The Dunderbirds Imprecision Flight Team

Posted July, 2003

It's shameful to admit, but the best flying advice I ever received came from one of those "Redneck Pilot" guides:

"Never precede any maneuver with anything more descriptive than, 'Y'all watch this!'"

It really paid off, last weekend.

It started about a month ago.  I got email from the Arlington Fly-In folks, asking if I'd like to arrange a Peter M. Bowers memorial at this year's event.  They left the form of the memorial up to me, but mentioned…"maybe you could arrange a 'missing man' formation of Fly Babies."

That really got the juices churning.  Cooooollll… a nice tight flight of Fly Babies, with a single 'Baby pulling up and away at show center.

Reality soon intruded.  I figured we could get four or five airplanes lined up for such a flight.  But the planes would come from a wide range…from Victoria BC to Southwestern Washington State.  We'd *never* have a chance to practice the formation flying.

Practice would be important.  You see, here in Washington, we have a group of dedicated RV pilots call the Blackjack Squadron.  There are almost two dozen members, all with their own Vans minifighter, and they practice flying formation something like six hours a week.  They've gotten pretty darned good.  They fly to every airport open house or EAA pancake breakfast (which has led to the irreverent nickname, "Flapjack Squadron.") in the state of Washington and beyond.  These guys are good, darned good.

The problem is, that sets the bar *really* high for amateur formation flying. No informal formation flight could compare to the Blackjacks.  I knew the RVs would be blasting over Arlington all the time…there was no way our Fly Baby group could compare.

So I told the Arlington folks that we would not be flying the missing man or any kind of formation…but would send up a "gaggle" of Fly Babies in an informal tribute.

But you know…you JUST know…I was hoping we would be able to show a credible formation.

The show came, and we had four Fly Babies and the Story Special show up. The Fly-In folks gave us a 1:30 Saturday time slot.  One Fly Baby had to leave on Saturday morning, but the rest of us (Cecil Hendricks in the Story, and myself, Tom Staples, and Chris Brown in our 'Babies) would be able to fly the sortie.

On Friday, one of the Fly-In's flight organizers came by our parking area.  "I understand you folks are going to fly a missing-man formation for Pete Bowers?"

I shuddered, and set him straight.  "No, we're just going to send up a gaggle of airplanes at the same time.  It's a standard Fly Baby formation:  Same Way, Same Day."

"Ah," said the man.  He told us we'd be following another memorial flight (this one of GlaStars), and reminded us that we needed to receive the Fly-By briefing on Saturday.  I talked to the other guys, and asked them to meet at 11 AM Saturday morning for our own meeting, after which we'd walk over for the fly-by briefing.

That night, I sat down at my computer and wrote down some notes for the Fly-In announcer to use while we did our stuff.  I put down a page about Pete, then a page identifying each airplane and pilot, and finally a third page of "Interesting facts about the Fly Baby."  I figured that would be more than enough stuff; the announcer could just pick out the snippets he needed.

I did pull one sneaky bit.  I listed that the formation would be led by Cecil Hendricks in the Story Special.  The ostensible reason was that Pete was once a co-owner in the Story with Cecil, and that he and Cecil had been long-time friends.

The real reason was Cecil's formation experience.  He'd been flying impromptu formations in the Story for almost fifty years.  I'd flown with him several times, as both lead and wingman.

For I still harbored the secret desire; the hope that our gaggle could be more than an amorphous blob skittering down the show line.  If *anyone* could make us look good, it would be Cecil.

A secondary reason for picking Cecil:  Arlington airport is a controlled field during the Fly-In, and I *hate* flying out of controlled fields.  My radio has a very weird antenna pattern; sometimes they can hear me, sometimes they can't and sometimes I can't hear them, and so forth.  I basically sloughed the formation lead off on Cecil so all *I'd* have to do is follow someone.

I told my wife about the arrangements on Saturday morning, before I left for the airport.  "Are you going to fly a missing-man formation?" she asked.  The chill gripped me again as I explained that, no, we were just going to fly at the same time, no formation of any kind.

