How do you get to Oshkosh from here? If you’re headed that way for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s famed AirVenture in late July, there’s the Fisk Arrival, which gives new meaning to “line up and wait” — in motion.
It’s very exciting, merging all kinds of airplanes, arriving from all points of the compass, at widely divergent airspeeds, into a complex holding pattern, to land at what is, for one week, the world’s busiest airport. Somehow, thanks to guys on the ground with binoculars and pink shirts, it seems to work, but a camping space next to your friends is not guaranteed.
There is, as it turns out, a better way. It’s called the mass arrival.
Owners of Bonanzas, Cessnas, Cherokees, and Mooneys have gathered each year at various outlying airports to fly in sharp-looking formations to Oshkosh, landing two or three abreast mere seconds apart. They’re directed to their own reserved rows in the North 40 campground, with big circus-tent style type-specific canopies emblazoned with airplane logos and supporting company advertising. There, the participants gather for a week of swilling beverages, telling tall tales, eating well, charging their electronic devices, and making promises for next year.
The Bonanzas have been doing this formation thing for 26 years, and AirVenture 2015 saw 120 B2Osh airplanes, 108 of them Bonanzas, a couple of T34s, and 10 Barons, land at the famed fly-in on the Saturday before opening day. The Cessnas were next, 75 of them, grouped with their fellow Cessna 150s, 172s, Cardinals, Skylanes, and Centurions. Forty Cherokees, accompanied by one rogue Cessna, arrived soon after. The Mooney Caravan landed its 39 backwards-tailed airplanes on Sunday in five minutes flat. Seven Cirrus drivers flew the Fisk arrival this year, and hope to arrange training for formal formation flights to AirVenture in the future.
It sure looks easy, all neat and tidy, and ever so expeditious. Unsurprisingly, though, the flight training, pre-Oshkosh ground arrangements, party planning, T-shirt ordering, and securing FAA approval and a Letter of Agreement takes a lot of work, coordination, and cooperation to make it go so smoothly.
All the mass arrival groups require prior training in formation flying and a sign-off signifying satisfactory performance. Formation clinics are offered by the groups across the country, often at no charge, and the Bonanza group and Mooney Caravan fliers share their syllabus. The challenge and the camaraderie that develops encourage formation flights to other destinations throughout the year, just for the fun of it.
Being a Mooniac myself, the Mooney Caravan to Oshkosh sounded like an excellent experience, so I signed up, sent my money in, and soaked up everything there was about Mooney formation flying on the Internet, including video of training sessions, printed instructions about how not to swap Mooney paint, and detailed flight briefings. It looked easy enough. Just line up appropriately with the lead airplane, and stay there. In essence, they said, “keep up.”
There was a whole new vocabulary to learn. “Sucked” was the term for falling behind. The word “Geometry” was tossed around with abandon. It meant, obviously, keeping the same proper angle with respect to the lead airplane. “Acute” was an error of geometry. “Kiss-off” was the signal to break off the formation (for the third airplane in our three-ship element to land on the parallel runway, in this case.)
My formal training had been postponed due to illness, and I’d make up the difference by assiduous study on my own, and then some real in-airplane training upon my early arrival at Madison, Wis.
My family and I arrived at Dane County Airport (KMSN) on Friday morning prior to the Sunday Caravan departure. The Mooney contingent was parked on a remote corner of the ramp beyond a ramp full of EAA warbirds and milling general public.
My first formation flight was as an observer from the right seat of an experienced wingman’s airplane. Darwin (“Hotdog”) Puls, an ex-fighter pilot from the hills of northeast Georgia, welcomed me to his lovely Mooney 201. We briefed the flight, confirmed frequencies and planned maneuvers, just like in the videos, then took off into the skies of southern Wisconsin.
Darwin’s demonstration seemed as if there might be a stout string keeping us in perfect position with the lead airplane. Then it was my turn to try it in his airplane. With my left hand on the throttle, my right hand on the right yoke, things seemed a little awkward. The string had disappeared. Too high, now a bit low, oops, falling behind, oh, dear, the lead is behind us, somehow. Dang.
“Make prompt, tiny corrections. THINK about the correction rather than making the correction purposefully. Do what the lead airplane does as soon as he does it, but take it easy.”
Easy. There’s that word again. But as it turned out, it wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked.
