Which, as you can imagine, is a debt that he will never see paid. Still, while recognizing that I had made nothing more than a baby step, I felt very good to have taken any step at all.

Off to lunch at Mary's, and thence back to a second briefing at 1:00. This flight was to be led by Stu "Falcon" McCurdy, the godfather of RV formation flying. If not for Colonel (USAF Retired) McCurdy's efforts with the FAA, there would be no formal means for attaining the FAA authorization required to fly RVs in formation at airshows, including the biggest of the all: Oshkosh. I was to fly in the #2 position. I want to stress what this means: I would be flying wingman to a man that has over 2,400 hours flying F-4 Phantoms, and another 2,400 hours in other Air Force jets. This would be akin to taking a golf lesson (am I butchering that analogy enough yet??) from Jack Nicklaus. To further stress what this could potentially mean, this would present me with the perfect opportunity for a pooch-screwing to end all pooch-screwings. Nope, no nerves here! Steely-eyed Knight of the Sky, that's me. Deep breath, Dave, deeeep breath.

Brief card for Falcon Flight

Riding with me would be Whiz(z), another very, very experienced pilot. The chances to forever humiliate myself were manifest, but I was not going to let that bother me, at least not perceptibly. Game face on. Fortunately, this would be pretty much the same thing as last time, with three exceptions. First, I would be doing a formation takeoff, rather than the (overly) delayed takeoff from the first hop. Second, we would be flying in trail (and extended trail) formation at some point. Third, we were going to be using a slightly different check-in technique. Of the three, the latter concerned me the least, at first. Just to make sure I didn't get complacent on what I thought would be the easiest part, Whiz(z) pulled me aside and told me that Falcon was a stickler for communications, and quite a few in-flight sins could be forgiven, but botching the comms was going to leave Falcon with an initial impression of me that I probably would not be proud of. Sigh. Tummy butterflies, up and at 'em!

The comms would be the first hurdle, but even with the slight change over what we had done before I thought it would be ok. I pride myself on my comm skills, and I work to keep them sharp. The only difference was that rather than the normal "toop" "threep" "fourp" responses from the flight, we were to respond with "Falcon toop" "Falcon threep" and "Falcon fourp" when we were on tower frequency. This was necessary because there were so many different flights on that one frequency that it would be easy to get confused as to who responded. I'll cut to the chase on this one: I did it right. Phew!

Next came the formation takeoff. This entails getting just shy of parallel with the Lead on the runway, with him having one side of the runway and me having the other. You might think that to be more dangerous than taking off with me a little bit behind him as we are in flight, but it's not. And rest assured, this is only one of the many counter-intuitive things in formation flying. The idea is that if either of us has a problem, it will nearly always result in the person with the problem slowing down. If I was behind Lead and he had a problem, he could slow down right into me. "Fair enough," thought I, "but it means I have to takeoff, in a taildragger, while looking 90 degrees away from what I want to look at, that being the end of the runway ahead of me." Nothing to be done about that, though, because the way things are done is the way things are done, and it is incumbent on me to adjust to it.

Now, what's supposed to happen is that I will be looking at Lead, and he will give me a signal to run up my engine to 1,700 rpm or so. When I nod that I am ready, he will tap his head, rock his head back, and then bring it forward. When his head comes forward, that is the signal to release my brakes. He will modulate his power so that I can keep up, and I am not to take off until he does. That's the book way, mind you, not the Dave Gamble way. The Dave Gamble way is to go to 2,000 rpm full in the knowledge that my horse is the weaker of the two and his will surely out run me. Then, when I surge ahead of him and reach for the throttle to slow down, only to be told by Whiz(z) that is preferable to tap the brakes instead, I get too hard on the brakes and watch him pull away. I follow that by immediately getting into one of the worst PIO (pilot induced oscillations, aka swerving like a drunk frat boy) situations I have had since my first few tailwheel takeoffs a couple of years ago. Not being anywhere near done embarrassing myself, I lapsed into my verbal Tourettes Syndrome while Whiz(z) encouraged me to just lift the plane off the runway and stop trying to get him to return his lunch to the glorious outside world prior to its full digestion. Mary's is super spendy, but still, it's only a bargain if you can keep it down until dinner!

