We’ve all seen display teams in action at airshows across the world but what actually goes on when they aren’t in the air? Adam Duffield spends a day with top aerobatic display team The Wildcats to find out.
Its 10am on a cold but clear November morning and everything is quiet at Old Buckenham airfield. Located about 15 miles south of Norwich the airfield was built during World War Two and was originally home to the B-24 Liberators of the United States Army Air Force 453rd Bomb Group. Nowadays, it is home to a busy aero club, numerous privately owned light aircraft, a revitalized annual airshow and The Wildcats Aerobatic team.
From the corner of a hangar crammed with aircraft including a Tiger Moth and Stearman emerges the first of the teams two Pitts S2’s along with its pilot Willie Cruickshank, a former Buccaneer Navigator and Jaguar pilot in the RAF. Willie now flies in the Wildcat 2 position in his Pitts S-2B, the slightly more powerful version of the aircraft powered by 260hp Lycoming engine giving improved cruise speed and rate of climb. With the aircraft based at Old Buckenham Willie spends the first 15 minutes checking it over and getting everything ready for the days flying whilst waiting for the other team member to arrive.
There isn’t long to wait before Wildcat 1 is heard on the radio for arrival at the airfield. Flying in from a private strip the Pitts S2A of Wildcat 1, Al Coutts, soon makes a smooth landing and taxies into position alongside his team mate. Having built a Pitts special from scratch along with numerous aircraft rebuilds, Al has a long history in aerobatic flying at both competition level and in solo displays.
It’s now 10.30 and with the airfield traffic from private flying slowly building up, the team head to the main building to start the briefing process for the day’s display. Whilst the team have displayed throughout the year all over the country at airshows and private events, today’s final display of the season was going to be very different to anything they have done before. Not only are they flying their own display, they have also arranged a full display schedule that includes two other display acts for a local charity event being held at Snetterton race track just five miles from the airfield.
With the all-important tea and coffee order fulfilled and all four pilots present, Willie starts taking everyone through the formal briefing pack. The first section of the briefing covers all the display acts and in front of Willie is an A4 sized checklist of items to work through which covers all aspects of the planned display. With the very first action being the synchronization of watches to ensure that everyone has the exact same time to work off to, the next item was a discussion of the display area itself. Being just five miles away from the race track only a local area map was required which clearly showed the race track itself and surrounding features. Also marked on the map was the display line that would be used by everyone and its position relative to the track itself. For this display, clearance had only been given for an A-axis display line due to local restrictions of flying above a nearby stud farm. Other important locations to avoid were also called out and shown on the map so that everyone was aware along with easily identifiable locations for positional reference.
Next on the agenda was discussion of arrangements for the organization of the display acts themselves. The final order was to be the Vans RV8 flown by Matt Summers followed by the Wildcats and lastly David Jenkins in the Edge360. The display window was nearly two hours long and with only 20-30 minutes of displays planned there was plenty of time to accommodate any potential issues without causing any issues. Each act was given timings for engine start, taxi and then display along with the frequencies that would be in use both on the ground and in the air. The route to take from Old Buckenham to Snetterton was shown on the map along with the holding area that would be used to the north of the display area and the exit route once they had finished. With no other flight restrictions in force, local emergency services informed and in place and confirmation of the stunning weather conditions forecast for the display, the main display briefing concluded. Whilst it may not sound like a long process, 45 minutes had passed very quickly and the highly detailed nature and clear order of the brief meant that everyone was fully aware of their roles and responsibilities.
Following on from the brief, the Wildcat team gathered for their team brief. With much of the display formalities completed in the previous brief meeting, the majority of the discussions revolved around the display routine itself. With no B-axis to display on, the normal routine was not possible however they are well prepared for this. Al went through the routine using both the local area map and drawings describing each maneuver in detail to ensure both pilots were aware of starting position, formation, end position and safety gates; the vital heights and speeds that each maneuver must commence at and end with to ensure that it is safe to contine. With the B-axis unavailable to reposition both aircraft to run in the opposite direction it was agreed that a dumbbell move would be used at each end of the display line to turn. With a final check of the times relevant to the team it was now 11.30, both Al and Willie go and make final preparations before meeting at 11.45 for the display walkthrough.
