May 7, 2019

Formation Flying In A Motorglider: We’re Going To Do What!?!

To anyone who doubts that the aviation community is, by and large, a close knit family of like-minded geeks, one must look no further than some of the grassroots events at their local airports.  

Through a happy coincidence, I found myself at Livingston County’s Spencer J. Hardy Airport on a warm summer weekend to observe and photograph a Red Star Pilots Association formation flight training event hosted by Hangar 639.  The collection of aircraft at the event was vast ranging from motorgliders and biplanes to Van’s RVs up through Texans and even an L-39C! The clinic was a multi-day event consisting of classroom and aerial training and instruction in the art of formation flying, as well as preparing a few of the gathered aviators for formation flight checkrides.  Red Star is an FAA designated Formation and Safety Team (FAST) signatory, and is authorized to train and sign off civilian pilots for formation activities at airshows and other events. For those not hip to some behind the scenes airshow lingo, FAST cards are required to fly aircraft in close formations and are essentially the formation analogue to low level aerobatic waivers held by airshow perfomers. 

Among the gaggle of former military trainers and homebuilt aerobatic touring machines were the four motorgliders of the Detroit-based Tuskegee Airmen National Museum that are more commonly used for Young Eagles type events with urban youths in Southeast Michigan.  When they’re not being used to inspire the next generation of aviators, the TG-7A (Schweizer SGM 2-37 in civilian guise) are used to make up what is believed to be the widest four-ship formation airshow act anywhere in the world. It’s not the most difficult honor to capture when you consider that the wingspan of the aircraft is just a hair under 60 feet, but impressive nonetheless and quite an interesting sight in comparison to any other formation act you’re likely to see at an airshow.  Formation flying is a challenge in any aircraft, even moreso in a motorglider with a very modest powerplant

Having worked with the team at the Detroit River Days airshow a few weeks prior, I was signed up to fly in the lead position of a 4 ship formation flight with Steve Tupper, Callsign: Dogbag, to experience the art of motorglider formation flying firsthand.  Dogbag is a CFI for gliders and fixed wing single engine aircraft and has been flying the TG-7A for years, with his earliest experiences in the aircraft being captured as part of his podcast “Airspeed”.

In addition to sharing the thrill of formation flight with a few passengers, and introducing one of the Red Star instructors to motorglider formation flying, the goal of the sortie was to practice a series of formation changes and get one of the team’s newer pilots up to speed as a wingman.  The team and passengers briefed at a table in the hangar, with every detail and goal of the flight discussed and mentally rehearsed. While it wasn’t quite as formal as you’d see from the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, there was no doubt that the formation’s bases were covered from radio frequencies to formation changes and from comm-out hand signals to the planned route of the flight, no aspect was left unexplored.  One thing you don’t often hear during a formation briefing is the procedure to shut down (and restart) the engine in flight. We’re going to do what?!? You read that right: Shut down the engines in a four ship formation.

The airspace around KOZW was crowded with normal operations as well as multiple other formations performing similar training sorties, so needless to say the frequencies were jammed up with transmissions which added a degree of difficulty to the sortie.  Tuskeegee Flight stepped to the TG-7As which were located a short walk from the hangar during the tail end of a light shower. Enough rain to be annoying, but not enough to worry about visibility. Unfortunately the comm-out hand signals came into play early on, as one of the aircraft was suffering from a malfunctioning radio due to the moisture during engine start and runups.  The team taxied out in a line astern formation and lined up on Runway 31 at “Howell” and performed interval takeoffs.

As lead we began a shallow turn as Tuskegee 2, 3 and 4 used geometry and angles to catch up after takeoff.  For those unfamiliar with formation flying, a mix of angles and power adjustments are used to maintain position in the formation and to rejoin following a separation.  Angles are infinitely more important with an aircraft like the TG-7A, which no one would accuse of being fast or overpowered, particularly when compared to the fighter jets and aerobatic machines most often seen flying in close formation at airshows.  One of the critical skills of a formation leader is to know how to fly a path that allows wingmen to catch up and maintain proper formation without getting “sucked” (behind their position) or “acute” (ahead of their designated spot), and such flying was well executed despite having to dodge a few patches of heavier rain.  