My plan to shove the responsibility onto Cecil came crashing down during our informal get-together Saturday morning.  "I'm using a borrowed handheld in the Story," he said, "And I'm having a lot of trouble getting it to work.  We'd better have someone else lead."

Ulp.  Three pairs of eyes stared at me.  I stood quiet for a moment, hoping that Chris or Tom would chime in, volunteering to lead.  No such luck.

 "Ummmm….okay, Cecil.  I, uhhh, I guess I'll lead."

So we started talking about the flight.  I reminded everyone that we were just going to make a simultaneous flight, with no formation to try and hold.  I had a copy of the Fly-By pattern map.  The basic pattern was to the West of the airport, with the west taxiway parallel to the main runway being used as the baseline for the fly-bys.   The main traffic pattern was always to the East…which meant that there would be downwind traffic on both sides of the runway. We studied the map and figured out where we were supposed to be. We decided we'd fly two circuits, then land.

One interesting issue was what to call ourselves on the radio.  "Fly Baby Flight" would be the most obvious…but one of the planes wasn't a Fly Baby.  Cecil gets a bit testy when people refer to the Story as a 'Baby.  We decided that "Bowers Flight" would do.

Finally, we decided the order of flight.  Cecil had the only airplane with just a 65 HP engine (all the Fly Babies had C-85s) so he'd follow me so I could keep an eye on how well he was catching up.  Tom's yellow bird would follow Cecil, with Chris bringing up the rear.   A clipboard and pencil appeared, and our positions were sketched.

Somehow, a  standard fighter-style "finger-four" formation had appeared on the sketchpad.  "No," I said, judiciously.  "Let's do a left echelon instead.  We don't want to be turning towards the #2 man as we fly the pattern."

At least we hadn't used the "F"-word.  We hadn't actually *said* "formation."

We went to the formal briefing.  We'd fly over the taxiway, like the map said, and the height would be 600 feet.  "Six hundred?" I asked.  The map showed five hundred.

"We've had several people break the 500-foot floor, so we raised it to six.  Don't forget, you have to be at 1,000 feet on downwind to clear the ultralight pattern.  Oh, are you guys flying in formation?"

We all just kind of mumbled.

"Well, if more than two planes are in the formation, the floor is a thousand feet."

I cleared my throat.  "Ah, no, we're not flying formation. Just a big gaggle.  A big gaggle.  Two circuits, then we land."

We agreed to meet back at our airplanes at 1:15.  I walked over to the announcer's tower to give him the written material I'd written the night before.

"So, you guys doing a missing-man formation, too?" he asked.

I winced.  We might try for a formation, but we certainly didn't want it announced as such…just in case it didn't look good.  I explained that we would be in a gaggle.

"Oh, so you're a bunch of friends enjoying flight together in honor of Pete?"

Ooooo, I *liked* that.

Back to the airplanes, to wait for the start time.  A bit later, I heard a roaring overhead.  Here came the Blackjacks…with a formation of sixteen in an arrowhead.  The engines hummed.  Brightly-colored metal shone in the midday sun.

I watched, enviously.  But as they passed directly overhead, I noticed the planes were wiggling quite a bit.  I realized that a significant wind had come up.  I glanced at some flags.  They were fully extended and stiff, with the lower edges curling up a bit.   There was at least 20 knots of wind, and, judging from the Blackjacks, it was pretty rough up there.

Now, I rarely fly in strong winds.  I fly for fun, and plowing though gusty gales tends to make my fun meter seriously sag.

I sidled up to the other guys.  "Ummmm….anyone worried about the wind?"

No, of course not.  It's just me being chicken.

Time was getting close.  I took yet another stroll to the porta-potty.  On the way back, I passed a man talking to one of the aircraft marshalers .  "We're going to be bringing the planes out in a couple of minutes," the man was saying.

