We are at 2000 feet, G-EEEK, the British Aerobatic Association’s Extra 200 flying straight and level, buffeted slightly by unseen turbulence. I am concentrating hard, trying to stay one step ahead of my aircraft. Limited though my skills are, flying straight and level would not ordinarily be that much of a problem. But I am not in G-EEEK. I am in another Extra 200 no more than 30 feet away. Just ahead of me in the front seat of my own Extra, my instructor Adrian Willis keeps an expert eye to ensure I do not get it wrong. He cannot see how tense I am which is just as well. His son Jack, also an instructor, is in G-EEEK with another student. We are flying my first flight of a formation training course.
Less than an hour ago we were in an office at Conington Airdrome getting a thorough briefing which Adrian gives by a powerpoint presentation. He explains the basics of formation flying, the “perch” and “join” positions and the procedures for the flight. We will take off in formation and then Adrian will hand me the throttle whilst he has the stick. Then I will have the stick whilst he has the throttle, then both.
As I slowly (very, very slowly) master my clumsy over controlling, my nervousness is replaced by a sense of satisfaction. A nice landing can give the same contented feeling but the final approach, flare and touchdown are a fairly brief experience. The same is true of aerobatics, but even when I do get it right I am always left with a nagging concern that I just “got lucky” that time. True, you get better but it is a question of averaging the transient highs and lows of your performance out. Formation flying, on the other hand, is prolonged. There is no thinking “I will get it right next time” because every minute is another opportunity to do just that.
And there is something strangely beautiful about watching an aircraft fly close up. It wasn’t until I first did it that I realised that it was something we don’t usually see. The Extras look surprisingly vivid and graceful against a clear blue sky. We take it in 15 minute turns to fly No 1 (which is easy) and number 2, which is, obviously, more taxing. A couple of sessions as number 2 is enough for most people starting out. The whole thing finishes with an exhilarating tailchase – the closest thing to dogfighting I will ever do.
When I land I am slightly airsick from the tailchase, but I have the feeling that I am learning something of value to me as a pilot and I am already looking forward to the next flight. For those of us who don’t fancy aerobatics but want to learn a new skill, I thoroughly recommend formation flying with the British Aerobatic Academy. The Extra 200s they use are perfect for the job; responsive, economical and with excellent visibility. Adrian and Jack Willis are hugely experienced pilots and excellent instructors. And Conington, where BAA is based, has great facilities ranging from a good runway and refuelling to sweet chilli chicken ciabattas that border on addictive.
As Iceman says to Maverick in Top Gun “You can be my wingman any time”.
If you would like to book some Formation training, call, message or email adrian 07712864413 Adrian.Willis@BritishAerobaticAcademy and of course subscribe to get notified of future blogs.