Phoenix Fly-In 2013 Formation University


The second annual Phoenix Fly-in Formation University took place at the Phoenix Deer Valley Airport March 28th -31st. This invitation-only event was started by lifetime EAA member and current T-34 Association Board of Directors member Todd McCutchan.

Todd’s immaculate T-34A is based at Deer Valley Airport, where he is a member of the local EAA Warbird Squadron 20. The Deer Valley airport is a hotbed of warbird activity. The north side of the field is home to many unique aircraft and has a kind of a “private – for your eyes only” feel. Friends have commented that it is like a small Area 51, as you never know what might be in those hangars.

With its warbird activity, Deer Valley Airport is the perfect locale for a large event of this scale. The number of attending aircraft had risen from 15 in 2012, to 27 aircraft scheduled for this year’s event. Todd had placed a limit of 32 aircraft for this year, for logistics and safety reasons.

The mission of the Phoenix Fly-in Formation University was to promote increased proficiency and safety while enjoying flying, fellowship and fun in a squadron-type environment. The event was open to all warbirds and select civilian aircraft based on compatibility, in a FAST formation environment. Pilots attending the event had the opportunity to meet and be mentored by more experienced pilots, and to become part of a community which can be called upon for questions and support.

The syllabus included:

  • Formation ground school
  • Advanced Aerodynamics / Maneuvers
  • Bailout / Parachutes
  • Various pertinent safety presentations which change year to year
  • Flying activities included:
  • Spot landing
  • Advanced maneuvering
  • Basic Formation
  • Mass formation
  • Precision navigation course with message drop

The main goal of the training was to promote Formation and Safety Team (FAST) principals. FAST is an organization dedicated to teaching safe formation flying in restored, vintage military aircraft and civilian aircraft.

Hosting and event of this size requires lots of effort and good friends, like Jim Schulte and his crew at  Atlantic aviation. As General Manager of Atlantic Aviation, Jim is well known and respected at the Deer Valley airport, interacting with many of the EAA Warbird Squadron 20 pilots daily.

Jim and Atlantic Aviation agreed to help sponsor the event, providing all the logistical support for the fly-in. The concept of a unique fly-in was one that the Atlantic team was excited to be part of, and the concept snowballed as more ideas were discussed. Jim Schulte and fellow Atlantic representative Jim Pera have coordinated events at Atlantic Aviation in the past (they recently founded the “Freedom of Flight to Honor Veterans” series). More sponsors for the Fly-in were added, including The Hilton Garden Inn and  Ric’s Smokehouse BBQ and Grill.  

Todd wanted to bring a unique formation aircraft to the event, and before long he was on the phone with his friend John Wiebner (call sign “Weebs”). John is one of the pilots for the B-25 Executive Sweet based at Camarillo CA. John and crew were excited to become part of the event. As a former Executive Sweet crewmember and now Atlantic Aviation representative, Jim Pera took care of the final logistics and the B-25 was confirmed.

Several calls went out to military veterans, as this fly-in was about honoring them as well. Colonel Ole Griffith USAF (Ret), a WWII bomber pilot and Air Force engineer, answered the call along with Colonel Thomas H. Kirk Jr., USAF (Ret).  In 1967, Kirk’s F-105 was shot down during a raid on North Vietnam. After safely ejecting from his aircraft, Tom Kirk was captured and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” he remained a POW until the war’s end in 1973. Also in attendance was former Thunderbird (F-100) slot pilot Major General Henry D. Canterbury USAF (Ret).  General Canterbury has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in F-100s, F-105s, F-4s, F-16s, F-15s and A-10s. All the above mentioned veterans spoke at the event’s dinner venues over the course of the 4 days.

Jim Pera burned the midnight oil planning the arrival of the B-25 Executive Sweet. He contacted the Arizona Vintage Vixens to attend and soon a plan was made for the models, dressed in WWII attire, to escort Col. Ole Griffith out to greet the bomber as it taxied onto the Atlantic Aviation Ramp. Several period re enactors from The Arizona Ground Crew Living History Unit attended too, wearing their unique uniforms and showcasing a display of tools and equipment from WWII.

On Thursday afternoon, the sky over Deer Valley rumbled with the familiar sound of the twin Wright R-2600-35 engines of a B-25, as it circled the field. The models of Arizona Vintage Vixens escorted Col. Ole Griffith to the edge of the Atlantic Aviation ramp to personally welcome the B-25 to Arizona, officially kicking off the 2013 fly-in.