That had to be the GlaStar group.  I talked to the marshaler myself, a few minutes later.  "We're going to be bringing a batch of Fly Babies out to follow the GlaStars."

"Right, we'll be ready for you."

I walked back to the guys and we all went to our planes.  We had to do some shuffling…our parking order didn't match our flight order, so I had to roll Moonraker halfway down the row, and Chris had to move his back to the fence to bring up the rear.  Two of us had starters, but the Story and Chris didn't.  Cecil's Story partner, Don Davis, volunteered to get the Story going, and Drew volunteered to prop Chris' red-and-black beauty.

I did have a bit of a worry.  Moonraker's starter has become very anemic…most of the time, it's unable to turn the prop past the compression stroke on the first pull of the starter handle.  It usually took a couple of timed pulls of the handle to get the prop to rock far enough to actually get the engine turning.  So I warned Drew that he might have to prop me as well, and asked him to come forward and give me the thumbs-up when all the other planes were running.

I saw the aircraft marshaler I talked to and a couple of CAP cadets still waiting at the end of the row.  I walked up, and asked, "When do the GlaStars go?"

"Oh, they've already taxied out."

Gulp.  We were running late.  I ran back to the airplanes to pass on the word to start engines.  When I told Cecil, he said, "We're going to have a long taxi downwind.  With this strong of wind, someone might put their plane up on its nose if they hit the brakes to hard.  Might want to remind them to not follow too closely."

Damn.  He was right.  I passed on the advice, then ran up to Moonraker and clambered into the cockpit.  Straps on, helmet and headset on.  Mags on, two shots of prime.  Pull the silver starter handle.

The prop groans forward a quarter turn, then stops.

Damn.  Ease back on the handle.  The starter stops trying, and the prop slips back.  Pull the handle again.  It goes a little farther.  Pull again, hard.

It clears the compression stroke, fires, and starts idling.

Drew is off to my left, giving me the thumbs-up.  Everyone's ready, and the marshalers have blocked off the pedestrian traffic at the end of the row.

I flip on my radio.  The plasma display lights up…dimly seen, due to the bright sunlight and the fact that my sunglasses have a bit of a green tint.  I lift one edge of my glasses to check the readout, since the Narco sometimes looses its previous setting.  124.3, the ramp control frequency.

"Arlington Ramp, Bowers flight of four is ready to taxi from row four."

Nothing.  Ahead of us, I see a CAP cadet grab a man by the sleeve as he tries to walk past the end of our row.   A pretty big crowd is being held, waiting for us.

Maybe ramp control is busy somewhere else.  I release my brakes, and call them again.  Nothing.

Oh, well.  We roll onto the taxiway, and a scooter races down to escort us off the show area.

I reached the sign that marked the beginning of the area controlled by Arlington Ground.  I lifted the corner of my sunglasses again to change frequencies…and noticed I was on 124.8 instead of 124.3.

Well…now I know why I didn't hear back from them.

To 121.25.  "Arlington Ground, Bowers flight of four, taxi for takeoff for the fly-by pattern."

They didn't hear me.  Was my radio acting up again.

I called again.  To my relief, they answered.  "Bowers flight of four, follow the red-and-white taildragger ahead of you.  You'll be taxiing around the runway and using the east taxiway."

The taxiway setup that day was interesting.  We had been parked at the north end of the airport, and the wind was strong from the south.  But the flow on the show ramp was in the wrong direction for taxiing to the approach end of runway 16.  We would have to taxi completely around the runway…all the way to the south end, cross, and then taxi back to the north end on the taxiway on the opposite side.

Eventually, we started the long taxi downwind.  Mindful of Cecil's warning, I treated the brakes gingerly and kept the stick jammed full forward.  But the Fly Baby really wanted to roll.  I had the throttle pulled full back, and it just seemed to taxi faster and faster.  I sat bolt upright and alert the whole 5,000-foot length of the taxiway, carefully dragging my brakes now and then.

