Warbird Alley
Special Feature

Formation and Safety Training (FAST) Clinic,
Petersburg, Virginia, USA

Photo by Brian Nicklas

by John "Skipper" Hyle
Photos by Col Susan Northrup, Commemorative Air Force (except where noted.)

    Part of the enjoyment of flying warbirds is the camaraderie associated with the people around them. When we get other people involved, including our families, it keeps the movement going. (It also keeps the Commander-In-Chief of the House -- the wife -- happy.) That's one of the reasons the National Capital Squadron (NCS) of the Confederate Air Force (CAF) held a FAST Clinic at Petersburg, Virginia, in March 2001.

This clinic was a small affair with participants of varied experience levels, from ex-fighter pilots to airline Captains to real estate brokers.

Flyers included:
-- John "Skipper" Hyle (CCF Harvard Mk IV)
-- Ray Reese (T-6G)
-- John Koelbel (NAA Harvard Mk II)
-- John Fuentes (Val replica)
-- Tom Malone and Matt Bennett (T-6G)

Of course, any school must have its teachers, and TRARON, the CAF unit which oversees the FAST program, provided us with two great instructors and check airmen: Tad Foran and Sid Snedeker.

What is FAST?

FAST is an administrative body made up of a group of signatory organizations which provides the standard for civilian formation flying of warbirds. In order for a pilot to fly in formation in waivered airspace (i.e. an airshow), pilots must hold a FAST card, certifying they have received the appropriate amount of flight instruction, and are competent and safe.

Participating groups include the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), the North American Trainer Association (NATA), Warbirds of America (WoA), the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association (CHAA), the T-34 Association, the Classic Jet Aircraft Association (CJAA), the Red Star Pilot's Association (RPA) and others.

Clinic Flight Line
Looking pretty on the flightline are: Matt Bennett's T-6, Ray Reese's T-6,
John Hyle's Harvard, John Koelbel's Harvard, and the Val, flown by John Fuentes.

Thanks to some great weather, nearly everyone was able to arrive on Friday, the 23rd of March, 2001. That afternoon we held ground school. For some "students" it was a review, and for others it was their first discussion of pursuit curves, overtake, closure, and an explanation of the formation rejoin "sight picture."

Ground school is very important -- at least as important as the flight training itself!  As anyone who has flown formation will tell you, there is a lot going on in the average aircraft formation, especially if it's your first time doing it. And for those pilots with military formation time, a FAST clinic is a chance to realize that civilian hand-signals and aircraft signals are a conglomeration of signals from each of the services. You have to learn to be bilingual.

Harvard Two-Ship on the Line
A two-ship gets ready to launch.

On Saturday, we split into two-ship formations and faced a stiff west wind. (At least it was blowing straight down the runway.) It was not the best day to fly formation, but everyone learned something and gained confidence operating their aircraft in such conditions.

Also on Saturday morning, the NCS, along with other local units of the CAF, began the Marshalling Ground School, taught by Scott Parks of the CAF Marshalling Detachment. The "orange shirts," as they are known, represent a wonderful opportunity for those who do not fly to work around the aircraft, and the training provided at the clinic was a great chance for the local units to gear up for the summer airshow season. NCS Participants were: Anna Othold, Ron Gill, Don Weeks, Pat Kraus, and Al Shirley; Delaware Valley Wing participants were Allex Grella and Carl Denslow; and the Old Dominion Squadron was represented by Bill Bean.

Marshaller's Taxi School
The marshallers practice waving their arms.

That night was "Beer Call." My wife, who is also a CAF Colonel and NCS member, brought some great beef and seafood, which we cooked on the grill. Everyone was well-fed, including the airport ramp guys. The rest of the evening was spent hangar-flying, shooting down our watches, listening to tales of Tad and Sid's A-4 Skyhawk and Aviation Cadet days, and all the while listening to tapes of old fighter pilot songs sung by Dick Jonas. Paradise!

John Fuentes and Val dive bomber replica.
John Fuentes removes the Val's canopy cover and prepares to fly.

Sunday dawned clear and much calmer, so we launched into the blue again. This time we not only worked on two-ship formations, but also three-ship. The weekend went too quickly, and soon it was time for instructors and warbird owners alike to return to their weekday lives. All in all, an enjoyable and educational way to spend three days.

John Koelbel and Harvard Mk II
John Koelbel attends to one of the numerous preflight tasks a 50 year-old aircraft requires.

Flying these old airplanes is many things to many people. As a former F-16 pilot, it takes me back through history: Rickenbacker in his SPAD; the "few" owed so much by Britain; the few Wildcats which protected Henderson field that fateful December morning; the formations of Mustangs and T-Bolts going all the way to Berlin; Sabres roaming the Yalu and experiencing a 15:1 kill ratio; Thud drivers going downtown to battle both SAMs and politicians; and a 100-day air campaign which unleashed a storm in the desert and made it much easier for the "grunts" to do their jobs. Flying these airplanes is history alive. There's no sound like a Merlin's purr or the cough and sputter of an R-2800 radial starting up. People who attend airshows get to hear the sound and feel the vibration, unlike a static museum display.

Ray Reese and his T-6G
Ray Reese and his T-6G.

These old airplanes require the same professional attitude that was requires of the first young men who flew them. Formation flying, in particular, requires large doses of professionalism in addition to raw skill. The FAST program instills that discipline to owners and operators who haven't had it instilled by the military. It also provides a lot of fun and a sense of "squadron" camaraderie, something most of us ex-military guys don't find in any other employment outside of the military services.

Harvard Two-Ship taxis out for takeoff.
John Hyle leads a formation out of the parking area in his Harvard.

Formation flying is a perishable skill, like instrument flying. If you own or fly a warbird, I urge you to attend a FAST clinic. Stay current and enjoy these old, special aircraft and the people who fly them.

Clinic Group Shot

Participants in the March 2001 FAST clinic at Petersburg, Virginia.
Kneeling (L to R): Tom Malone, John Koelbel, John Fuentes.

Standing (L to R): Sid Snedeker, Ray Reese, Tad Foran, Matt Bennett, and John Hyle.



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