Red Star Pilots Formation Flight Clinic in Mesa, AZ

I’ve been looking for information on flight clubs in my area that do formation flying and I found the RedStar Pilot’s Association who had a formation flight clinic scheduled for today, March 3. There was little information on the website, so I decided to skip work and make the two hour drive to Falcon Field to see what was going on.

The majority of the planes flown by this group are the Nanchang CJ-6, what I think of as the Chinese version of the Texan trainer aircraft. Not incredibly fast, the CJ-6 is extremely cheap and easy to manufacture and maintain, making it a popular “warbird” to own and fly.

There were a few other aircraft in the hangar as well.

Looks a pro-mod right here.

In addition to the CJ-6s, folks fly in from around the country with their own aircraft.

Yak…something. I forget which one.

I got to sit in a couple formation flight briefings/debriefings and it was interesting how much variation there was in briefing styles and formation flying techniques. One group spent a good amount of time on details like comm frequencies, time hack, detailed airspeeds, routes to and from the practice area, etc., while another group shared a few frequencies, talked about what maneuvers they wanted to do, and were off. Discussion of how to perform cross-unders, final approach, and rejoins was also pretty varied, although safety was stressed pretty strongly by all groups.

A gentleman who makes aviation helmets was also there, showing off his wares. The helmets all include custom fitted headset gear and many had visors and oxygen masks.

This beaut was specially made for a helicopter outfit which ended up not buying it. The Predator-like part of the mask over the mouth lets the wearer lean their head out of the helo into the rotor wash and still be able to speak into the mic.

One of the pilots, Scott “Munchie” let me crawl into the front seat of his CJ-6 so I snapped some pics of the cockpit.

Although a little snug, it’s hardly tight. I’d love to give it a spin in flight!

Turns out today was the first day of a 5 day long event, so there were only a handful of folks there today and only a few flights. By the time I figured out I could just ask my way into a backseat for a flight, all the backseats had been taken.

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Great report and pics!

Do you think you’ll get a ride over the next couple of days?

We already had commitments this weekend, so tomorrow will be my only chance. I think it’s good, however. Going to bring a GoPro, see if I can get some video as well.

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What a great find…! Cool event. I’ll bet the group of owners have some great stories among them…

Yet another gorgeous Phoenix winter morning. Weather was forecast to be severe clear all day.

The primary purpose of the Falcon Warbirds formation flying clinic is to train pilots in the art. All day senior pilots were teaming up with more junior pilots to discuss the intricacies of formation flying and brief/fly/debrief training missions.

I was lucky enough to negotiate my way into the empty backseat of a T-34 that was going up as #3 in a four-ship to train a pilot in the #4 position.

My pilot is a former Navy pilot having flown A-4s, and has been flying formation for decades. The whole experience was smooth, precise, and professional and the guy was just as nice as they come.

The rear seat of the T-34 is very spacious - plenty of room for me and my camera bag without interfering with the controls.

Engine start is always a thrill - the roar of the T-34’s engine was more of an aggressive purr - smooth and silky but very throaty.

Whether it’s in a B-25 or a Cessna 140, there’s something about holding short of a runway threshold that gets my adrenaline pumping. “Lobo 23 flight, line up and wait, runway 4 right” nearly gave me palpitations. Looking up over the canopy and seeing the whole four-ship flight waiting to takeoff was almost too much.

Takeoff was performed element style, with each element of two aircraft holding brakes, running up engines, and beginning their takeoff run simultaneously, the wingman maintaining position all the way through liftoff.

Number 4 was a little rough around the edges - falling behind on the takeoff run, occasionally missing or forgetting to acknowledge signals, frequently out of position, etc. - but I can only imagine how daunting the experience must be for a new formation pilot. In our sim world, it’s no big deal to zoom into a close formation. In the real world, when it’s your real aircraft and your real LIFE at risk, there’s no such thing as too much caution. This “student” pilot managed to maintain constant visual on his flight lead, element lead, maintained the integrity of the flight, and managed to return with the same amount and color of paint that he took off with. I only hope that if I ever get a chance to fly formation I’ll do at least that well.

Conversely, the other aircraft in the formation were piloted by old hands - the formation was crisp and tight throughout the flight.

As a Tucsonan, I frequently picture Phoenix as a dense concrete jungle underneath a massive temperature inversion layer, but our flight took us over a very scenic area to the north east.

As with all good things, the flight was over too quickly (about an hour flight time?) and the flight lead jockeyed the elements around into echelon formation and began the Mustang One approach into Falcon Field, a specialized approach developed for (and by!) the Falcon Warbirds for exactly this sort of recovery.

The pitchout interval was 5 seconds and like that, the flight was spread out in a nice neat trail formation, spiraling in a steep descent to final. Touchdown was smooth, practically imperceptible - a real testament to the pilot’s skill, IMHO.

Later I got to install my GoPro to the top of this guy – I’m still processing the video and hope to have that up soon – but something interesting occurred while this aircraft was getting ready for flight.

The Yak-50 uses compressed air instead of hydraulics to actuate the gear, flaps, and to start the engine. An engine-driven air compressor helps keep the tank topped off, but leaks are fairly common. A nipple on the side of the aircraft just underneath the cockpit can be fitted to a scuba tank and rapidly refill the internal bottle.

While getting ready to fly, the Yak-50 pilot checked the air gauge, confirmed full reading (4 ATM), went to start the engine, but got a flat puff instead. No air! It took less than 5 minutes to get the tanks topped off and the engine started, but I remember thinking it was an unfortunate instrumentation failure that shows you have full air when you have none instead of empty when the tank is actually full.

Ten minutes later a CJ-6, which also uses compressed air to start the engine, had the exact same failure – the dial read good pressure but the tank was actually empty! What’re the odds, eh?

I had a great time with the guys up at Falcon Warbirds and, despite the two-hour one-way commute, I hope to make it up there more frequently and hopefully get some more rides.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to lag behind on my own element takeoff some day!

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