In response to my profane lamentation that the "goshdarned aircraft won't go fast enough" (not my exact words, truth be told), Whiz(z) politely requested that I get my "darned feet off the brakes" (not his exact words either) which I was surprised to find was exactly the case. I normally am quite conscious about that very thing as it takes very little pressure at all on the brakes to cause them to drag down the takeoff. Having plopped my feet onto the pedals at an unexpected point in my takeoff roll, though, I didn't have enough excess mental cycles to spare to devote myself to the idea of getting them back off of there once the damage had been done. "Well," I thought, "it's a good thing I got the comm's right, cuz I sure wouldn't want Falcon to get a negative impression of me, now would I?"

No time for internal recriminations, though, because by this time we were expected to join on Falcon's wing, and there would be plenty of time to recriminate myself later. As the flight progressed, I did manage to get us in the vicinity of the line now and then, but nowhere near as well as I had hoped. I have to say this about Whiz(z), though: I cannot remember ever having learned as much in a 35 minute period, on any topic, as I did from him during our flight. No doubt about it, he knows this stuff solid. He stressed over and over that I was manhandling the stick and throttle far too much (and often, far too late), and that it should be nothing more than pressure from the fingertips that is applied to the stick. While I could convince myself of that as a mental exercise, my hands were not particularly interested in listening. He'd remind me to loosen up, but 10 seconds later I was back to leaving permanent impressions on the stick grip. "Rudder, rudder, rudder!" he'd say, but my feet were having none of it. Asked why I would doubt the words of such an experienced fellow such as himself, I could only respond that my head believed him, but my feet didn't particularly care what I thought about it. Seriously, though, this is such a different way to fly from what I am used to that I think it will take quite a few more practice sessions for it to sink in. I did manage to achieve just enough brief moments of lucidity to prove to my feet that the method he was advocating does in fact work, so and I think they will listen better next time. There were also infrequent occasions when I actually did manage to correctly anticipate the need for a correction, and I learned to love seeing the bill of Whiz(z)'s hat furiously nodding in approval in my peripheral vision. Positive reinforcement is a good teaching technique too, and I appreciated that he knew that it would take an exaggerated movement of his head for it to register through my intense stare at that overly intriguing aileron hinge. When I did really good, I got a tap on the shoulder. I was never in any danger of getting tired of that, of course, what with me not being exactly a prodigy.

The other amazing lesson he shared with me is the necessity to think in all three dimensions, something I clearly was not doing. This is hard to explain in words, but I will try one example. At one point, I found myself too far out, high, and acute. It was the perfect trifecta of places not to be! The Bermuda Triangle of formation flying! My inclination, what with me being all one dimensional and all, was to pull the power back to get less acute, a wee bit of elevator to get lower, both to be followed by trying to throttle my way back up the line to solve the too far out portion of the problem.

Now, if you happen to have the ability to think three dimensionally, you will visualize the line as not only being 45-ish degrees back from the wing, but also some number of degrees downward. That line is fixed relative to where I was. Get a piece of scrap paper and draw a top-view of an airplane. It doesn't have to be pretty, really, just a couple of lines will do. Now draw a line from where the prop spinner would be diagonally back so that it crosses the right wingtip. Now draw another airplane a few inches to the right of the first plane, ahead of the diagonal line. Take a good look at it, then visualize moving the second airplane closer to the first. What happens? Voila! Just like magic, as you move the plane closer to the lead, it merges with the line! Magic!! The light bulb that went on over my head when that idea sunk in was blindingly bright. There are other examples of how the 3D thing works, but that one was by far the coolest, even though it was really only 2D.

I also mentioned that we would be flying in the trail formation for the first time. I want to tell you something about trail: IT. IS. SCARY. Only about 10 ft. behind, and just low enough to stay out of Lead's prop wash. It is a power management exercise of the highest order. Now, make no mistake: power (throttle) management is a non-stop exercise in formation flying at nearly all times up to and including taxing, and it is an exercise at which I found myself to not be particularly adept. While it caused my station keeping to be very sloppy in fingertip, it was really devastatingly bad in trail.

