Formation Flying Lafayette Escadrille d’ Arizona
Formation Flying Lafayette Escadrille d’ Arizona… & The Arizona Stearman Squadron
A popular display at the Commemorative Air Force museum at Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona is a little WWI Nieuport 17 fighter. It is Nieuport 1 of the Lafayette Escadrille d’Arizona. How it ended up at the CAF museum is a story that began in Canada over a quarter-century ago. Graham Lee built an 87% scale replica of the venerable WWI Nieuport 11 “Bebe” that was completed in 1984. Lee then offered plans that soon became a popular choice for the EAA homebuilder. Nearly 400 were built between 1984 and 2003, with many more to follow. The Nieuport models 11 and 17 were nearly identical. However, the model 17 had a completely enclosed cowling and longer wing span.
Pharmacist by Trade…Aviator by Choice
Mike Wray was a local Chandler, Arizona airplane builder/pilot extraordinaire. One of the many ways he displayed his passion for aviation was to inscribe the words “Fait Por Valor” (Born to Fly) on his plane. Mike not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. He and his father-in-law spent eight years building N-330KT a Lancair IV P in “the old family barn.” Additionally, Mike was chief pilot for an aviation charter company in his off time as a pharmacist. Wray heard of Graham Lee’s project.
One night while dreaming, he envisioned putting together a group of like-minded aviation aficionados to build five World War 1 Nieuport 17s. He recruited five of his friends, who together built all five airplanes at the same time. Mike was the first to complete his project and the first to fly Nieuport #1. Soon thereafter there were four flying. But then the names of those first five intrepid homebuilders began to change.
These little French fighters were nasty little ankle biters. The take-offs were equally as challenging as were the landings. By the time the squadron disbanded, all but two had been off the runway and three ended upside down. Twice! One fellow’s airplane was aptly named “Weeds!” A couple of PHX airmen took leave of their senses and joined in the foray. Roger Parrish had a stellar career as a fighter pilot in the USAF. He competed and won most of the awards offered for the events he entered. Then Parrish became the leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, flying both the F-4 Phantom and the T-38 Talon as commander. Arguably, he is the only two-time leader of the Thunderbirds.
Following his retirement from the Air Force, Col. Parrish joined Lear Jet where he became chief pilot of the demonstration program. Then, in 1989 he joined America West Airlines as a line pilot eventually becoming Assistant Vice President of Flight Operations and later, Director of Training.
I joined America West Airlines in 1988 as a pilot instructor in the Boeing 737. Previously, I had flown with the historic old Frontier Airlines for a couple of decades. With the arrival of the Airbus, I moved to the dark side eventually managing the Airbus training program while still instructing, maintaining check airman duties, as well as FAA designee work.
As Director of Training, Parrish became my boss. Eventually, he tired of the politics and signed on with me as A-320 simulator instructor. We have enjoyed a wonderful love-hate relationship over the years…and he has gotten me into a lot of trouble as will be pointed out in this story!
Parrish met Mike Wray and soon arranged to purchase Smokey Stover’s Nieuport #3. It wasn’t long before he tricked me into buying the unfinished Nieuport #2 from a local machine shop owner who had more sense than the rest of the group and bowed out.
Admittedly, I am a dangerous fellow with tools in my hand. Knowing this, I exclaimed: “I will buy the airplane if ya’ll will help me finish it!” “Sure, no problem…we’ll have you flying in a month!”
THIRTEEN MONTHS LATER!
I made the first flight in Nieuport #2 “El Duce.”
Several “friends” arrived to watch what was sure to be a disaster. They were all grouped together holding their long-handled marshmallow sticks waiting for me to create a roasting fire from the crash.
THE ENGINE FAILED TWICE!
It was a cold blustery morning, that December 24th, 1998. The engine failed the first time on downwind. I was able to re-start, but fearing a second failure, I kept the airplane high and fast. Good thing, as the engine quit at three hundred feet on final approach. Amazingly, the landing was smooth and, as I coasted off the runway, I had the presence of mind to release my seat belt. As I rolled to a stop in front of my buddies, I stood up and exclaimed, “Any questions?” …just as planned, right! Nope! “Lady Luck” does play a part in the scheme of things! Fortunately, they never got to use those long-handled marshmallow sticks!
We determined the engine stoppage to be a minor carburetor problem which was easily fixed. With the Nieuports we were always doing twenty-minute jobs. Mike Wray would call each of us to coax us to the airport for another “20 minute job.” There was not a single time the job took 20 minutes. Often, the task would encompass several hours.
