Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Weekend of Formation Flying- Jim P

First off, some may think this is completely insane, wanting, on purpose, to fly within 10 feet of not one, but multiple aircraft. However, this is a skill, when done properly, really hones how you fly the airplane with precision and confidence. For other photos, see http://cid-0f4ce38190a6485e.skydrive.live.com/browse.aspx/WCFC%202010?authkey=WuRm05lUyBQ%24&ct=photos

The plan was to attend the 2010 West Coast RV Formation Flying Clinic in Madera, CA, approx. 627 NM south in the lower Central CA Valley just north of Fresno. The trip started out on Friday AM about 10:00 AM with 2000’ OVC and some light scattered rain through southern WA. Weathermeister.com was showing OK weather with 2500 OVC through central OR, then broken and finally clearing into the CA Central Valley, but the winds were going to be fairly stiff out of the north with 15G25 or so on landing. I departed and headed down the valley over I-5 and was able to slowly creep up to about 3000 by Hillsborough, then up to about 4000 towards Eugene where the clouds finally went BKN. I was about 10 miles behind a group of 4 from the Portland area and we all pushed up to VFR on-top, climbing to 9500 for a nice ride down to Oroville CA. Around Roseburg, one of the guys lost an alternator and headed back. Lava had a new alternator replaced and eventually made it back down by evening. The Portland guys landed at OVE and I was about 10 minutes behind. We all got a car, then headed into town for some lunch and enjoyed the sun! We departed as a 3-ship, then picked up one more around the Auburn area to make it a flight of 4 heading into Madera (2 RV-8s, a -6 and my -7). Through the CA valley, winds were about 40kts on the tail giving us ground speeds of almost 200kts, but the flip side was the penalty heading north on Sunday! Overall, we had about 4.5 total hours down to Madera, arriving in time to get cleaned up for the evening ground school.

Ground school was run from 6:00 – 10:00 PM with some pizza thrown in for dinner and covered the key knowledge areas of the T-34 Formation Manual, with emphasis on the differences for the RVs. If you read the manual and understood it, this was a good review for the weekend. I suspect that by 10:00 PM, everyone was pretty beat and most folks headed off for the evening, show time was 8:00 briefing on Sat AM.

Most folks showed early to start prepping planes, uncover, pre-flight, clean bugs, etc, to be ready for an 8:00 briefing. All up, there were about 27 participants as of Friday evening so it promised to be a good weekend. The first flight of the day was to be a ride-along for those of us new to RV formation, with the newbie riding along with an experienced pilot to see what the correct sight pictures were for RVs so I rode along with Eddy (SoCal) in the back of his RV-8 and he proceeded to show me the way an aggressive rejoin is really done. If done right, you get a face full of airplane just before moving to the outside if you’re #3 (#2 forms to the inside of the turn – always). Although #4 had a communication problem, we had a good flight with some wing time, and re-joins before heading back.

2nd flight of the morning was with the same flight, this time the experienced pilot flew with the newbie in his airplane, so Eddy piled into my RV-7 for the ride. The flight was planned for the same profile, element departure, re-joins, fingertip, echelon, cross-unders, close trail, extended trail, and recovery back to Madera.

We had some lunch then got ready for the afternoon flights. The first flight of the afternoon was a 3 ship and I was solo, deemed not scary hazardous to health from the first flights, so we briefed up and went out and flew. Lead was Rodac, who had a Mazda-powered RV-6 in Navy colors. Nice airplane but it sure sounds like a big model airplane ;-). We departed as a 3-ship section take-off, formed up, then went out and generally flew the same profile, but added some extended trail exercises. This is basically follow-the-leader with a 1000’ separation in trail, which is way too much fun!

After debrief, there were a group sitting around, and Rodac asks, “anyone want to go fly a 7 ship?” Well, with that we were all briefing up 7 ship formation composed of a 4-ship and a 3 ship. Whoo-hoo. I was #2 for Alpha flight, so all I needed to do was just stay on lead, good thing since I was starting to get beat. Even with form flights under an hour, a newbie comes back sweating and tired from gripping the stick and throttle. One really has to learn to relax and take time to shake out feet and arms as this is fairly intense flying for sure. So we went out and flew what we briefed, going from a fingertip and a 3-ship vee formation, to a big delta and back before coming back in. This was somewhat of a short flight, but a lot of fun. If you’re in the front of the formation, you don’t generally see the mass behind you, but if you’re bringing up the rear, you do get to see that.

That’s where we were for the dinner flight Saturday evening. The plan was to fly to Sierra Skypark from Madera for a Tri-tip BBQ dinner at one of the guy’s airpark homes. I rode along with Charlie Flight lead and just took some pictures and it was good to see the group of RVs out in front of us for the 15 mile flight. It’s always interesting to hear “RV-flight of 17, entering extended downwind for the initial..” Some complain about the 3 or 4 in a pattern at the local non-controlled airports, but try getting 17 on the ground! We taxied in and pretty much filled the streets with airplanes and enjoyed a great BBQ dinner. And for those of us not flying, a couple beers were really good after a long day. The folks involved in this come from really interesting backgrounds, with the majority non-military. There’s the 1st grade teacher (Schoolmom), a retired volcanologist (Lava), a couple who work for Van’s Aircraft, a professional photographer for The Governator (Forrest), some folks from the SF Bay Area high-tech industry, a couple airline pilots, a retired Navy Flight Doc, and others, all with an interest in formation flying and very diverse backgrounds.

About the time I returned to Madera, I checked the weather for Sunday and it wasn’t looking too good for the Puget Sound area. Winds, low ceilings and scattered rain was forecast for late afternoon, so I went to bed hoping it was going to change overnight. Well, that didn’t happen, so I made the call to skip the big all-up formation flight and head back early. The winds out of the north were fairly stiff so I endured a 138kt ground speed at 4500’ all the way up the Central Valley, bummer! All this did was burn gas as I can’t go LOP and make decent time. I tried climbing to 6500 to see what that looked like, but lost an easy 10 kts of groundspeed. Approaching Shasta, there was a very distinct lenticular around the peak, so I wasn’t too sure of the bumps going through the Dunsmuir area, but they weren’t too bad. Past Shasta, the winds subsided a little and allowed a climb up to 8500 to go LOP. Since I burned a bunch of gas (11.5 GPH vs. a LOP of 7.9) a stop at Ashland, OR was in order to fill the tanks. Not the friendliest place, but it served it’s purpose and I was off the ground in about 30 minutes heading north again. I found it interesting to watch the altimeter settings increase rapidly as I headed north from Madera, then see them start to decrease again as I flew through the high, and transitioned to a tailwind. Once around Eugene, the clouds started up again with 4500 BKN, so I slipped below for the rest of the trip. It was fairly nice up through the Portland area, then started to go downhill from Kelso north, arriving around the Puget Sound area to a nice 15kt west wind, 2500 OVC and some scattered rain. Yep, back in Seattle!

Overall, a really great weekend with lots of flying. Including, the trip down and back, I managed to put another 12.2 trouble-free hours on the RV, increase my formation skills, and socialize with a bunch of like-minded pilots.

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