Trail is scary!

It was no secret to me that I had a swirling knife only a few feet from the tail of an airplane (flown by a very well known guy in the formation flying crowd, no less) that it could cut through like butter. The distances are small, the the effects of mismanaging the throttle are amplified to an almost unimaginable degree. I did not like trail, and I took the opportunity proffered by it to make one of my bigger screw-ups. I got high, you see, and didn't like for one iota of a second the feeling of Falcon's propwash banging across me. I over reacted with down elevator, and plunged down so far and so quickly that I disappeared from #3's (who in turn was just a few feet from taking my tail off) view, which understandably caused him a high degree of angst. Discretion by far being the better part of valor in this if not all situations, he quickly dropped back to give me some room which I'm quite sure didn't sit well with poor #4. All in all, I was quite happy to be wing-rocked back into fingertip.

Extended trail, on the other hand, was terrific fun! It starts with a pitch-out, but it doesn't matter if I forget to pull the power because, well, you don't. The throttle stays as-is, and you adjust your distance from Lead by cutting inside his turns to get closer, or lagging outside his turns to get further back. High degree banks and pitch angles are the norm, and it really is a lot of fun. I could have done that longer.

The RTB call was welcome, though, as I was really getting tired. The lack of sleep, the stress of this extremely challenging way of flying, and the heat of the day were taking a toll, and I was ready to head back. I got the pitch-out to land right this time (well, better anyway), and the landing itself was ok. Debriefing was about like the first time, and I took my well-deserved lumps in stride. The mistakes need to be talked about, and there is nothing at all hostile about it. We're all there to learn to to strive to improve and that cannot happen if issues are left unspoken. I enjoyed the flight immensely and although I felt myself too tired to make a third hop, I'm left with the desire to try this thing again and again until I get it right.

Dinner was at Mary's again, and was very good. I got back to the hotel at about 7:00, thinking it would be nice to lie down and watch the NASCAR race at Darlington. It was rained out, but that didn't really matter because I think I fell asleep before 8:30. Slept like the proverbial log. Getting up in time to catch the 6:45 shuttle back to the airport was easy enough. I stayed long enough to see the historic 7-ship fly-by comprised of an instance of each available Van's model (RV 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 4, and 3), and to win my way cool door-prize: a Vans Airforce dot-Net hat. (Thanks Doug!) I had a nice tailwind on the way home, which let me cruise along in a glass-smooth sky at a nice 168 knots, and topped off a wonderful weekend with an absolute greaser of a landing in a 10 knot wind.

Smoozer Briefing the historic All-Models RV Flight

From left to right it goes 3, 4, 6, 7(A), 8, 9(A), 10 (the 'A' being implied, what with it being designed for the older pilot and all)

My new VAF hat

Heading home

It just doesn't get any better than this. I posted my heart felt thank you on the RVators forum:

One suggestion I'd give for future clinics is to devote a few minutes
at the end to answer the "what's next?" questions us newbies are sure
to have. For example. I'd love to try this again in a 2-ship, but I
don't want to wait a year. Is there a list of FFI wingmen that might
be looking to practice some lead time and more importantly, someone
that is willing to ride along as instructor/safety pilot? As I think
about it, it seems like that might make a helpful database.

Anyway, I had a great time. FWIW, the write-up comes in at a hefty
7,200+ words and still didn't say everything I wanted to say. I
cannot remember a more emotionally significant weekend in my 25+ years
of flying. Private checkride? Yeah, that was a big day 9 years in
the making. Between PCS changes to two overseas bases and one in
northern California in 4 1/2 years, putting myself through college and
getting married, it took a little longer than average. But, I knew
that I would eventually get it done. IFR checkride? Yeah, that was
ok, but for some reason it felt like more of a CE class. I already
knew how it all worked from years of doing it on PC flight sims, so
the actual flying was just a formality.

