Commie Thunder - the Red Star Formation Clinic

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The moment I arrived at the Lachute, Quebec airport on that sunny Saturday morning, I realized my dream would come true.

After greetings from RedStar Formation Clinic organizer Dan Fortin, introductions were made followed by a 30 minute briefing.  Before I knew it,  I had a parachute on and was about to climb into the cockpit of one of the Russian aircraft. After going through the safety procedures with my pilot Phil ShortBus Cogan and a systems check, the start sign was given by flight leader Rob Soprano Mortara. One by one the Russian engines were started and run up to prepare for a four-ship formation flight. A puff of smoke appeared as the engine coughed and suddenly the neighborhood was awakened by roaring sound as the four trainers' engines came to life.

The two Nanchang CJ-6 and two Yak-52 pilots went through their checklists. For this flight, I was backseater in the Number 4 aircraft or Tail-end Charlie.  After Phil’s signal that all systems were running fine, our flight leader throttles up and began to taxi toward the main runway. It was very impressive to see the aircraft  following each other and come to a full stop, short of the runway for the run-up test.

The RedStar Pilots Association.

The RedStar Pilots Association's (RPA) mission is to promote and preserve the safe operation, display and enjoyment of all aircraft, jet or prop, aerobatic, sport, warbird and utility, originating in the current and former communist block nations. The RPA in effect strives to convert Soviet Cold War swords to ploughshares and in doing so, inspire those who are passionate about the world of aviation.

They are an FAA-sanctioned signatory to the Formation And Safety Team body known as F.A.S.T. This position allows them to train, qualify and manage civilian formation pilots in the United States for the safe conduct of formation flight displays in the US airshow industry. Pilots benefit from their formation training at all levels while the public interest is maintained through their efforts at training safer aviators and displaying their talents. Membership is open to all pilots, aircraft owners and enthusiasts of these exotic aircraft. Pilots don't have to own an Eastern Block aircraft to become a full member.

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Smoke on, Rob “Soprano” Mortara is ready to lead another flight. Photo: Michel Côté

The RedStar Aircraft

Yakovlev Yak-52

The Yak-52 first flew in 1976, and is still being produced in Bacau, Romania, by Aerostar. Designed originally as a primary trainer for student pilots  who would later transition to Soviet jet aircraft, the aerobatics-capable (+7g / -5 g) Yak-52 is now often seen everywhere from North America to New Zealand due to the fact that they are affordable and have low maintenance costs. A newer version of the aircraft, the Yak-52TW, features a tail wheel configuration and is powered by a 400-hp  M-14 engine.

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Patrick Cloutier leads Dave Marsh over the beautiful Quebec country side. In this photo you can compare the different lines of the CJ-6A (lead aircraft) and the Yak-52. Photo Michel Côté


Built under license in China, the CJ-6A (a Yakovlev Yak-18 redesign) was produced from 1962 until 1965, using a 285hp Quzhou Huosai HS6A engine. More than 1,800 CJ-6As were produced, including those exported to nations such as Albania, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Tanzania and Zambia under the designation BT-6. An armed version, the CJ-6B, was produced between 1964 and 1966, possibly equipped with a 300-hp HS-6D engine, according to some sources.

More than 10,000 of all types are believed to have been produced. Both the Yak-18 and the Nanchang CJ-6A have become popular with pilots worldwide who appreciate the sturdy qualities, reliability and personality of these old warbirds.

Every year the RPA hosts formation clinics across North America and in 2008, one of them was in Lachute, Québec,  a town situated west of Montréal.

On the weekend of May 25th, the RedStar group, (call sign Bandits Due North) gathered.  The pilots were Reade Genzlinger in his Yak 52 and Rob Soprano Mortara and Phil ShortBus Cogan in their CJ-6As - all three were from New Jersey. From Connecticut came Charlie Lynch in the Japanese colored Yak-52TW (tail wheel), from Montreal, Québec Dave "Swampy" Marsh in another Yak-52, Patrick Cloutier, flying Marcel Deschamps’s CJ-6A both from St-Hyacinthe, Québec and from Laval, Québec Daniel Fortin in the fourth CJ-6A.

