Formation Flying the Art

The history and the why the video came about

By Dave Clinton

In 1983 I sold my last P51 Mustang, the maintenance had become to burdensome. In 1984 I bought my first and only T-28 which I flew until 1998 when I sold it to Russ Myer, the CEO of Cessna Aircraft.

I had flown the T28 in the Navy, it was categorized as an intermediate trainer. You could always tell where T-28s were parked because of the large deposits of oil left on the ground, and the T-28 was referred to as a Thunder Pig because it was such an oily mess. The laws of physics applied aptly to the T-28; when the engine was shutdown, all the hot oil would drain to the bottom of the engine and lower cylinders; then the overflow in the lower cylinders would overflow and leak on the ground and on start up the engine would belch a large quantity of liquid oil out the exhaust stacks. The Navy’s solution was to paint the side of the aircraft with wide black arched stripes on each side of the fuselage to mask the oil deposits.

I was aware of the issue when I bought my T-28; but as a life long hotrodder and gearhead and because the airplane was licensed in the Experimental category, I was permitted by regulations to work on or modify the engine and airframe to my liking. So, over a 2-year period I invented a multi-system product that ultimately overruled the laws of physics and produced a user-friendly airplane that remained clean after parked, no matter hoe long and would not discharge any large liquid of oil on start up. I called the product “Clean Kit” and Darton created an aviation manufacturing division and would go on to sell hundreds of these kits around the world for T-28s and other radial engine air cooled Warbirds. The military name for the airplane was Trojan so with every Clean Kit we sold we included a Tee Shirt embossed with the moniker, My Trojan Doesn’t Leak, always good for a laugh, especially in mixed company.

In 1986 after the kit was perfected, I met John Harrison, A former Air Force fighter pilot and Delta airlines pilot. John had just purchased a T-28 and became aware of me and the kit through a mutual friend Les Salz, also a Delta pilot.

John and I became fast fiends and we still are today. John was already flying formation with a group of Delta pilots who owned T-28s so I was invited to join the group(squadron) as the nugget (new guy, and I started flying the number 4 position or slot as was directed by John who was lead. The flight consisted of John, Rick Fernalld, and Dan Lawson. We were all ex-military aviators; John and Rick were Air Force; Dan was Marines and I was Navy so we flew together for years and became a cohesive unit much like past military squadron life.

In 1987 our flight (4 ship) flew to Oshkosh for the EAA airshow and convention. All of our airplanes were spit and polished and we were named Children of The Gods, or COG, so that became our moniker and flight call sign. The following year, 1988, we were presented with stickers all over the venue, stuck everywhere as an international prohibited sign, a circle with a red line drawn through the circle.

Our flight qualified to fly in the airshow and the initial briefing before the show was a goat rope of conflicting ideas, formation designs and hand signals, not really safe. The FAA airshow rep was present and he was disappointed in the process.

In 1988 I joined the Board of Directors of a warbird organization called NATA, North American Trainer Association. NATA was formed to provide leadership in the maintenance and operation of former military aircraft, specifically the T-6 and the T-28. In 1990 I joined the EAA/WOA (Warbirds of America as a director. John and Rick were already members of the board.

One of the senior directors of the WOA was Bill Harrison. Bill had conceived of an idea to organize a conference dedicated to warbird operations, maintenance, regulations and the such. So in 1990 the first conference was held in Galveston, TX and was well attended, over 200 attendees. Present at the meeting was John Theim, the FAA airshow coordinator for all the US. All airshows in the USA are sanctioned by the FAA and in each case the airspace is considered under special control called “Waivered Airspace”. Within this space all operations must adhere to specific flight rules and flight conditions, including all formation flights.

At this first meeting John Theim announced that in the future the FAA would require an industry produced “Formation Flight Standards” program including the credentialing of ALL pilots whom would fly in the airshow environment. The time line dictated that a program would be created and in place for the airshow season starting in 1992. This proclamation caused great consternation amongst the attendees and a vigorous discussion ensued trying to decide on the standards of formation flight, the procedures, hand signals and so forth that would be used in the future.

At the time the only cohesive and successful program which existed was one administered by the T-34 Association. They had developed a program of comprehensive operational procedures for most all phases of Formation flight and reduced the system to a printed manual, Formation Flight Manual 4th edition which included most all of the popular warbirds flying; T-34, T-6, T-28 and the P51. The manual was a compilation of Navy and Air Force procedures and signals and by unanimous vote the group decide to adopt this manual as a standard. The next step was to create a program of procedures, testing protocol and certification standards. A new organization was to be chartered as an entity shielded from liability and FAA regulation and it was called F A S T, standing for Formation and Safety Training.

John Harrison, myself and Cark Schmeider were elected to become the authors of the program. Bob Mitchell was elected as the scribe and to facilitate the organization of the program. Carl became the defacto head and created the basic outline of the total program. John was chosen to author the “Flight Lead” check ride guide and I was chosen to write a similar guide for the Wingman.

Together we completed this program with documentation, certification standards and requirements for either Lead or Wingman credentials, thereafter we created the art work for the actual Formation cards, which would be earned by prospective applicants and also the Formation patches which would be worn on flight suits announcing your accomplishments and status as a wingman or a leader. We also established the criteria for a cadre of check pilots who would train and certify the applicants. This was all accomplished in under a year.

I became a Leader and a Check Pilot and it became instantly apparent to me that teaching basic formation skills to pilots unfamiliar with the concepts of formation flight would be time consuming at a times dangerous, besides to train a second airplane as a target was required and this was not always convenient.

Our T-28 flying community was growing and John and I became titular leaders as it grew. It occurred to me that a training video might serv the need of the community at large as a primer for beginners on the sight pictures, basics and safety requirements. I purchased a number of digital quality video cameras and started developing a film library of all the formation activities. Over the next 8 months I cataloged over 400 hours of video footage of formation flights. The footage included more advanced flights such as formation take offs and landings.

The next step was the most daunting; I had no knowledge of film editing, story boards, narration or piecing together the hours of raw footage that would be necessary to create a usable finished product that would be entertaining and instructive. So, I became a student of the film process and over time I learned enough to be able to procure all the right professional equipment to create an editing studio in my home. This process was long and arduous; the studio setup was connected to my entertainment system with the control panel and umbilical cords between the video editing equipment and the wall mounted amplifiers, tv monitors and all the other stuff necessary.

The whole process took about 6 months and when I finished the draft of the tapes, I engaged a professional studio, Jazzercise where I took all the source material and converted it to 1-inch tape. The techs there coached me through the final editing process, including narration, music and final titling. The video has been copyrighted since 1992 and continuously sold to the public since 1993. After it was released in final form it was adopted as the initial standard of formation training by the EAA/WOA, NATA, The T-34 association and the CAF, along with at a later date the JLFC and approved by the FAA as an appropriate training tool. Darton still produces and sells the 4-hour Formation Flying, The Art, on 2 DVD discs as a set with the T-34 manual as part of the package. That’s the how and the why.