The B-25 crew did not have long to relax, for as soon as they shut the engines down, we were all escorted to one of Atlantic Aviation’s hangars for the media flight pilot briefing. Several aircraft were to take place in the flight and all were briefed about the intricacies of flying wing on a B-25. Certain sweet spots to avoid, like just behind and a few degrees  below the engine nacelles, were highlighted.

I would be flying with Todd McCutchan in his T-34A. I was excited, as I had flown in a lot of different aircraft, but never in a T-34. Todd’s Mentor N134FA has to be one of the cleanest and high-tech Mentors flying today. Multiple high definition video cameras are permanently mounted on the exterior of the aircraft, along with a 7” display in both cockpit panels. The pilot can select any of the cameras for a very unique view, all the while recording the flight to DVD.

We were wheels up at around 5:00 pm; I was becoming concerned about the late afternoon light as we still had to form up and the “golden photo hour” was fast approaching. Light is life to a photographer, the dynamics of air to air photography changes all the rules as they apply to lighting and camera settings, especially with propeller aircraft. The flight afforded me a chance to capture some great images and get a feel for the T-34 Mentor as a photo ship. Todd had no issues with me opening the rear canopy for glare free images, and went out of his way to get the photo ship into some great positions and was very accommodating for my requests for “just one more shot”. The lighting conditions held up for a great photo shoot.

After about an hour of flying we returned to Deer Valley airport, executing a military precision combat break into the landing pattern. While shutting down I asked Todd about coming out to shoot photos on Saturday. Not only did Todd say that he’d be happy to have me back, but that  I should plan on staying the entire day. He also informed me of the plan to fly to Sedona with all 27 aircraft .

I arrived early on Saturday morning to find Todd teaching a full class of fellow pilots on the intricacies of formation flying, aircraft safety, and conducting today’s flight plan briefing. Training continued until mid-morning with some pilots flying short training missions between lecture topics.

Around noon Todd pulled me to the side and told me to get my gear, head out to the aircraft, and be strapped in and ready to go in 15 minutes. I made my way to the Mentor, got myself secured in the parachute and seat belt harnesses, and stowed my cameras. Exactly 15 minutes later Todd was on the wing checking my harness and performing a preflight walk around. At this point the Deer Valley ramp was so full of T-34’s, Cj6’s, and Yak trainer aircraft that it looked like a military base, rather than a civil airport.

Part of the training syllabus includes precision ground operations such as taxi and formation takeoff procedures. The pilots made it look easy, as all of the aircraft taxied out together and lined up for their engine run ups. Most of the 27 aircraft took off in pairs; the ATC tower worked with the Fly-in pilots and held a lot of arriving aircraft in the pattern until the entire group was airborne.

The flight to Sedona was one of the best photo flights I have ever had the opportunity to take part in. The weather was excellent and the scenery was awesome, what more could a photographer need?  After a few formation flights over the town of Sedona we made our  approach and landing at the airport on the mesa. The B-25 had departed Deer Valley earlier in the day and was at Sedona selling rides as we taxied in and shut down as a group. Due to great event planning and marketing of the event the ramp was packed with people and photographers taking in all the action.

Todd informed me that his wife Erica, also an EAA lifetime member, would be flying back to Deer Valley with him.  I had to return aboard the B-25. Great news, as that was another aircraft I had never flown either. The journey home in the B-25 was a wonderful way to end a great day of flying.

The final part of the event was the award/debrief dinner.  Again, it was sponsored by Atlantic Aviation, held at the Hilton Garden Inn North Valley, and catered by Ric’s Smokehouse BBQ and Grill. Todd went out of his way to thank and introduce Photorecon to the group, allowing me to give a slide show of event photos. One highlight of the dinner was the call sign naming ceremony; all pilots in the group have a call sign assigned to them. In typical military tradition they tell stories about the pilot’s habits, minor screw-ups and otherwise noteworthy embarrassing tales and then take a vote on the best suitable name for this guy. If the new pilot indicates he likes the new name and thinks it is cool… well the process starts over again! This group calls them as they see it, resulting in some unique call signs.

I would like to sincerely thank Todd and Erica McCutchan, Jim Schulte, Jim Pera, all the sponsors and pilots who had a part in this great fly-in, thanks for having me. I can’t wait to return again as this was just Plane Fun.

Pun intended.….

Visit Todd at his web site for more info on this and other events

Joe Kates

Joe Kates is the founder of Photorecon. Joe has been into aviation since he was a child and has a incredible amount of knowledge to do with planes or aviation in general. Today Joe is the owner and Managing Editor of Photorecon.

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