Fortunately, we'd picked a time with lighter traffic.  No one was ahead of us by the time we reached the runup pad.  I turned partially into the wind and ran my pre-takeoff checks.

I gave the guys a minute, then held my thumb up.  They gave me thumbs-up in return, and I changed to tower frequency.

"Arlington tower, Bowers flight of four ready on 16, for the fly-by pattern."

"Bowers flight of four, you’re cleared for takeoff."

I rolled onto the runway, and firewalled the mighty Continental.  With the strong headwind, the tail came up almost immediately.  We broke ground moments later.

And climbed out really, really, slow.  The wind was seriously delaying my forward progress.  I knew the other guys would be just as affected, but I was also working on throttling back to give them a chance to catch up.

We weren't supposed to turn crosswind for the fly-by pattern until we reached 500 feet.  With the headwind, I'd reached the altitude well before the end of the runway.  But we were also supposed to be at 1,000 feet by the time we made the downwind leg, to keep clear of the ultralight pattern.  I was trying to fly two incompatible flight profiles, and doing badly at both.

I passed over the road at the end of the airport, then turned crosswind.  I looked over my shoulder, to try and spot the other planes.  I picked out the Story moving onto my wing (trust Cecil to join up quickly) and could see Tom and Chris still climbing out.

But there was a slight problem, one I didn't find out about until later.  The Story is painted a faded orange and black…and I'd forgotten how easily it blended into the background.  Tom Staples had lost sight of it almost immediately after takeoff.  He could see me, well enough…but he couldn't tell where the Story was!

And, of course, since we were required to stay on Tower frequency, he couldn't ask Cecil where he was.

(Note that Tom's experience trying to find the Story isn't unusual...the next day, Cecil flew the Story back home, with Don Davis following immediately in the Piper Pacer they also share.  Don lost sight of the Story immediately after takeoff and didn't see it again, despite attempt to coordinate their join-up over the radio.)

So Tom used the better part of valor and kept back a bit further.

Behind Tom, Chris was having his own problems.  He was the end of the whip, and he just couldn't catch up.  Between Tom swinging wide and my own returning to normal power settings when I saw the Story close in with me, he just couldn't make up any ground on us.

So…we gaggled through the downwind leg, and gaggled onto base.  I lowered my nose to drop down to the 600-foot fly by altitude, and lined up on the taxiway.

The wind REALLY made itself felt at this point.  I was being banged around the cockpit, and was stirring the stick like a witch's cauldron at a Pillsbury spell-off.  I backed off on the power to help the guys catch up, but I really had trouble maintaining the 600-foot altitude.  Plus, throttling-back multiplied the headwind to make our fly-by very, very, slow.  It just seemed to take forever.  They were probably timing us with an hourglass, and the announcer had probably gone all the way through the prepared material at least twice already and was starting to spell the watermark phonetically.

End of the runway.  Power up, climb, and turn crosswind.  Look back, and there's Cecil tucked in close.  The other two planes are coming on.

I flew the downwind leg at fairly low throttle.  Too low, in fact…Tom caught up to me, and was between me and the runway when it was time to turn base.  I watched him for a second, then saw him start turning towards me and bring his nose up.  I mirrored his motion, turning towards him and dropping my nose towards the runway.

I noticed a lot of planes waiting at the departure end.  A Cessna had entered the pattern (on the opposite side from us) and wasn't talking to the tower.  The tower had cleared several aircraft to position and hold as this Cessna came closer.  They kept calling him, with no response.

We, in the fly-by pattern, were clear, but the tower warned the airplanes on the runway to hold their position.  As I neared the runway, I had a perfect view of the Cessna passing low over the position-and-hold crowd to land on the runway just ahead of them.  Not a word on the radio…except for the tower (and a couple of other guys) calling him bad names.

I started to worry a bit.  All those planes might mess up our trying to land after this pass.   The briefer had warned us that if the pattern was too messed up, we'd get sent all the way to the marshalling point to do a full pattern re-entry.  There wasn't *that* much time before the field closed for the airshow.

