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Precision Aerobatics with the AeroShell Team

Tupper in AeroShell Formation

Ah, this summer gets better and better!  First the formation photo flight with Billy Werth at the Indianapolis Air Show.  And now, full-up formation aerobatics with some of the masters of the craft, the AeroShell Team.

I attended the Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival this weekend.  It’s one of my favorite shows and I was even a Thunderbirds media rider there last year.  And, with the great lineup this year, I was pretty excited to get there and see what parts of the envelope I might be able to explore.

The AeroShell Team is a four-ship precision aerobatic team that flies the North American T-6 Texan, the iconic WWII trainer that made pilots out of thousands of pedestrians.  I contacted Brian Regan, the lead pilot for the team, on Thursday and made arrangements to meet him when he arrived on Friday.  Once the Temporary Flight Restriction (“TFR”) for the Friday practice session ended in the afternoon, we launched in a single ship and headed out to the south to fly some acro.

It happened that Mark Henley, who flies the No. 2 ship (the right wing in this team) was arriving from the south and he joined up with us for some two-ship aerobatics.  We pulled a loop, a barrel roll, and some other maneuvers as a formation and it was great to be able to see right up close how precise the formation is and what goes into the airshow performance.

AeroShell Team during Show

Over the course of the ride, I got a better sense for what it takes to do formation aerobatics.  The lead aircraft needs to fly precise altitude and airspeed and lay down a precise path in the sky that is predictable to the other aircraft in the formation.  The two aircraft on the wings are naturally flying longer or shorter paths in the sky in turning maneuvers and they therefore need to fly faster or slower and with greater or lesser degrees of control input.  The slot aircraft sometimes has the hardest time because it has to match up its energy state with the rest of the formation in sometimes rapidly-changing circumstances (such as at the top or bottom of a maneuver or during a rejoin).

I have a rough enough time getting my own airspeeds and energy vectors to come out right with hundreds of feet of tolerance within which to maneuver when I fly acro.  I can only imagine the precision that it must take to be able to lead a formation or to fly wing or slot, keeping station on the lead aircraft.  These guys are on a different planet in terms of skill level.  It was great being right up close and able to see how it looks from just a few feet away.

Field at Battle Creek with Smoke 

The other cool element was discovering the three-dimensionality of the show routine.  It’s easy when you’re stuck behind the crowd line to see the show as being pretty flat and occurring only in the vertical plane of the runway.  To a certain extent, that’s a function of the FAA regulations that govern airshows.  You have to have certain distances between the crowd line and the show line and performers can’t direct aerobatic energy toward the crowd (i.e. fly toward the crowd such that, if the pilot loses control, the aircraft is likely to continue into the crowd).

But the AeroShell Team agreed to fly my camera for the Saturday performance and I ended up with a couple of unexpectedly informative sequences.  In this one, you can see the smoke trails from the team’s squirrel-cage maneuver that involves loops or barrel rolls in succession at regular intervals.  You get a really three-dimensional sense of the aerobatic box here, especially the wind as it blows the smoke laterally across the show line.

The AeroShell Team is a jewel of the airshow circuit.  The aircraft make great round-engine noise and are gorgeous up there in the sky.  Make sure that you get out to see the team this year at an airshow near you!


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