By the new year we had five Nieuports flying in formation, something that had not happened since WWI some 80 years before. Many flights would follow with as many hours working on the airplanes as hours flown.
Some of us had prior formation experience, but it was Roger Parrish’s expertise as Thunderbird Lead that pulled us together as a five-ship formation “Smoke On!”
With Mike Wray flying #1, I was in the #2 position in “El Duce,” Roger Parrish #3, Mike Braegger #4, and Pete Geiser #5. We had a “target” too! Tim Wren had an ol’ Pietenpol dressed up like a German Eindecker that we called “The Scourge.”
Other squadron members were Smokey Stover, Jim Stone, Otto Shill, Ken Lambert, and Jim Thorne.
People seemed to love seeing us flying in tight formation with our one-gallon PVC pipe-tanks feeding smoke oil to the exhaust stacks for an impressive smoke-on pass.
A Real Crowd Pleaser
Through Mike’s leadership, along with Roger’s efforts to coach us as a team, we all became members of F.A.S.T.
FAST is the acronym for the Formation And Safety Team, a national program conceived to standardize and increase the safety of formation flying.
Warbirds have flown formation since before WWI. While there are many former military trained formation pilots there have been an in- creasing number of non-military pilots flying warbirds. Many were learning haphazard non-disciplined formation techniques.
In 1993 a Warbird Operators Conference agreed to investigate and adopt a common national program for formation flying. The T-34 Association had created the Formation Flight Manual, based upon the U.S. Navy’s formation procedures. Still in use today, this manual serves as the common standard along with the Darton Video “Formation Flying, the Art.”
Soon our Nieuport squadron, called “THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE d’ARIZONA,” became certified under the FAST auspices. FAST quickly became the standard internationally. Our Five Ship formation flew around the Valley of the Sun and to away places such as Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, and Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista. One trying journey took the squadron to Dallas, Texas for a special event there.
Our primary mission is to honor our nation’s veterans. …it remains so today.
Mike coaxed me into installing a Valley Engineering kevlar belt-drive, creating a two-to-one reduction, in “El Duce.” We installed a Diehl case providing an internal starter and alternator. We were all operating modified Volkswagen engines from VW Bus’. Mine was a 2057 CC engine with approximately 90 HP. The weight and power was equivalent to the original LeGnome Rotary engines of WWI.
Local dentist, Dr. Mike Braegger, Nieuport # 4, is a master wood worker. He built most of our props and carved me a seventy-eight inch prop, some eighteen inches longer than the standard sixty inch prop. This provided “El Duce” with double the thrust of the rest of the squadron. Imagine my amazement of leaping off the runway in less than one hundred feet, reaching pattern altitude by the end of the runway. I could literally circle the other Nieuports as they cruised along at the speed of smell! Tom McNielly even built me a set of toe brakes for the Kawasaki motorcycle wheels/brakes I’d added.
Every Nieuport owner in our group was considering that modification when, sadly, we lost our leader. Captain Mike Wray, was killed in a test flight accident of the Lancair IV-P that he and his father-in-law, George Knapple, had just completed. It was their third flight when the turboprop’s propeller went into beta-mode causing a flat-spin too low and too late to recover. It was February 17, 2004.
Mike was the heart and soul of our Lafayette Escadrille d’Arizona Squadron. Not long thereafter, squadron airplanes were sold, donated, or stored. “El Duce” was donated to the Planes of Fame Museum and has become a prominent display in their beautiful facility at Valle Airport a few miles south of the Grand Canyon.
After a decade flying the little Nieuports surviving members blew to the four winds.
Dr. Braegger spent the next eleven years building the most beauti- ful Waco UPF-7 I have ever seen. He literally built it around the data plate left from a fatal crash near Sedona, Arizona.
Roger Parrish bought a Stearman like the one his brother was flying. Jim Thorne had built an award winning Nieuport Model 12 and it languished while he built an extraordinarily nice Van’s RV-7A.
Ken Lambert’s unfinished Nieuport 28 sat in the corner collecting dust. Pete Geiser’s Nieuport #5 was sold along with Roger Parrish’s Nieuport #3 to two Canadian Air Force fighter pilots. Pete moved to the mountains a ways away from the Nieuport hangars, at the Chandler Airport, where a decade’s worth of aviation novelty took place.
Mike Wray’s Nieuport #1 found a new caretaker when CAF Col. Spike McLean bought it from Mike’s daughter. He restored it and flies it now on a regular basis at the CAF in Mesa.
Joe Sottile and I joined another fellow as partners in Stearman 386. Even after more than 20 years Air Repair still advertises 386 on it’s brochures. Below: is Stearman 386 – photo by Captain Kelly Shaughnessey.
