Flying Above All………….

The Ultimate Team Sport


Decades have elapsed since “the old guys” taught me to fly formation.  To me, they were the eyes of age, although I’m sure that present-day me is much older than they were then.  I had emerged from medical school, paid down some debt, and as I had been since childhood was smitten with aviation.

Voracious reading had always been my habit. 

Gordon Baxter (he of Flying magazine fame…”Bax Seat”) intermittently wrote about the Stearman.  A large biplane, built with metal, wood, and fabric, and notorious for both it’s strength and it’s difficult manners, had been the chief primary trainer of WWII.  I absorbed everything I had ever read about the Stearman.


A trip to the yearly Stearman Fly-In, at Galesburg, IL was in the offing.  Wandering the flight line, I encountered “the old guys”.  Swamp, Lightning, and their nephew Flash had that folksy wit, charm, and good humor in which you knew you would both enjoy yourself, and likely lose at poker.


I’d had a few planes (you may recall from earlier reads that I bought my first plane at age 17, with my dad as the accomplice).  Soon, I was consumed with buying a Stearman.  A likely candidate was located, and the Louisiana boys helped me look it over.  A deal was struck, the plane purchased, a checkout done (by another accomplice…Bucket.  You may believe these names are “made up”, but they are not…Bucket is worth his own post…nay, his own book.)


Formation lessons were begun.  Nowadays, we teach formation by putting an instructor in the back seat, carefully coaching, demonstrating, and lecturing.  The Old Guys simply said “don’t hit us”, and off we went.  The radio came alive with instructions, words I’m sure my mother never heard, coaching, and then debriefing after the flight.  Quickly I learned how to keep the two winged beast in position.  If you’ve ever experienced the Stearman, you know it has no surplus of power.  If you get “out of position”, you’re done.  You’ll never catch up.


Over the next 5 years, our “team” won the formation flying contest at Galesburg.  I now recognize that the guys would have never taken me in, had they had a 4th person.  There were three of them, and a basic formation requires four.  Hindsight shows how wonderful the experience was.  Formation discipline, “station keeping” (keeping the plane in position), making turns, “join up” (judging the angle, much as a wing shooter does to put the airplane “where lead is gonna be, not where he is”), breaks, and landing in sequence all were skills begrudgingly chiseled from the raw lump of pilot that I was.


Soon, I saw a T6 (“Texan”, the “pilotmaker” from World War II).  I moved into that formation world, got my formation card from the requisite “old guys” in that group, and began flying airshows.  My acro card followed, and ultimately, years later, my formation acro card (allows formation flying in aerobatic flight…loops, rolls, etc.)  Now, I fly formation at airshows in the T6, the Mustang, the Corsair…and it’s both challenging, and fun.


That background laid a foundation for my current job.  Flying fires, we don’t “do formation” in the airshow sense (tight, crowd-pleasing “parade” formations), but we often work as a “flight” (usually two, sometimes more) air tankers flying closely together, with radio communications and instructions given to “lead” (the first plane), and with minimal to no communications on the common frequency from “two” (the second plane).


A recent fire, located at a very high altitude (10,000 plus feet), and a higher density altitude (temperatures were well above “standard”), proved to me that flying formation in fire planes is the ultimate team sport.


The Lead Plane (a powerful turboprop, on scene continuously over the fire, under direction of Air Attack) asked us if we could operate as a flight.  Is the Pope Catholic?  Of course we can.  My friend and DO (director of operations) was in the lead position, and as we’ve done many times in the past, we immediately switched to the “rules” of formation flight.


There is an implicit “contract” when you fly formation.  Despite many self-taught attempts by weekend warriors, there’s more to it than just going “same way, same day”.  Lead flies his plane as though he has a second plane attached with a rope.  If he makes a mistake, Two may well pay for it.  He also has explicit trust that Two isn’t going to be momentarily inattentive.  A bit of inattention, and much as cars on a freeway have a collision from inattention to lane-keeping, a collision results.  The outcome is somewhat different.


Not only is there not a road shoulder on which to rest, the Pratt and Whitney buzz saw on the front of the plane ensures more than trivial damage to the victim.  Notable accidents in everything from Reno racing to airshows, as well as weekend practice has left it’s impression.


We went back to base, reloaded, refueled, and taxied for takeoff.  As opposed to an airshow environment, radio communication is even more limited.  Lead assumes I’m ready.  He sees me taxi forward, and hears me call my start time to base.  He makes the call…”tanker 8XX flight, departing runway Y”.  Off we go.  I give him space enough that if he blows a tire, has an emergency, I can avoid him by doing an e-dump (emergency dumping of my load) and going around.  I don’t delay, however, as the airport is quite busy, and we want to detain no one.


“Two is off” I call as I’m airborne, making the initial turn.  I’m in a relative blind spot for him, and this lets him know I’m operating normally, in good position, and he can turn and head to the fire.  He makes the traffic pattern calls, and I call dispatch.


“Tankers 8XX and 8YY off XYZ airport, heading to the fire.  58 minutes enroute, 3plus 15 of fuel on board both, both with one soul on board”.  You’d think, sooner or later, they’d figure out that in a single seat plane, only one soul *could* be on board…..I’ve been asked before, and replied, “One SOB on board”, but they didn’t see the humor.  It was one of those days where I pretty much felt like an SOB, but I digress….


The 50 plus minutes to the fire are uneventful.   The mountains still have some snow-pack, but the valleys are green…I never tire of the scenery.   A cup of coffee would taste good, but would be impossible to drink.  I did, however, bring some roasted coffee beans….so I munched a few of those.


My DO says “not a bad day” on the company radio.  It’s one of the few calls we make back and forth.  If there’s something pertinent, we don’t hesitate to use the radio.  I think we both share a certain disdain for those who chatter nonstop on the radio….


Lead checks in with the Lead Plane as we near the fire.  Lead does a good job of setting us up for the intercept. (Remember the join-up?  It’s the same thing…only now we not only have a heavily loaded plane, but our density altitude is high.  There is no performance excess.)  A nice “lead-pursuit” curve ensues, where minimal change in power is required.


The beauty, drama, and destruction of a large wildfire is incredible.  Seeing the join-up from the number two position with that as a backdrop is indescribable.  Lead Plane sets up for the run, asking us to make it a “live run”.  Gate is armed, I’ve “taken my spacing”, and we’re set.


(Spacing is crucial.  Too far back, you can’t see what Lead did with his retardant. The expectation is that I will “tag and extend” his retardant line.  Too close, and the retardant from lead is still falling, not only making the line unclear, but coating my windshield with falling retardant at an inopportune time).


Nice.  The line runs over a ridge top, parallels a set of high tension powerlines, adjacent to the smoke.  Lead drops. I drop.  I set up an intercept curve to be closer to him as we go for another load.


Truly a team sport.

Author: planedoc

Having survived the medical world for a few decades, I'm pursuing flight, firefighting, wrench turning, and enjoying my family. I have a passion for "warbirds" specifically the P51 and T-6, the Corsair, and do airshows in those planes. I fly "The Mighty 802" fighting wildfires, and have a great time in my SX and Husky. Oh, yeah, I occasionally show up at the hospital and pass gas.

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Team Sport

  1. Good writing, Stan – with memories of you sticking to us like glue years ago at SMX!


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