Again, I flew slowly up the taxiway.  I glanced over my shoulder…and by golly, we were all flying over the fly-in at the same time.  We were, by no stretch of the imagination, in *formation*…but we had a quarter-mile or so of strung-out Fly Babies.

Unfortunately, we were in *right* echelon…because I was hogging the taxiway line.  This put us practically flying over the main display area.  I watched my altimeter to keep a meticulous 600 feet AGL.

Around again.  I ran the power up a bit to add some spacing so we didn't bunch up during landing.  The stacked-up airplanes at the departure end were thinning out rapidly, and there was only one plane on the normal downwind.

"Arlington tower, Bowers flight of four on downwind on the fly-by side, we'd like to land."

"Bowers flight, follow the green biplane on left base."

Green biplane?  I scanned the mass of trees on the far side of the runway.  I found a plane that looked like it might be green…but it appeared to be a high-winger.

I assumed that was the plane, and turned base.  Behind me, the other planes of the flight spaced themselves out.

"Bowers flight, do you have the biplane in sight?"

That *had* to be the biplane.  "Roger, we have the traffic."

"Bowers flight, cleared to land."

As I followed the plane down final, I finally made out the second wing.  He settled down to an incredibly slow landing.

As I neared the runway, my seat-of-the-pant instincts whimpered like a constipated bulldog.  The headwind was *really* throwing me off…my approach speed was at 80 indicated, but it felt like we were about to fall out of the air.  We dropped steeply towards the runway.  I hauled back on the stick in desperation.  The plane flattened out, still feeling the airspeed that my instincts insisted had already disappeared.

Finally, Moonraker gave up and flopped onto the asphalt.  Ahead, I could see the biplane just turning off the runway.  I relaxed a bit as the plane slowed down.

Then I remembered:  I had three other planes trying to land right behind me!

I shoved the throttle forward and slid to the right to give Cecil some room.  I practically entered a three-wheel drift as I turned off the runway.  I looked behind.

Cecil and Tom were down, with Chris just alighting.  Enough room, I guess.

It was a short roll to the start of the show-area taxiway.  I waited until all four planes were together…if we couldn't hang together in flight, at least we'd look sharp taxiing in.

And so it proved.  The scooters picked us up, and led us past the vendor area and the announcer's tower.  I could hear the announcer reading some of the information off the sheets I gave him.

The marshalers stopped the pedestrians again, and we rolled back onto the grass of our parking row.  I was ready to just park the darn thing and climb out, but Don Davis held up his camera and motioned for me to stop.  We got all four planes lined up, engines running, and Don snapped our picture.

Finally.  Down to the end of the row, turn to the left, and roll back into the parking spot I'd left a half-hour and a lifetime earlier.  Mags off, and the prop whirred to a stop.

As I unstrapped and climbed out of the cockpit, I started to laugh.  I couldn't *believe* how badly I'd botched leading the group.  I'd tuned into the wrong frequency, I'd put the hardest-to-see airplane as #2, I didn't hold back enough for Chris to catch up, I hogged the barrier line so the other guys had to string out to the right, and I let us bunch up too much on landing.

But…but…we'd delivered *exactly* what we'd promised:  A brace of Fly Babies (with a Story thrown in for variety), flying in a gaggle down the fly-by pattern.  Maybe as a precision flight team, we stank on ice…but from the grins of the pilots, it appeared to be "mission accomplished."

My last mistake of the day happened a few minutes later.  John Ousterhout and John Ammeter came around, and complimented me on the display.  I was feeling a bit better about our effort, by then.  "Maybe they had to use a wide-angle lens to shoot our picture," I said proudly, "But our formation…."

I didn't get any farther.  On the phrase "our formation," both Oyster and Ampmeter starting howling with laughter.

Some friends *I* got. :-)

Ron "Dunderbird One" Wanttaja

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

Return to The Stories Page