How Did They Do That? Behind the Scenes of the 50-Ship Flyover

By Tenley Ong, EAA 1388744

During the week of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, Wittman Regional Airport becomes the land of the Van’s RVs. Van’s is currently the leading designer and manufacturer of kit aircraft, with more than 11,000 examples built and flying.

This year, 2022, was particularly special as Van’s Aircraft celebrated their 50th anniversary as a company. To commemorate this milestone, the opening act for the Monday air show was a 50-ship flyover consisting of only Van’s RVs. Not only were these airplanes in close formation, but they were in the actual shape of the number 50.

If you’ve ever experienced formation flying, you know how totally cool it is — and how incredibly difficult it can be. Flying close to other aircraft requires excellent airmanship, including (but not limited to) high levels of focus, technique, proficiency, communication, and planning. There’s very little margin for error when you’re just feet apart from the other person’s wing, and can see everything from rivets on their airplane to the words on their hats.

Now factor in one, two, three more airplanes. Each person is responsible for keeping their aircraft in position. Okay, now make it 50. Seriously. It happened. Right over EAA AirVenture Oshkosh on July 25, 2022. No matter where you were at Wittman Regional Airport on Monday, you could not have missed the 50-ship flyover.

I had the privilege and opportunity to interview Tim Redden, EAA 528047, Formation Flying Inc. (FFI) president, and one of the leadership team members. A highly experienced pilot and aircraft owner, Tim has been involved in many events at AirVenture, including the 40-ship Van’s 40th Anniversary flyover in 2012.

This year’s flyover was the largest single coordinated formation flight flown over Oshkosh. “At least in recent history,” said Tim. “In years past, there have been more than 50 aircraft airborne at different altitudes, flying different directions, or as flights in trail – but not executed as a single, coordinated flight.”

The pilots came from all over the United States. Tim adds, “as you can imagine, it takes a lot of resources to bring this many planes and qualified pilots together, so it doesn’t occur too frequently.”

The Plan

Starting the planning process in January 2022, it took many months combined with strong leadership and teamwork to coordinate the pilots, planes, and plan.

The “Van’s 50” team leader was Steve Payne, FFI Check Pilot and flight lead. Payne designed the flight and selected the leadership group, who then evaluated the plan and recruited pilots. A smaller group worked on individual problems, like exactly how to fly the Five and the Zero. They also worked on the more complex maneuvers, like reversal turns and the crossing pass.

Formation Flying, Inc. (FFI)

Legally, there’s no special certification or rating required to fly formation, though proper training is crucial. But to fly formation in waivered airspace, like an air show, you need a formation card issued to you through an FAA-accredited organization, such as FFI or FAST. FFI promotes safe, standards-based formation flying at airshows. They evaluate pilots and develop and maintain flying standards, procedures and airshow operations. All pilots involved with the Van’s 50 flyover held FFI cards.

The Pilots

“Van’s 50” pilots gather for a group photo in the experimental aircraft parking area.

When everyone lives scattered around the country, practicing together becomes difficult. This means that the leadership team needed to find the best of the best. Each pilot was hand-picked based on their military, racing, and/or prior airshow formation experience, as well as their airshow currency and overall airmanship. Tim said, “Most of the Van’s 50 pilots have several hundred hours of actual logged time in formation — and some are in the thousands.”

According to the FAA Civil Airmen Private Pilot Certificate Statistics, there were 161,459 private pilots in the US in 2021, but only 11,966 were women. That’s 7.4% of the entire private pilot population.

Despite the statistics, there were a surprising number of female participants involved. Time says, “I’m pleased to share that the Van’s 50 included six women — 12% of the flying team.”

The Performance

Prior to the event, the team gathered at a top-secret location and practiced the entire routine three times over the course of two days. Tim said, “Getting three large formations integrated into one very large flight, with the correct visual spacing, arriving at a point in space at exactly the right time, speed and direction was a hard problem. Let’s just say it didn’t go perfectly the first time we practiced it.”

On the Wittman field ramp at approximately 1:30 p.m. on opening Monday, the 50 airplanes could be seen taxiing out to the runway from their parking area in the Homebuilts parking area, just northwest of the forum stages and the EAA Blue Barn.

When communicating via airshow formation standards, pilots stay off the radio by using hand gestures and aircraft signals. Tim says, “But for an event like this, there’s just too much going on to rely on pilots seeing anything but the multiple aircraft needed to reference the correct position.” Therefore, these pilots actually communicated via verbal cues from the flight lead.

The Initial Pass

The initial pass: three 16-ship formations, two connecting aircraft, and all the cool show smoke.

After takeoff, they circled over Lake Winnebago and took position as three 16-ship formations, plus two connecting aircraft. They set up to intercept the airport at exactly 2:32pm, in time with the final notes of the national anthem.

From the ground, my friends and I stopped in our tracks when we saw them coming. “I was awed by the striking precision with which the pilots employed in keeping separate formations flying as one cohesive unit,” says Lilah Harris, EAA 1443610, AirVenture volunteer and Ray Scholarship recipient.

The Second Pass

Van’s RVs make the shape of a 50 during the second pass of the Van’s 50-ship Anniversary flight over Whitman Regional Airport on July 25, 2022.

For the second pass, Tim says, “we reconfigured into a “Five” and a “Zero” flanked by two 16-ship diamonds and returned for an overflight from behind the crowd.” Tim was a part of the Five.

The Third Pass

The pass consisted of two 16-ship formations completing a crossing pass over Boeing Plaza, after the Five and Zero broke away for landing. Tim summed it all up, noting the following:

 “It took 90 minutes from start up, taxi, run-up, take off, assemble, fly around in circles, join, perform reversing turns, separate, disassemble, sequence, overhead approach, land, taxi and shutdown…. For a total of three 60 second passes over the crowd.”

The Problems

Of course, not every cool thing comes without challenges. One hurdle that the team encountered, as did many other pilots coming into Oshkosh on Sunday, was the inclement weather. The IFR conditions cancelled many arrivals. In addition, there were multiple runway closures for a variety of reasons.

The Fisk arrival was backed up, and the addition of 53 aircraft would have been overwhelming for the tower. To work with this, the Van’s 50 team arrived in flights of 3-4 throughout the day. Tim says “Somehow we all made it in, with my final flight of three touching down at 7:30 p.m., among the last aircraft to land that evening.”

The team had three back-up aircraft and pilots in case of mechanical problems. These pilots were ready to take the place of any airplane that could not complete the formation flight.

In Conclusion

So, that’s the inside scoop on the 50-ship formation flight. Hopefully, they will be able to conduct a 60-ship flight on the 60th anniversary! Or maybe a 51-ship flight next year?

Note: Special thank you to Tim Redden for being instrumental in the creation of this article, in addition to being an wonderful friend, mentor, and leader. Tim is a wealth of knowledge and a role-model for many.

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