Now to most bystanders and visitors to the airfield, seeing two grown men in flight suits seemingly re-enacting a World War Two dogfight with their hands as the aircraft may seem a touch strange however, it is an important part of the teams preparations. By walking through and acting out the display sequence on the ground both pilots can easily identify the position they should be in at any given point in relation to the other aircraft adding another level of detail to the preparation for the display.
With the walkthrough complete both pilots walked to their aircraft ready for the final pre-flight checks. The first display act had already started his engine at the briefed time and was allowing it to warm up as Al and Willie ran their final preparations. Part of these checks include ensuring the cameras fitted to the aircraft are secure and setup ready to run. Each aircraft has a pair of high definition cameras that the team use not only to capture images for themselves but also to use in their debrief to further enhance their display routine. Due to Willie’s engine being cold, he strapped in and started up 5 minutes prior to Al and it wasn’t long before both were taxiing for takeoff.
Due to the close proximity of the display site, it wasn’t long before the Wildcat team returned with a loop to break for landing. Once on the ground and shut down both pilots were soon discussing how well the display went with the immediate consensus being perfect conditions and an amazing display. This feeling was soon backed up by a call from the organizer on the ground at the event thanking them for a brilliantly executed routine. A few minutes later the last of the trio of acts returned to the airfield and all four of the pilots returned to the main building for the debriefing.
The important tea and coffee soon arrived allowing the important discussions to start. With everyone agreeing that their individual display routines went as planned the only identified problem for anyone was a partially blocked smoke system on the Wildcat 1 aircraft. Concluding the individual display debriefs, the focus turned to the Wildcat team and the video’s filmed by the onboard cameras. One is mounted on the top wing looking back at the pilot on both aircraft and the other is mounted in different positions on each. On the lead aircraft it is positioned on the outer tip of the lower wing looking back at the fuselage whilst on Wildcat two it is mounted to a support at the rear and positioned to look forward. This gives brilliant coverage of the display and allows the team to see their position relative to themselves and display line at almost all times.
After the completing the debrief, another cup of tea and a quick bite to eat, all that was left was to start getting ready to leave. With a little bit of juggling in the tightly packed hangar Willie managed to pack Wildcat 2 away neatly in a corner whilst Al returned to the private air strip with Wildcat 1. The airfield returning to near silence, the work for the display was complete and the season for the team drew to an end.
From start to end the team, and other pilots involved in the display, had been working on one aspect of the display or another for a little over four hours. It may not sound a lot but when you think the display itself, which is normally the part that we the general public see, is only seven minutes long it does start show how much unseen effort goes into the displays we all view. First of all, the display routine had to be designed which meant the team spent many hours watching other display team video’s and identifying what would and wouldn’t work well with the Pitts aircraft. After this, another 40 hours followed where the team practiced the display maneuvers out of the public eye before a final five hours of fine tuning following feedback from friends and family in private viewings. Whilst this display was local, there are many that aren’t and require detailed planning for aircraft routing, refueling and the display itself. Even with the local display, there was two days of effort required to gain the required permits and authorisation to display at Snetterton; and not to forget the maintenance that is required on the aircraft themselves.
Spending the day behind the scenes with the team certainly opened my eyes to areas of airshow preparation and displaying that, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of myself before. The effort and dedication shown by both Al and Willie is clear to see and even though laughs were had, at all times the team were clear on the seriousness of the task at hand and their responsibilities as an easily identifiable display team. With their first season complete, they are already thinking about bigger and better things for 2013 and I’m sure that with their drive and determination many of us will be seeing the Wildcats at shows not only next year but for many after.
The author would like to thank Al Coutts and Willie Cruickshank for their help, assistance and access to the team along with David Jenkins and Matt Summers for allowing the extra intrusion into the display briefings.
For more information on the Wildcats team go to http://www.wildcataerobatics.com or follow them on twitter @wildcataeros.