Back to the Clinic

Returning to our first training session of the day, all four aircraft lined up together to begin the run-up. A tremendous noise filled the cockpit. After a thumbs up by all pilots, the moment I had been dreaming of since I was a young lad, the take off.

One by one, the Russian trainers took off. After my “Affirmative” response to Phil’s enquiry to see if I was ready, he throttled up, released the brakes and off we went. The plane accelerated and after a few seconds, “Soprano Flight” was airborne.

I could see the aircraft in front of us gaining altitude to regroup. Tail-end Charlie was on a mission to catch up and take position in the formation. I was very impressed by how fast the first three aircraft were together in formation. Still in a turn, we closed in on them and within seconds Phil slipped the CJ-6 nicely into the Number 4 position. We were ready for the practice session.

The training consisted of performing various  formations such as right and left echelon, diamond, break to regroup, etc. While performing all these formation changes Phil kept our plane in the No. 4 position. Again I was very impressed with how quickly they got back together after performing a break. During the regroup, the pilot concentrates on the lead aircraft of the formation as he closes in to join up, usually in a turn. He has to close the distance between the other aircraft and maintain a relative bearing along an arc inside the turning radius of the lead aircraft. Once all are joined up, the leader requests each pilot to check in. It takes a lot of hard work and practice, which is what this clinic is all about.

During these formations, the aircraft are fairly close together -  five to ten feet between wing tips and during the diamond formation our propellers are just a few feet from the leader’s tail.

Suddenly, Phil banks the Nanchang downward to reposition it and echelon left. Formation changes are done rapidly, by hand signals from our flight lead. During flights, hand signals are used constantly. Also movement of the lead aircraft can convey signals by a gentle rocking of the wings to join-up or to "ROUTE FORMATION". Route is roughly two wingspans farther out than close formation position; this is used for safety during long flights. The leader rocked his wings again to tighten the formation as we got closer to the airport.

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Phil ShortBus Cogan tucked in tight in the number 4 position. Photo: Michel Côté


Dan Fortin brings the CJ-6A for a closer look
. Photo: Michel Côté

After practicing several different formations, it was time to “follow the leader” as Soprano dives towards the ground then pulls up. During these maneuvers, Phil‘s flying was so smooth that, while busy photographing the other aircraft, I only noticed that we had changed positions once I had stopped taking photos.

After an hour-long flight, it was time to return to base.  We began gradually to make our way back. We flew in echelon left formation, preparing for the break to land. This reminded me of scenes from “Fighter Squadron” and “Flying Leathernecks” when I was young, but this time I was in the backseat. It was quite a thrill! The g-forces sustained during the break were pretty high. We landed after an hour flying time, but it seemed like we had been in the air for just a few minutes. Time flies when you are having fun.

After each flight, a debriefing took place to discuss the flight and to areas to improve on. These pilots take flying very seriously. Their first concern is safety and the only way to ensure that safety is by briefing and reviewing whether the flight went according to plan. But, they also have fun while doing it. I was asked how it went and I suggested that it would also be nice for me to take photos from the leading position of the formation. Therefore it was decided that I would be in the Leader’s backseat during the next flight. After a short briefing we were off again. Our leader for this flight, Reade, was not familiar with the region, therefore it was decided that Fortin would lead the flight to the practice area, and then switch positions with us. Aligned on the runway beside Dan’s CJ-6, I was able to shoot our take off together. Dave, in his Yak-52 joined us in the number three position. We arrived at the practice site, using hand signs, Reade took over the lead from Dan and it was time for more formation changes, breaks, join-up etc.  Reade‘s flying was also smooth and it was again a very pleasant flight with my camera in high gear. Dan and Dave kept their aircraft pretty close to ours at all times and with the sun high in the sky the scenery was just incredible. After a shorter practice than earlier, Dan took the lead again and we headed towards the airport for lunch.

