In April of this year I had the amazing opportunity to attend the All Red Star XIII Formation Clinic at Porterville CA (KPTV). This 4 day clinic is a production of the Red Star Pilot’s Association (www.flyredstar.org) with participation from members of the T-34 Association (www.T-34.com) which are both signatories to the Formation and Safety Team (FAST) organization (www.flyfast.org), the worldwide group responsible for establishing formation training and qualification standards for civilian pilots. I have been a member of the Red Star Pilot’s Association (RPA) for about a year due to my interest in the Yak-52, but had never managed to schedule time to attend an RPA event but due to an unexpected level of stability in my work schedule I decided to take some vacation time and head north for the event.
About a week prior to driving up to Porterville, I attended a required online webinar that provides an introduction to the RPA Formation Manual given by RPA Instructor Scott ‘Gomez’ Glaser. This was a serious 2.5 hour ground school that covered the basics of formation instruction and the organization of the RPA Formation Manual as well as the basic approach to training and approval for formation pilots. This course is a prerequisite for attending the All Red Star event and ensures that new pilots are prepared for the learning environment by being familiar with the different formation types, radio and hand signals, etc.
The event was attended by over 40 aircraft and roughly 65-70 pilots/GIB’s and is intended to ensure that the different organizations fly together to ensure consistency and harmonization between groups who typically fly individually. Over the course of the clinic I was able to fly back-seat or Guy-In-Back (GIB) on 5 flights covering 6.1 hours, including 2 pure training sorties, a Wing Card Recommendation Ride, a Wing Card Check Ride, and an 11-ship mass formation. Among the many T-34’s, Yak-50’s, Yak-52’s and CJ-6’s, were several experimental homebuilts (Glasair IIFT, Glasair III, Lancair 235) and even a couple jets (Aero Vodochody L-39 Delfin and a Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet).
Over the course of the sorties I flew on I was exposed to all of the formation basics, 2-Ship Element Takeoffs, Strong Fingertip, Echelon, Trail, Parade, Overhead Break to Landing, etc., and will provide a brief write-up of the sorties and maneuvers flown along with some photos from the hours of video I took during the flights.
In addition to the many training, recommendation and check ride flights, there were also a few team events such as the formation challenge, and a planned (but weather aborted) flour bomb contest, and a Tactical Formation or Tac-Form air combat engagement. Each of these events was meticulously planned and professionally executed with an ever focusing eye on operational safety. Much like aerobatics, what appears to be chaotic and dangerous is actually precisely laid out and carefully executed.
- Sortie 1
The first sortie was a pure training flight for Guido ‘Rolex’ Rietdyk and David ‘Sparky’ Klein who fly Nanchang CJ-6’s with Tiger Squadron from Torrance (KTOA). Both Rolex’s and Sparky’s CJ’s had been modified from their original 285 hp Chinese made Housai motor, to the more powerful Russian made 420 hp Vedenyev M-14PF engine which provides an amazing amount of performance. This flight had 2 T-34 Mentor’s and 2 Nanchang CJ-6’s. For this flight, I flew GIB with ‘Rolex’ in the #3 (Element 2 Lead) position. We began with a 2-ship Element Takeoff where the 4-ship formation breaks into 2 elements, each with a Lead and Wingman. Once in the practice area we flew pitch out and rejoins where the formation breaks up at a briefed interval (1-3 seconds) and then reforms, then flew close trail where we move to one behind the other. This was a great introduction to formation basics, as I have never flown that close to other aircraft before. As I would later learn, it is possible to fly even closer.
- Sortie 2
The second sortie I flew was a Wing Card Recommendation Ride, where ‘Rolex’ and ‘Sparky’ flew with RPA Instructor Pilot/Check Airmen to demonstrate enough proficiency in formation flight to then be allowed to fly a Wing Card Check Ride. For this flight I flew GIB with ‘Butts’ in his Nanchang CJ-6 and observed as the Instructor Pilots (IP’s) ‘Mags’ and ‘Blade’ put ‘Sparky’ and ‘Rolex’ through the ringer with multiple cross-unders (the #2 and #4 aircraft trade positions or move from Fingertip Left to Fingertip Right), Diamond (what we are accustomed to seeing the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds fly), and Close and Extended Trail.
During this flight, ‘Butt’s and I flew Lead for a while which provided for some great shots. We flew most of a complete training profile so Fingertip, Close and Extended Trail, and Echelon.
- Sortie 3
Sortie #3 was the Wing Card Check Ride for ‘Rolex’ and ‘Sparky and for this I flew with Byron ‘Elton’ Fox. The weather was light rain at the airport but cleared up in the practice area and we worked the rookies pretty hard. On completion of this flight ‘Rolex’ and ‘Sparky’ were approved as Wing Men.
- Sortie 4
My flight for Sortie #4 was a special treat as I flew with Darrel ‘Condor’ Gary who flies in the #3 Position with the Red Eagles Formation Display Team. ‘Condor’ is a former Naval Aviator, who it turns out is one of the 9 men who started the US Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun). Needless to say this was an incredible honor as well as a tremendously enjoyable flight, ‘Condor’ is a past President of the RPA and is largely responsible for the amazing organization it has become and his flying skills were a joy to observe.
- Sortie 5
This flight was eye-opening, as I flew with ‘Dawg’ in the #7 position of a 11-ship formation. I figured out after the fact that the weight of the 11 aircraft, (2 Yak-50’s, 8 Nanchang CJ-6’s, and a Glasair III) totaled 30,000 lbs, or roughly the same as an empty WWII B-17 Flying Fortress. This was very impressive but also extremely challenging giving the weather and low altitude fly-by altitudes.
- Apres Fly
As with skiing, or other multi-day events, the days training activities are but a part of the whole experience and such was definitely the case at All Red Star. Each evening held either squadron/group organized meals or amazing meals cooked and served in the hangar that served as our Base Ops, generously provided a Porterville local with the appropriate call sign of ‘Matchbox’. The back of his hangar was filled with a magnificent muscle car collection.
The Awards Ceremony and Call Sign Board were in keeping with the finest military tradition and as such are far too risqué to repeat here, needless to say however, they were among the funniest things I have ever witnessed and paid a fitting tribute to the camaraderie and esprit-de-corps that Red Star Pilot’s Association and the T-34 Association strive to maintain.
5 flights, 5 different pilots, 2 different plane types, 6.1 hours of intense formation training and countless hours making new friends over 4 days. I cannot say enough about how welcoming the All Red Star XIII crew was, not just fellow pilots, but the amazing volunteers who do so much to make this a top notch event.
Having experienced it firsthand albeit from the rear cockpit, I can now see why many pilots dedicate themselves to formation flying – it is demanding, and can be hazardous if approached carelessly, but with the professionalism and seriousness I observed at All Red Star it is obvious that solid and repeatable programs exist to allow any pilot with the desire to develop the skillset and experience necessary to become a qualified formation pilot.
Almost all of the photos in this article were actually taken from the roughly 8 hours of video I took during the ARS XIII event. If you are interested in seeing a few of these videos in an edited form and set to music, search for jlknolla on Youtube and enjoy.