Joe Sottile, a highly decorated Vietnam Veteran, is still flying 386 as it didn’t take Roger Parrish long to snooker me into buying his brother, Richard’s, Stearman. Soon, there were 10 Stearman’s along with Mikey’s Waco sharing the Arizona skies.
I flew N-47964 for several years before a friend’s tug attacked 964’s McCauley prop. The tug won! A prop tip departed thru the top left wing.
Starr Aviation, my insurer, made it possible for me to completely restore 964. Along with super-mechanic, Lance Winter-IA, and host Larry Dustman’s “Man Cave,” a spankin’ new Stearman appeared a year later.
I thought it looked like seven million dollars! It turned out magnificently beautiful if that’s possible for an old bi-plane. 964 won “First Place Antique” at the annual 2011 Copperstate Fly-In in Casa Grande, Arizona. The Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force was equally as impressed as the Copperstate judges were and bought 964! I am a member of the CAF. So, I became like an ol’ prostitute; I sold it, but still got it! I am actually flying it more and enjoying it more with someone else footin’ all the bills. 964 has won other 1st Place Awards along with being awarded “Best of Show” at big Midland Air Event.
Our Stearman bunch operates as part of the ARIZONA STEARMAN SQUADRON. Terry Emig, Stearman 034, is often in position as Flight Lead. Terry bases his Stearman at Casa Grande where he operates a business located at the airport. Below: 034 and 964 over Casa Grande. I usually fly the #2 position in the CAF Stearman 964 with Roger Parrish and Fred Gorrell flying in the #3 spot in Stearman 832.
Roger, with his background as Thunderbird Lead, is our Safety Officer. Several of us have been qualified as Flight Lead whereas one begins formation flying as a Wingman.
Often Larry Dustman or Joe Sottile will be in the number 4 position, but it could be Lee Maxson or Mike Braegger.
Roger keeps his Stearman at KCHD, Chandler, Arizona. Fred Gorrell, an FAA DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) flies 832 with Roger. Fred is also a notable balloon pilot who flew in the transcontinental record making “Super Chicken III” back in 1981.
Below, Roger Parrish leads our show opening flight at the 60th Anniversary of the United States Air Force at Nellis, AFB, Nevada.
Joe Sottile along with Larry Dustman make up the rest of our usual five-ship. They hangar their airplanes at Stellar Airpark, Chandler.
Others taking to the skies with us include Lee Maxson, a line captain with American Airlines, in Stearman 610.
Tom Weidlich in Stearman 254 was part of our “squadron” prior to selling his N2S.
Tom is a retired US Airways captain. He restores
Stearman’s at Carefree, Arizona while Lee hangars at KCHD.
Retired Northwest captain, Bob deFord, flies a beautiful silver PT-17 Stearman along with his homebuilt Spitfire.
The Spitfire is worthy of a story all its own. Both are magnificent pieces of workmanship!
Until recently, retired Delta captain, Mike Walton, flew a Lycoming powered Stearman PT-13 as does CAF Col. Ed Newberg. Ed’s is a nine cylinder 300 hp R-680 while Mike’s and Lee’s are the 225 hp 680.
The difference is noted by the dash number on the data plate. Ed flies out of the Arizona Wing of the CAF where 964 is now based.
LeRoy Peterson, another Casa Grande pilot, flies a pristine Black/Red 450 Stearman that he re-built from the ground-up.
California pilot, Mike Hanson, flies a Navy N2S with us on occasion, out of Compton, CA.
Bill Allen flies Steve McQueen’s old Stearman out of Gillespie Field near San Diego. Bill also flies a pristine Grand Champion antique Stearman C3-R.
Most of the Stearman’s we fly use the Continental seven cylinder R-670-6N rated at 220 horse power. Parts are more readily available and less costly than compatible engines of this vintage.
The Stearman preferred propeller is the McCauley ground adjustable set at 11.7 degrees at the 42 inch station. This setting works best for our formation flying along with the cross-country flights to and from fly-in’s and air shows.
Occasionally, someone will show up with a wood prop, a Sensenich, that looks good but lacks in performance. We call it “The Club!” Probably, the ideal prop for the Stearman is the Curtiss-Reed non- adjustable prop. However, they are near impossible to find and very expensive if available. There is some use of the Hamilton Standard ground adjustable, but the McCauley seems to be the prop of choice.
