Friday, January 09, 2009

Working on the Bucket List

Submitted to EAA's SportAviation magazine:

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted a Van’s RV. Even as a teenager, back when the only models available were the RV-3, RV-4, and the brand new RV-6, I had purchased the video from Van’s in order to become better acquainted with what it would take to get one of these fascinating airplanes for myself someday. A few years ago, I realized my dream of owning a Van’s airplane of my very own through the simple expedient of purchasing an already-built RV-6. As part of my pre-purchase due diligence, I had contacted a local RV-8 owner who was generous enough to not only take me flying with him, but to ride along with him as he practiced formation flying with a collection of other RV owners. I not only got rides in an RV-8, RV-6, and an RV-4 that day, I also got to experience for the first time the thrill of flying in a formation with other airplanes. While I was irrevocably hooked on the RV experience, I had more than a little trepidation about the formation flying aspect. I decided to adopt a “wait and see” mentality towards that type of advanced flying, planning instead to spend at least a year becoming comfortable with my RV before giving it a try.

By early 2007, I was ready to try my hand at formation flying. When I found out that the Ohio Valley RVators were scheduling a formation flying clinic for May, I signed up. Having signed up months before the scheduled date served to ensure that I would have plenty of time to stress and worry about it, of course. As the date of the clinic approached and the weather forecast promised suitable flying condition, the level of my anxiety rose exponentially. Having ridden along on a few formation flights the year before, I was under no illusions that this was a simple thing to do. I knew that it was quite the contrary, in fact, and having been raised on a steady diet of flying novels such as Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” I knew that I was facing a unique opportunity to quite publicly “screw the pooch.” As the date inexorably crept closer on the calendar, the butterflies that had been fluttering around in my stomach for months whenever I thought about the challenges lying before me transmogrified into a swarm of angry hornets.

The departure date arrived without regard for whether I was ready for it or not, but I felt that I had done all that I could do to prepare myself in advance. That preparation was mostly in the realm of book learning. I figured that I was going to be busy enough simply learning how to maneuver the airplane in close proximity to other airplanes, a situation that I had been diligently trained to avoid throughout all of my previous training, without simultaneously trying to learn and understand the various formations we would be flying in and the collection of signals that the formation lead would be using to direct our flight. My bible for these studies was the venerable “The Art of Formation Flying” written by a group of T-34 pilots and accepted as the definitive source of basic formation flying information. The result of studying the manual was, unfortunately, not to alleviate my anxiety but to increase it. It can be stressful to learn how much you don’t know under the best of conditions; in this case, it was terrifying.

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 listing each participant in the clinic 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 as "you scare us," with the "us" being the more experienced formation pilots and the clinic instructors. When my turn came to stand up and introduce myself, I couldn't help pointing out that I thought that to be a fair assessment but that I also was pretty darned scared myself!

The rest of the meeting was spent going through the in-flight signals and what we could expect in the morning when we made our first flight. I was still fuzzy on some of the signals, and the class discussion did little to clear some of the more subtle questions up for me. You go to the clinic with the brain you have, though, so there was nothing to do but hope that it would all come together for me when we started flying in the morning. The stress of the preceding few days was catching up with me as well, so even as tired as I was I did not sleep well that night, with visions of echelon turns, pitch-outs, and the sundry other formation concepts that I would be introduced to me in the crucible of flight costing me any chance for a restful sleep. The 0530 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. The first briefing was scheduled for 0800 and I was careful to make sure that I was there in plenty of time. The briefings were run with military precision and would start on time whether I was 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. This was a welcome relief to me. 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.

As we headed back to the airport, I kind of impressed myself by thinking ahead (and make no mistake, formation flying is all about anticipating what’s going to happen next rather than reacting to direction from the formation leader, so this brief flash of brilliance was a good thing) and predicting what formation change would happen next and what the signal for that change would be. This, more than anything, helped me to get over the fear that I was going to be unable to grasp the concepts in time for the next flight when I would be flying the airplane.

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 briefing was at 1000, 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. Since this was my first flight, we 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 takeoff one at a time at five second intervals and I was assigned an experienced formation pilot to ride along with me as a mentor/bacon-saver.

After the very detailed briefing outlining 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. At the end of the runway 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.

We lined up for takeoff with me on the left side of the 150’ wide runway and Lead on the right. 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 my reluctant plane 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 him clearly enough to ensure that I had the proper line. The second thing was that if I banked tighter in order to turn more inside of his turn, he dropped out of sight below the cockpit sill. 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 is a pooch-screwing formation flying sin 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. It’s much like being on the correct radial line of a VOR without DME equipment, 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.

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 end up having really bad days. I was to find myself precisely in that position a number of times, as it turns out, much to the consternation of my mentor pilot. I struggled to stay on the line. I was high, I was low, I was acute, and I was sucked, and sometimes managed to be a couple of those things simultaneously. 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 of the pencil, it's far too late to catch it.

After what seemed like hours of struggling to maintain my correct position, we headed back to the airfield. As we approached the airport we moved into the echelon formation as expected, and as we headed down the runway I knew to that the signal for a pitch-out would be next. This signal is a wagging finger from the flight lead, followed by a number of fingers indicating the timing of the desired spacing in seconds. In this case it was two fingers. The big event that I would then wait for 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 to the downwind, 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 out wide out on downwind to go past him (going through him not being an attractive option, after all), which really, really isn't what a wingman wants to do. That was 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 one of the things that I had 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 on board, and boy-howdy did I ever find myself well positioned to do exactly that. As it turns out, though, the actual landing wasn't so bad. Granted, that wasn’t much to hang my hat on in comparison to the botched pitch-out and the other sins, but it was something.

Every formation flight ends with a debrief. The debrief is an essential element of formation flying, and it is the absolutely perfect time to find someplace to store your ego out of sight for awhile. Formation flying is serious business, and if you’re too thin-skinned or too wrapped up in the ego of it all, formation flying really isn't for you. Brutally 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 the most addictive aspect of 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.

In debrief we talked about the few occasions on the flight that I had actually managed to get myself on the proper line, and the far more plentiful 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. 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.

There were two more flights scheduled for the remainder of the day, but I only made one of them. The second flight introduced more advanced topics such as formation takeoffs (my attempt at a formation takeoff made my takeoff on the first flight look stellar by comparison), trial formation (SCARY!), and an increased stress on proper communication technique. I survived the flight, but at the cost of my last ounce of nerve and energy. Not considering myself to be up to making a third flight, I begged off and pushed the plane back into the hangar.

As I calmed down and reflected on the day, I realized that despite all of the stress and anxiety, I had had a great time. I can’t remember a more emotionally significant and satisfying weekend in my 25+ years of flying. My Private Pilot check ride? Yeah, that was a big day 9 years in the making. The IFR check ride? Yeah, that was ok, but for some reason it felt like more of a continuing education class than a major accomplishment. I won’t say that formation flying has changed my life or anything like that, but it did open my eyes to how challenging and rewarding that type of flying is, and I will never see the large Oshkosh formations the same way again.

1 comment:

  1. Dave,
    Excellent prose as always. Good luck with your Sport Av submission, I think you write better than most of the 'contributors' they have on staff - IMHO!
    This cold really sucks, with 3 heaters I can't get my garage above 30F so not much progress on the -8 this weekend.
    Hopefully, we can do a 2-ship to OSH some day! Take care,
    Brent Owens
    RV-8 undercontruction