Tuskegee 1 led the formation through a series of gentle maneuvers in echelon, fingertip, diamond, and trail formation, with smooth and confident changes between them being the order of the day.  As the rain closed in, yours truly took over as weather officer, plotting a route through the sploches of green on the NEXRAD feed towards a clearing near a safe landing area for our engine off practice.  In addition to helping work the radios, I even had the pleasure of leading the formation. Yes, you read that right, a photographer and writer for NYCAviation led a four ship formation in an aircraft he had never flown before, and having not flown anything in seven years!  To say the TG-7A didn’t quite handle like a Cessna 172 would be a bit of an understatement, but no metal was bent, no wingmen were lost, and best the two of us in the lead aircraft could tell, no one else noticed the brief time with the new guy at the controls.

On the way to the engine off area a few lead changes were practiced before the aircraft spaced out in line abreast formation.  The mixtures were leaned in unison, throttles reduced, and the engines eventually sputtered to a halt. Magnetos were switched off and Team Tuskegee began practicing one of the rarest of formation maneuvers: A four ship formation line abreast descent.  Conventional wisdom states that the prop up front is really just a fan to keep the pilot cool, but the formation was cool and collected throughout the process. Without an engine, the airplane’s dive brakes became the throttle, being used to control speed/sink rate as the planes silently descended towards a friendly glider base below.  The aviation photographer in me must state the following: I solemnly swear that the photos accompanying this piece depicting stopped propellers were taken during the engine-off phase of maneuvering and depict propellers that were indeed stopped rather than being the result of a “jet” shutter speed while shooting a propeller aircraft.

Reaching the hard deck for the engine off maneuver, the formation spaced out once again and the four cylinder engines came back to life on command from the pilots and the TG-7A’s climbed away from terra firma once again.  As Team Tuskegee turned back towards Howell in a loose echelon formation it provided a few moments to reflect on the team’s mission. The aircraft I was in, N763AF, has the name Lt. Col. Washington DuBois Ross on the canopy rail, as well as a photo of him in the cockpit.  Lt. Col. Ross flew with the famed Red Tails in Italy during World War II, and though he passed in 2017, his legacy lives on, with an aircraft bearing his name being used to inspire inner city youth to explore Aviation or STEM careers through the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum.  

A few short minutes later Tuskegee 1 led the echelon formation over Howell’s Runway 31, and began the overhead break procedure.  Power to idle, and land a bit long to ensure sufficient room for the rest of the formation to touch down and get stopped and yes, even the landing is briefed to ensure each aircraft knows what to do in the event of a brake failure to avoid colliding with the others in the formation.  Following taxi back to the ramp and shutdown, the team convened in the hangar’s conference room and debriefed the entire flight. No punches were pulled as the aviators discussed what went right and wrong, and input from the, admittedly aviation literate, passengers was accepted. No one’s words were too small or irrelevant to learn from, especially in the incredibly unforgiving environment of close formation flight.

A flight with the team was a great introduction to formation flying.  Things happen slow enough to process what is going on, and the aircraft are quite mild to fly compared to the L-39s that are known to frequent these parts in formation.  The sensation of being so close to other aircraft while maneuvering is something that can only be truly appreciated by experiencing it firsthand. When one considers the fact that the four TG-7As combined probably cost less to operate per hour than many other commonly used formation machines, it becomes clear why the close knit Tuskegee Motorglider community is so passionate about their mount, not to mention the fact that they’re in a unique position to fly engine-out formations!    

The author would like to take the opportunity to thank Steve Tupper and the rest of Team Tuskegee for letting me fill an empty seat for a training hop at FormationFest.  Additional thanks is owed to the Red Star Pilot Association, and Ron & Linda Staley for hosting the event that made this flight possible. Without their hospitality, generosity, and willingness to share their passion with fellow members of the aviation community this article could have never happened.  

This article originally appeared on NYCAviation.com.

About the Author

Mark Kolanowski
Mark is a lifelong aviation and photography enthusiast based in Michigan and has been writing for NYCAviation since 2015. When he's not traveling to airshows and races, he can often be found out on the lake in the summer, and on the ice as a hockey referee in the winter. He's always up for a plane ride, even if there's a strong chance of G-LOC or revisiting breakfast! His favorite airports to spot at are JFK, EGE, and of course TNCM!



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