The RV-4 was my number one dream airplane 30 years ago. I have never
not wanted an RV-4. But I never, not once, ever dreamed that I would
some day fly an RV (albeit a 6, in a very minor concession to copilot
Egg) on (what was to me) tight formation with a retired Air Force
Colonel F-4 pilot, and believe me, when it comes to flying I have a
nearly unlimited ability to daydream. I still never came anywhere
near this day in anything I could dream up. I worked on RF-4Cs for
three years, and many are the hours I sat in the cockpit of an F-4 and
wondered what it would be like to fly. We didn't have Discovery Wings
back then, so I could only imagine what it was like to fly their
missions. Now I think I have at least a faint glimmer of what it must
have been like. For that alone, I rate Saturday my number one day of
flying, or to be even more precise, the best 1.5 hours out of my 500+.

It's does seem kind of weird to live a dream you never even knew you
had, though.

And for that I will be forever grateful to you all, and especially to
Dogg, without whom none of this would have ever happened to me. Thank
you all, very much.


Wow, this is kind of cool. I got interviewed by the local Parkersburg paper while I was wiping the bugs off of Papa:

Columbus resident Dave Gamble did his first formation flight Saturday.

‘‘It’s a precision of flying that you don’t get when you’re just flying up there,’’ he said, because steering is hard to gauge when there is nothing else in the sky.

‘‘You go through years and years of training, learning to get away from planes. Now they want you to get closer,’’ Gamble said.

Gamble said he enjoyed the challenge of formation flying and hopes to become better. He has not decided if he will try to become a wingman, one of the side planes during an air show.

Full article at:


  1. Wow, Dave! this may be the best write-up of a formation clinic , ever!

  2. Labor of love, Bob. I got far more than I gave.

  3. Hi Dave,
    AWESOME write up and GREAT pics.

    For a 'newbie'...I was quite impressed (big smile)...ya' done good....thanks for joining us at the clinic!

  4. Oh, man! I was hoping to go to bed. I guess I have something to read at work tomorrow. Talk to you in the AM, Dave.

  5. Fantastic write-up Dave! The best I have seen like this. A "must read" I think, for formation "newbies" and "old-timers" as well. I could relate to everything you said.

    James "PapaJuliette"

  6. Dave, it was a pleasure to have you along with me in "Miss Izzy". Your article is a "must read" for anyone toying with the idea of taking up formation flying. I know we will meet again... rock solid on the line.

    Ron Schreck (Smokey)
    RV-8, "Miss Izzy"

  7. Amazing, Dave. Again, I say, you make the reader feel like he is right there with you.

  8. Dave,
    I haven't met you and I feel as though I know you. A very well written discourse on formation flying! I've flown formation in T-37s, T-38s, F-4s, F-5s, F-16s and numerous civilian aircraft and I could not have described the experience any better. Great job on the writing.
    Stan Sutterfield

  9. Thank you, Mr. Gamble. You write extremely well, allowing others to share in the sense of the experience. I'm an amateur teacher of English, not a pilot, but your description inspires me to seek more serious discussions with my peers, in the pursuit of improvement. In particular:

    'The debrief is an essential element of formation flying, and it is the absolutely perfect time to find someplace to store your ego for awhile. Formation flying is serious business, and if you too thin-skinned or too wrapped up in the ego of it all, formation flying really isn't for you. Honest, constructive criticism and no-holds-barred analysis of your performance is the order of the day, and it is the only way to improve. And no matter who you are, or what you've flown, or how long you've been doing it, there is always something that can be improved. Part of the attraction of formation flying in the first place is similar to what addicts people to golf: it is a beautiful thing to see when done perfectly but a really ugly thing when done poorly, and perfection is impossible to attain. Also like golf, it rewards you when you are successful, and it punishes you when you are not.'

    I could use that same analogy to classroom teaching. A good class is exhilarating, a poor one leaves me on edge all week waiting for the chance to redeem myself.

    Find a place to hide my ego... darn that is well put, I admire your honesty and humility.

    'Debriefing was about like the first time, and I took my well-deserved lumps in stride. The mistakes need to be talked about, and there is nothing at all hostile about it. We're all there to learn to to strive to improve and that cannot happen if issues are left unspoken.'

    I would love to develop a community of teachers with that attitude and sincere desire. Your words edify and inspire this aging land-lubber to pursue that dream. Thank you.

    Best regards, Peter Warner.

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