It would go better in my own airplane, with me in the left seat, I was assured. That second flight, in my Mooney 231, did go a little better, but after an hour of effort, both Darwin and I were dubious about the real thing. The upshot of the debriefing was that I would feel a lot more confident with a copilot. He found me an experienced formation flyer to ride shotgun for me, Air Force instructor pilot, Chris Irwin, alias “Pops.” Despite the codger-ish call sign, Pops turned out to be a lanky, easy-going Texan about the same age as my son. All would be well, he assured me.
Enough of this formality, this strict attention to details, this trying to keep up. It was time for fun, Mexican food, and Mooniac tomfoolery. The last of the corn chips cleared away, there was a call to order, and Caravan business followed, including discussion of call signs. Participants in the Mooney Caravan are generally assigned a military-aviator-style nickname. They might sound pretty good, but there’s always a backstory, often inspired by a deeply embarrassing incident. It is considered a bad idea to lobby for one’s preferred nickname, and backfiring might occur. One caravanner had adopted his own appellation in honor of his speedy bird. This lapse of etiquette was viewed with noisy disapproval, and he retained his old name, “Elton,” complete with sparkly crown, which he wore with grace for the rest of the week. Much hooting and cheering accompanied the pronouncements of those in charge of the proceedings. We newbies would be awarded our call signs after we survived the experience, and our shortcomings duly and hilariously noted. Things would get serious bright and early on the morrow, but for now, there was beer and merriment.
Sunday morning the sky roared with those EAA warbirds selling rides and aviation history to Madison airplane enthusiasts. Dozens of Mooney pilots wearing matching orange shirts retreated to a conference room for the briefing for our imminent departure. Those witty souls from the previous evening had been replaced by very professional and serious aviators. “Lead!” “Alpha One!” “Alpha Two! “Alpha Three!” “Bravo One!” etc., on down through the Mike element, and “Tail.” All present and accounted for.
We went through the assigned radio frequencies, reviewed the current weather and forecast, procedures, route, and what-ifs. The winds would favor our preferred runways at Oshkosh, 36L and 36R, just right for a straight-in approach for our three-ship elements.
By 10 a.m., we’d finished our preflight inspections, loaded our planes, and were ready for that roll call again, signaling our readiness for this adventure. Mooney Lead! Alpha One! And so forth. At 10:10, the start-up finger-circling signal was passed down the line, 29 engines roared to life, and then it was follow-the-leader time. We processed grandly, nearly three dozen of us, to the run-up area, all-OK thumbs-up signs passed up the line, and then we waited for the warbirds and scheduled airliners to land and take off. Eventually we were cleared to the runway. From where I sat, it was a wondrous sight, with 13 rows of Mooneys nose to tail, three abreast.
The element ahead of us lifted off, and precisely 10 seconds later, Hotdog’s head nodded slowly forward and back. Time to rock and roll! It was weird to have my eyes staring out the side window as I pushed the throttle in, rotating, putting gear up, not when I decided it was time, but when my lead pilot did, maintaining the proper heading solely in relation to Delta Lead’s wing.
A prettier day has never dawned. The air was clear and smooth, and all I saw of this glorious sight was Hotdog’s steady Mooney 201 just about 45° ahead and to my left, and very, very close. In stolen glances, I saw Delta Two’s wing abeam my own on the other side of Delta Lead. I was concentrating to keep Delta Lead’s spinner precisely lined up with its aileron slit, with mixed success. It was one of the most tense, but rewarding, half hours I’ve almost ever flown. Intersections were called, headings were modified, conflicting traffic was noted, runway in the lead’s airplane’s sight, and I saw none of it. The navigation, altitude and power settings weren’t my problem. All I needed to do was try to keep up.
Finally, Delta Three was given the “kiss-off” signal to break off formation, slide to the right, and land on 36R. Abeam the blue dot on 36L. Don’t land on the numbers! Keep the taxi speed up, there’s somebody right behind us. Follow the flagmen. Keep the yoke full back as we bump onto the grass, on the way to our reserved spot on the far southwest corner of the North 40. Parked. Tied down. Whew!
Now to the debrief, because the formation flight isn’t over until everybody’s had a say in how it went. Very well, the experts said, the best ever. It certainly seemed to me to be the case.
My reaction? Thanks to a lot of help, we made it! We CAN re-use the airplane. And I want to do this again next year. Skillfully.