The last sortie was the high point of the day for me and for all the pilots. The flight consisted of seven aircraft that flew over the city of Montreal towards St-Hyacinthe, Québec for an Air Cadet parade. The first group of four aircraft were designated the call sign “Bandit 1”. Dan led the four aircraft in diamond formation. The second flight, led by Patrick, consisted of three aircraft. The flight which I was part of in the No. 2 position, had the call sign “Quebec 1” which Patrick led as we flew in a Vic (V) formation. Having seen a similar type of formation at Oshkosh last year, I could not believe that a year later I would be in the air as part of this formation. Again it was very impressive to see the coordination between the two flights to get in formation within seconds. Heading towards Dorval Airport as planned, we descended slowly and it was a pretty cool sight as the seven aircraft flew over the airport. Then we climbed again for our next destination where a group of air cadets were anxiously awaiting our arrival.

As we approached the St-Hyacinthe airport, the conversation between flight leaders and ground controllers intensified. Dan brought the 7-plane formation over the field, after which we descended for another lower pass. The sight of the cadets and parents below us was remarkable as cameras and hands all pointed towards the sky. Then Bandit 1 separated from us and headed for Mascouche. We came around for a third pass. After a break to land we taxied our aircraft in front of the crowd. I saw cameras taking photos, hands waving but most importantly the smiles on the cadets' faces. This was priceless and made our day. Hopefully we have inspired a few cadets to become the next generation of flyers.

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Patrick Cloutier leads a flight of three over Dorval Airport en route to St-Hyacinthe airport. In front of them, Dan Fortin in the red Nanchang leads a diamond formation. Photo: Michel Côté

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Patrick Cloutier leading a flight of three toward St-Hyacinthe airport. Photo: Michel Côte

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Dave “Swampy” Marsh shows off his Yak-52 which will be repainted in the near future. Photo: Michel Côté

After a short break, we fuelled up and it was time to fly back to Lachute. We took off one by one and regrouped in a Vic formation to perform a low photo pass for our spectators. As planned, Reade separated from the two other Russian trainers so I could do a photo session. We climbed higher than the formation and we dove toward them. From the backseat my camera kept shooting from left to right as the two planes passed below us. It was just fantastic and the guys in the other aircraft said that it was a wonderful sight. I informed Reade that we could rejoin our formation. During our flight back, Patrick flew over Lake of Deux-Montagnes as we followed our leader over the beautiful area. Upon arriving at the Lachute airport, Dave radioed in that he was experiencing engine problems and leaving the formation. We immediately gave way for Dave to land his Yak-52 first. After circling a while, we heard the call that he was on the ground safely. Patrick led the flight of two for break to land.

We met the flyers of Bandit 1 and it was time for a debriefing. Everybody was satisfied with the way it went.  All of Québec 1's pilots were very pleased with the flying we did and the beautiful countryside we saw. I took a group photo and unfortunately it was time to say goodbye.

After flying with these guys all day, I must say that I have new respect and admiration for all formation team pilots. It takes a lot of hard work, concentration and confidence in your fellow flyers to become a formation pilot. Their devotion and passion for flying is incredible.

Til we meet again

Keep your eyes to the sky; you may be lucky enough to witness one of the RedStar formation practices

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After a hard day's work, it's group photo time.
  Photo: Michel Côté

I would like to thank the organizer Dan Fortin for giving me the opportunity to experience this thrill and for all the help and support during the flights; Patrick Cloutier for his help during our in-flight photo session; my camera ship pilots Reade Genzlinger and Phil "ShortBus" Cogan for their smooth flying and Ray Hall for his contribution. Last but not least, thank you for their great hospitality to Jacynthe and Remi of the Lachute airport.

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