Formation flying: What a rush
“Keep your eye on the other plane,” said Ken Fowler, pilot extraordinaire, from the front seat of his home-built Harmon Rocket II. “We’re gonna do a roll.”
I looked straight up at the other plane, Eric Hansen’s F1 Rocket, and before I knew it I was staring up at the ground. Whoa! We spun around, wing over wing, while Hansen circled us in the air.
What a rush.
“OK, now we’re going to do a loop,” Fowler warned via headset. We sped forward, then up, up, up, then down, pointed at the ground, and straight again.
“How are you doing back there?” he asked.
“Great!” I responded. I couldn’t have wiped the grin off my face if I’d tried. This was better than a roller coaster—there was no pesky track to tell you where you’re going next.
We flew from the Chico airport over the city, giving anyone who happened to be out and about a free show. Before loading into the planes—they each fit two people—they had been filled with smoke oil. The pilots have a pump in the throttle that allows them to write in the sky. As we looped and swirled, we left our trail of white smoke behind.
Fowler was in town last weekend for Chico’s first air show in a decade. (An estimated 5,000 people attended the Chico AirFest on Saturday, Sept. 2.) He and Hansen, both from Alberta, Canada, fly in a formation team. They travel around the air show circuit, entertaining crowds around the United States and Canada.
“It’s a very small family,” Hansen said about the air show performers. They were invited to Chico specially, as were other pilots. Eddie Andreini, a performer from Half Moon Bay who has been flying for 46 years, said he’d performed in the past with every other participant at the Chico Airfest.
“Have you ever had any close calls?” I asked Fowler, before putting my life in his hands.
“Not during a show,” he said judiciously. “We’re very practiced,” he added. “You have to be that way because there’s a small margin for error. His job is to miss the ground; my job is to miss him.”
The two actually walk through their routine before shows.
The adrenaline rush is reason enough to get into the aerobatics industry. The amount of skill and practice it takes to do it safely is perhaps why the family of performers stays tightly knit.
Fowler is a tall man with defined features, and his years of military service are evident in his body language. He’s authoritative, but he obviously likes to have fun. And true to Canadian stereotype, he says “Eh?” a lot.
By day, Fowler is an airport manager. His flying partner, Hansen, is a dentist.
“This is a nice break from the office,” Hansen joked.
Despite the banter, I had a few butterflies before getting into the tiny plane. Fowler suited me up in a parachute, which added both an element of safety and worry—"Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this if I need a parachute,” I thought to myself.
If something should happen, “just unbuckle your seat belt and pull this ring,” Fowler explained. “You’ll be out of here in no time.” Something about his confidence and demeanor put me at ease.
“Oh, and here’s a bag in case you get sick,” he said. He placed it next to my seat. Thankfully I don’t get motion sick.
I put on my headset, which is how we would communicate in the noisy air—with ourselves, the other plane and the airport. I was ready.
We taxied to the runway, beside the other plane, and after a few “zulus” and “deltas” we were cleared for takeoff.
“Not many people get to see another plane flying right beside them,” Fowler pointed out. He was right—I hadn’t ever seen that before. And we were close enough to see Hansen’s face. So cool.
Our last trick promised to make us feel weightless. “Hold on to your camera,” Fowler warned. We flew straight up into the air and then … drop. My stomach dropped with the plane, and all of a sudden we were speeding toward the ground.
I knew better at this point than to be scared, though. Fifteen minutes in the air with Fowler was enough to show me how serious he was about having fun. It was all in a day’s work (or play).