The German MT wood propeller is growing in popularity and is close to the McCauley’s performance. The MT is 96 inches in diameter while the McCauley is 102 inches. The McCauley is 59 pounds heavier than the MT. The Stearman I fly has both propellers available. We tend to utilize the MT more as it does not have the McCauley’s 100 hour FAA airworthiness directive to contend with.There are a few other Stearman’s flying in TVOTS (The Valley of the Sun), but they are solo ships and not part of our formation. Safety Officer Parrish rightly requires all of our formation pilots to complete the ground school and flight training prior to certification as FAST formation pilots. Annual recurrent training is mandatory as well.
Pilots desiring to become formation qualified must first obtain a minimum level of proficiency and be able to demonstrate the act of flying effortlessly to a FAST Leader prior to initial formation training.
Successful initial formation certification results in card-carrying Wingman privileges. From there, a pilot may progress to Flight Lead limited to a two-ship formation prior to certification as multi-ship Flight Lead.
Annual training is also required with yearly renewal of our certificates. FAST certification is required to fly in FAA sanctioned waivered air space air-shows.
Proper training and strict discipline lowers the risks and makes for- mation flight fun and rewarding. This type of flying is a developed skill that requires training by a highly skilled formation flying instructor. Parrish certainly qualifies in that area of expertise.
The FAA does not require formation instruction.
However, FAR 91.111 governs flying in close proximity with other aircraft. “No person may operate and aircraft in formation flight except by arrangement with the pilot in command of each aircraft in the formation.”
This is the “legal” requirement but obviously pilots should not be foolish to fly in formation with no prior communication with the other pilot(s). A detailed briefing should cover the primary mission, limita- tions, and frequencies to be used along with procedural details from start-up to shut-down. It is imperative that each pilot in the formation understand what to expect during the flight. Each pilot should be clear on the hand signals to be used along with the specific position he/she will be flying in.
FAST recognized formation clinics are held around the country. The completion of the syllabus will award the pilot with what is commonly referred to as a “FAST Card.” The card is a requirement to fly in FAA waivered airspace at air-shows where the FAA has issued a Certificate of Waiver allowing temporary relief of some FAR’s, such as minimum safe altitudes.
FAST cards are only renewable annually thru performance proficiency. Records are maintained for each training sortie in our F.A.S.T. Formation Training program form which includes the following in lined format:
Number of a/c in Student’s position in flt
Mission planning (Flight Leader)
Taxi / run up
–Single-ship, interval takeoff
–Rejoin after takeoff
Station keeping/lazy eights (up to ±20° pitch & up to 45° bank)
Echelon turn (up to 45° of bank)
A/C type ___________
Diamond (up to ±20° pitch & up to 45° bank)
Close trail (up to ±20° pitch & up to 45° bank)
Extended trail (up to 90° of bank)
Pitchout and rejoin
Under run (overshoot)
–Knock it off
–Overhead 360° traffic patterns
–Element landing (nose wheel)
Post-flight taxi/shut down
General lead airmanship (Flight Leader)
Instructional ability (Flight Leader)
Instructor Codes: D= Instructor demonstrated
X= Student performed
Wingman solo requirements: student must be safe in all maneuvers and must be capable of per-
forming both the rejoin and under-run maneuvers
Flight leader solo requirements: student must be safe in all maneuvers
This form is used to recommend the student for certification as Wingman, Flight Lead, or Instructor.
Our Arizona Stearman Squadron flies to California, Nevada, and throughout Arizona to demonstrate our formations to crowds assembled at air-shows and events. Bill Allen, Allen Airways-Gillespie Field near San Diego, invites us to his annual event held at his stunning museum at KSEE.
From Gillespie, some fifteen to twenty Stearmans, along with a few nondescript bi-planes, assemble for flights over the field and down the San Diego beaches. It is an impressive sight with nearly twenty bi-planes flying over US Navy carrier CV-41 “Midway” before crossing the Coronado Bridge on our round-robin flight back to Allen Airways.
Bill and Claudia Allen display some wonderful aircraft along with amazing aviation artifacts and a comfortable theater where we were the first to see “The Legend of Poncho Barnes & The Happy Bottom Riding Club” movie. Bill and Claudia have produced a beautiful collection of displays from their considerable efforts. As mentioned, Bill flies Steve McQueen’s former Stearman with its “N” number the same as McQueen’s reform school number!
We have flown at several of the Marine Base (MCAS) air-shows at Yuma and Miramar as well as opening the Nellis celebration for the USAF’s Sixtieth Anniversary. Below with Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevent prior to our flight together at Miramar Marine Airbase 2011.
