The sound was almost imperceptible at first, hardly noticeable above the quiet of an airport that was still half-asleep. As the seconds ticked by however, it grew louder. No doubt about it now, it was the sound of a round engine, maybe two of them. Moments later the unmistakable silhouettes of two pairs of bi-wings and long-legged landing gear appeared in the clear morning air, propellers glinting in the sun. Lazily, in loose formation, they drifted onto the downwind leg, gracefully tracing a Stearman-slow circuit of the pattern. After touching down they looked vastly out of scale, two biplanes rolling out on a 12,000-foot long, 300-foot wide runway. Taxiing in to the enormous ramp, they both parked behind a giant jet blast fence that towered well over twice their height. Engines shut down, out climbed Bill Dekker and Bill McNulty, both from Nut Tree.
Welcome to Castle Airport, the former B-52 SAC base, near Merced, California. Both had arrived to join eight other Stearmans and approximately 50 other aircraft at the annual Castle Formation Clinic held late last May. Castle Airport is an ideal spot for a formation clinic. The runway is so long that Stearman pilots probably ought to file a flight plan and figure on a lunch stop along the way to reach the other end. And the ramp space just doesn’t quit either. The 60 airplanes at the clinic hardly made a dent in the available space. The base, situated in California’s great Central Valley, is surrounded by nothing but flat farm land, where airplane operation and noise is not a problem.
The ramp was graced, that Friday morning, with all types of aircraft. In addition to the Stearmans, there were T-34’s, CJ-6’s, T-6’s, T-28’s, and a sprinkling of fighters, including a few jets. In spite of all the heavy iron in attendance, I heard comments by others that the most colorful row of aircraft parked on the ramp was the row of ten Stearmans. I’d have to agree. Most were 220’s. A couple of 300’s were there, and Tom Lambrick brought his beautiful custom 450.
Although this was the second year of this FAST clinic, it was the first year that the Stearmans and Liaison aircraft were invited. The word got out quickly and sign-ups were closed well before the date of the clinic. Although some of the pilots attending had previous formation experience, none were JLFC rated, so the instructors had their work cut out for them.
Things got off to an early start the previous afternoon when I picked up the two JLFC Safety Pilots (instructors), Jim Rettick and David Burroughs, at San Francisco International Airport, where they had just arrived from Bloomington, Illinois. After a drive across the Bay to Concord Airport we were joined by Jeff Hamilton. Wanting to utilize Jim and David’s time to the fullest while they were out here, the plan was to turn the flight down to Castle into a two-leg training hop, and Jeff and I got the honors. John Reed flew in from Schellville to join us and, after a thorough briefing, off we went. John flew top cover behind and joined us again for the brief for the second leg at our stop at the old WW II training field at Tracy, California.
Finally arriving at Castle just as the sun set, we tied the birds down and retired to a local restaurant for some dinner. After checking into our rooms at the old base BOQ, we all hit the rack. Jim and David had had a very long day – two legs across the country on American Airlines and two legs to Castle in ‘real’ airplanes with good air conditioning but lousy cabin service.
Up at the crack of dawn Friday morning, we grabbed a bite to eat and wandered over to the ramp. Even though the ‘official’ start of the clinic wasn’t until the ground school scheduled at 1300, several others, including Turk Turley, Ernie Persich, and John Hodgson had also come in the previous evening and were assigned training sessions that morning. Another Safety Pilot, Carter Teeters, had also come in Thursday evening, having driven up from the LA area, so he was put right to work.
All flying ceased Friday afternoon while we attended the ground school. After ground school and a short written test we adjourned to a dinner of barbecued hamburgers, hot dogs, and a generous supply of cold ‘adult’ beverages. After dinner all pilots attended the mandatory clinic briefing given by two instructor pilots from the Inland Empire Wing of the CAF. They discussed the operational aspects of the next two day’s activities, covering everything from temporary tower frequencies, taxi routing plans, operational training areas, and all the other details of an operation that was to include so many different types of aircraft. Then it was off to bed.
Up shortly after sunrise again Saturday, everybody met at the cafeteria for breakfast. After laying waste to the buffet, those scheduled for training hops went
directly to the flight line. Those not flying until later wandered out to the ramp at a more leisurely pace and busied themselves fueling their aircraft, wiping them down, or any number of other chores that always accompany the operation of a Stearman. As the day went on, those with training sorties briefed and flew, practicing station keeping, cross-unders, break-ups and rejoins, and all the other various formations and procedures. Others flew practice sessions with each other or used their spare time to take photographers or well deserving ramp marshallers for rides. Briefings, debriefings, and lunches were usually done under a convenient wing, lounging in the shade on the tarmac, hiding from the intense midday sun.
After another long day we retired to the dining area for a delicious barbecued steak dinner, strawberry shortcake for desert, and more cold ‘refreshment’. Saturday evening’s activities included a group meeting of all pilots, where a lot of good-natured ribbing took place. Following the meeting a presentation was given by Allen Silver, of Silver Parachutes, titled “Emergency Bailouts.” It was well received, as many of us sit on ‘the silk seat cushion’ from time to time doing aerobatics or formation flying, giving little serious thought to what we’d really do if we had to use the thing.
Sunday dawned clear and warm, and it was off to breakfast and the flight line again. Some took their Wingman checkrides in the morning and were headed home by midday. Others waited their turn and flew their hops later in the day. By 1600 or so, all the activity wound up and it was time to head home. Since we were so short of instructors at the clinic, Jeff Hamilton had graciously agreed to join me and forgo our training and checkride sorties during the weekend, catching them instead on the ride back to Concord with our, by now, slightly bedraggled instructors, Jim and David. Both had put in a long three days.
By 1700 we were airborne, this time John Reed getting his Wingman checkride and Jeff Hamilton flying top cover to Tracy. After a debrief there, Jeff and I took off headed for Concord with the two instructors, while John headed for home in Schellville. Dressed for the 950 F heat of the Central Valley, we all just about froze as we neared the Bay Area and hit the 550 F cold marine layer of air that resides there most days. To prolong the agony we picked up a stiff head wind the last 15 or 20 miles and watched the GPS ground speed drop off to about 50 knots while all the cars on the freeway were passing us. Getting every last possible ounce of flesh out of Jim and David over the weekend, we finally landed at Concord, tired and frozen to the bone just as the last of the flyable daylight faded. Although everybody was tired, we all agreed that it had been a fun weekend.
This was the first clinic held in Central California for the Stearmans and I believe that all attending went home having learned some valuable things about formation flying. Not only stick and rudder skills, but just as important, the role that thorough briefings, standardization, and safety play. Although everybody had a good time, I think most went away wishing they could have had more flight time with the instructors. Since this activity is so relatively new out here, we had a double whammy of a shortage of available instructors, and no previously qualified Stearman pilots to attend and fly with the new guys. And since we were all ‘new guys’ we all needed someone to fly with us. Those limitations will, I’m sure, be overcome with time as more and more people began to get qualified and the JLFC gets a few more Safety Pilots qualified out here on the West Coast. Jim Rettick, David Burroughs, and Carter Teeters, all SRA members, went well beyond the call of duty to help us out at this clinic and their efforts were much appreciated by all attending.
Come out and join us next year. It’s not only good training, but it’s a good chance to get together with other Stearman ‘nuts,’ see old friends, make some new ones, and have a good time.