by Larry E. Nazimek
There are many formation teams on the airshow circuit, but Team Aerodynamix, the world’s largest air show team, is unique in that it consists of 10 planes. I got to fly with them prior to the Chicago Air & Water Show in August 2015.
Team Aerodynamix flys privately-owned RV kit planes, most of which are RV-8s (single-engine, two-seat tandem, tail draggers). For this flight, I flew with John “Mutter” Hornbeck in his RV-6, built by team member Jerry Kight, the only plane in the group with side-by-side seating. Hornbeck is a custom homebuilder from Anderson, South Carolina.
Since the pilots own the planes, each has a different paint scheme. The advantage of this is that each pilot knows who is flying each plane. The pilots live in various towns in the Southeast.
Most of their formations are flown in “elements,” where the element leader flies off of (with reference to) the flight leader, while the element members fly off of their element leader.
For their giant V formation, however, each plane maintains his position on the plane beside him. In other words, the second plane in the row is positioned on the first, the third on the second, etc. When flying in formation, you are constantly making small corrections (always assuming that you are never in perfect position) to maintain your position, so each plane’s movement is “amplified” by the movement of the plane on its wing.
When pilots are first learning to fly in formation, #2 will be making large corrections, with #3 having to make even larger ones to keep on #2’s wing. If you have five (5) planes in echelon (line abreast), and the pilots are not experienced in formation flying, the #5 plane may have a difficult time with this “crack the whip” effect, and even the most experienced pilots sometimes have problems in turbulence.
There are maneuvers where experienced pilots will appreciate the difficulty more than other spectators, such as the “outside loop,” and flying in echelon with a large number of planes, is one of them.
The team members are highly experienced precision formation pilots, but, as Hornbeck explained, this effect is why they avoid large echelons in most of their formations. One can analyze their various formations to determine who is flying off of whom.
“We generally try to fly in the same position for each flight, but we’re prepared to fly any position as is needed to fill an empty spot,” said Hornbeck. In other words, if one aircraft must drop out, rather than leaving a noticeable space, another will fill in. As any pilot will appreciate, when you have 10 planes, there is a good chance that one will have maintenance problems.
Their experience and expertise enables Team Aerodynamix to move all 10 planes as one, as though they were welded together. In one of their formations, for example, instead of an “arrow,” the flanking planes drop back to fly off of the third plane in the column, forming what resembles the wings of an airliner, while those in the straight line, form the fuselage.
Their formations are constructed with the spectators’ frame of reference in mind. While flying in a trail formation, each plane will fly behind, and slightly below, the plane in front, but this slight difference in altitude will not be apparent to someone on the ground, as the team flies overhead.
When the planes go “smoke on,” the spectators see parallel lines, but for those in the formation, it’s an entirely different effect…one that needs to be seen from the cockpit to appreciate it.
In addition to their “day show,” Team Aerodynamix also has a night show with greater emphasis on the lighting effects. While the Chicago show is a day event, they did some night flying along Chicago’s lakefront.
The group’s founder, Mike “Kahuna” Stewart, explained that he had been flying for several years when an Air Force colonel taught him formation flying. He really loved it, and he shared his newly found passion with fellow pilots who flew RVs. In 2002, they formed Team Aerodynamix in Atlanta.
Some of the original pilots have left the team, but were replaced.
Hornbeck explained that he had been flying his plane for several years when he learned formation flying, and he became friends with the other team members. After a few years, one of the pilots left the team, and he was there to fill the vacancy. As Hornbeck put it, “It doesn’t make us rich, but it does enable us to pursue our hobby.”
Team members were part of the largest civilian aircraft formation world record that was flown in 2007 and 2009 (consisting of 37 RV aircraft).
This is one airshow act you won’t want to miss in 2016.