We have flown special events at Lake Havasu and Kingman along with Luke AFB, Nellis AFB, and Davis-Monthan AFB. Below, opening the show at Nellis AFB to salute the United States Air Force’s 60th Anniversary in 2007. Former two-time leader of the USAF Thunderbirds, Roger Parrish is leading the flight in Stearman 832. #2, Billy Walker, to his left in Stearman 964; #3 to his right is Terry Emig in 034. #4, Larry Dustman in Stearman 181 is to Terry’s right. #5, Mike Hanson is to the left of #2. Mike flies Stearman 396.
As with the CAF, the Arizona Stearman Squadron’s primary mission statement is to honor our Nation’s Veterans. We fly every Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. Several flights are flown over city parades and the National Veterans’ Cemetery. Below is WWII P-38 Ace, Joe Forster on his last flight in 964 before the airplane was restored back to Navy livery. Now Gone West, Joe is featured on one of the memorial walls at the Arizona CAF Airbase.
We fly special requests when possible giving priority to fallen military men/women’s air services. Recently, we flew the Missing Man formation for Geri Nyman’s services. She was one of the original WASP pilots during WWII. Roger and Fred performed the pull-up and away in 832.
Our long-time buddy, Bruce Haffner, often films us from his “Chopper Guy” R-44 helicopter. That’s Bruce’s famous grin below:
Above: Bruce with the Penguin Air News Chopper. Below: Bruce “shooting” our formation over the National Veteran’s Cemetery. L-R: Mike Braegger in the Waco, Billy Walker (964). Roger Parrish and Fred Gorrell flying Lead (832), Terry Emig pulling up and away in 034, with Larry Dustman #4 in Stearman 181.
I reckon it has become obvious to even the most casual observer that I wasn’t serious earlier, when I mentioned Roger Parrish’s getting me into trouble. For me, it has been a great privilege to fly these venerable old airplanes and act as a caretaker with the goal of preservation so they keep flying. The primary mission for the CAF, now the home of Stearman 964, and that of our Arizona Stearman Squadron is to honor our nation’s veterans.
FORMATION FLYING IS AN ART
We are determined to prevent it’s becoming a “lost art.” Flying with airplanes close-by is a dynamic event requiring discipline, teamwork, and skill. The key is practice, preceding with pre-flight briefings, and following with post-flight debriefings.
Each airplane type has it’s own unique sight picture. Corrections are based upon inches! The sight picture for the Stearman has us aligning the forward outside edge of the windscreen with the cabane wire, and then “put” the outside “suit case handle” on the aft lower fuselage aligning it with the bottom of the outside “N” strut on the airplane that we are assigned to fly as wingman. It might seem complicated, but it is simple once you have the “picture.”
When two aircraft fly together in formation, it is an “Element” and is composed with the lead aircraft in position #1. Lead’s wingman is #2 and normally to the left of the lead ship.
Below: Terry Emig in 034 is flying Lead in a two-ship formation with me in 964 post-restoration.
In the graphic illustrating a flight of four there are two “Elements.” The Flight Leader is both Element Leader as well as the one leading the flight. His Wingman is in position #2.
The Element Leader of the 2nd element (position #3 to the right of the Flight Leader) has a wingman who is in position #4.
In the Five Ship formation shown in “V” Formation, there are actually three Elements. The third element is a single ship. flying on the outside of the airplane in the #2 position.
Our standard formation is the Finger-Four. The Finger-Four can be either strong-side LEFT or strong-side RIGHT as shown:
In the Finger-Four formation, Lead may signal for the #4 pilot to move into the diamond. Normally this is accomplished with a hand signal to the #3 pilot who then passes this signal to #4.
We move to the Echelon Formation for our overhead break prior to landing. In this example, the Leader will break to his LEFT with each aircraft following at the number of seconds signaled by the Flight Lead.
The example below shows the “Diamond Formation” where Lead signals the #4 aircraft to move from his Finger Four position to behind the #1 (Lead) aircraft.
Above is called “Line Abreast” and is difficult to stay in position as is “Trail” shown below by our Lafayette Escadrille d’Arizona squadron. Photo by renowned aerial photographer, Bob Shane.
Below: “Stacking Down”
In the above photos, clockwise, a three-ship; a five-ship Echelon; a single echelon; a five-ship “V Formation.”
While there are other formation certification organizations, F.A.S.T. is generally accepted as the standard. The CAF will additionally accept TRARON (Training Squadron One). The little RV guys use FFI (Formation Flying Inc). Our Arizona Stearman Squadron believes that, for us, F.A.S.T. certification is the way to go.
“Safe and proficient on-time arrival over target” is our motto.
Next time you are in the Phoenix area and hear the deep- throated melodic sound of radial engines, look up. That’s The Arizona Stearman Squadron doing our thing…