Red Three, check in

Up at 6 to make the seven o’clock briefing. Sun is just peeking up from the skyline under a painfully blue sky. It’s a good day to fly. I come up lucky and nab a backseat slot with Jim Booth, leader of Red flight, where Martin will be flying the #3 position. Jim is uniformly admired and respected in this crowd for his knowledge, skill, and graceful leadership. We brief the flight: 10 miles out in the northwest quadrant, 5000-6000 foot altitude block. Three breaks and join-ups, then return for overhead break to in trail landing.

Formation flying requires insane concentration. You’re pushing three tons of smoking metal, 150 miles an hour through turbulent air a wingspan away from your wingman. There are no brakes. Wingman never looks away from his leader. You check in when you join up: “Red Leader, check in? – one!”, “Two!”, Three!” There’s very little speaking – almost everything is done by hand signals. Join up, pull in, cross over, break left. The NATA formation guide quotes an instructor on terseness: “The only thing I want to hear from my wingman is “Two!” or “Lead, you’re on fire.”

But this is a training flight, and Jim knows that his wings are still learning. It’s more than a bit humbling to realize that Martin, our venerated instructor who can do no wrong, is a mere novice in this crowd.

And off we go – two element takeoff; us in lead, with Larry rolling one wingspan off to our left. Martin, as second element, starts his roll once we break ground and joins up as we climb out to the northwest.

For my part, I sit quietly, watch for traffic and snap pictures like mad. There’s an inexplicable grace and stillness watching this ballet of steel and horsepower from the inside. Motionless in space as the world of green, blue and gray races past beyond us.

Jim works his pupils hard, and I can practically see Martin sweating from across the gap. “Come on,” he says to himself as Martin tries to pull into the outside slot, “a little closer in. A liiiittle closer… There ya go.”

Once everyone’s in, Jim reverses his turn (gingerly) and points to the left. He puts his fingers to his lips and blows them outwards – the “kiss off” gesture, and suddenly we’re hard left, pulling three or four G’s, getting the hell out of there. Then straight and level again, and wait while his students try to catch up and rejoin. Again.

“Red leader, check in? One!” “Two!” I can almost hear the sweat in Martin’s voice when he calls “Three!”

Another two breaks and join-ups, and Jim brings us back. I’ve just been sitting tight and taking pictures, but I’m exhausted. A beautiful overhead break to landing, taxi off and shut down. First flight today, three more to go. Am I having fun, or what?

[By the way finally managed to upload photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/david.cohn/TheRoadToOshkoshJul08 ; I’ll try to backfill the previous posts with matching pictures as I go]

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