Flying In Formation with Team RV

This article was written by Bernie Schneider and published in the June 2007 Autopilot Magazine. The actual article can be read here. Team RV is a group of pilots who are dedicated to the sport of formation flying, performing in air shows around the country. Named after the RV line of kit airplanes designed by Van's Aircraft, each member has spent thousands of hours, several years and a substantial amount of money building his own plane. It is a labor of love, a challenge that distinguishes this group of pilots from most others in the air.

They share with each other not only an understanding of what it means to build and fly one's own airplane, but also a passion for performing and the incessant discipline to hone their piloting skills." The History of Team RV Mike Stewart, founder of Team RV, completed his first kit airplane, an RV-6A, in December 2001. According to the Web site’s expense log that details his experience building the RV-6, Stewart spent approximately $85,000 on this project. But the good thing about kit planes, he explains, is that this cost is spread over time and is therefore easier to bear. In the spring of 2002, Stewart met Bob Goodman, a former F-15 military pilot who would later become his mentor in formation flying. Their unusual first encounter took place in the air: “He climbed up on my wing one day,” recalls Stewart about Goodman, “and started showing me what it was like for somebody to fly [in formation].”

Goodman was flying an RV-4, a twoseat tandem design, first unveiled by Van’s Aircraft in 1979. “From that day, I was struck with the bug. I thought that was just the coolest thing I had ever seen in my whole life.” “Of course you can’t fly in formation if you don’t have anybody to fly with,” continues Stewart. After he began looking for people to fly with, Stewart found a few former commercial pilots, some military guys and even some civilian pilots. “That’s sort of how the team got started,” says Stewart. Today, Team RV’s six members—Bob Goodman among them—regularly practice their routines together. They can frequently be spotted flying over Lake Lanier or Lake Allatoona, where they will not hesitate to break out in impromptu performances. “Even if we’re up at 2,000 feet practicing,” laughs Stewart, “and we see some folks on the ground watching, we’ll drop it right over deck and do an over-the-deck show for them. All it takes is a few people and we really like to put on a show!” Preparation and Performing Team RV flies in approximately 12 air shows each year.

Very few of these shows will take place over the winter months—not because the planes cannot fly, but because spectators do not come out in cold weather. The team flies for the fun of flying and only asks to be reimbursed for its expenses. Preparation begins about 10 to 14 days before a show. The team will gather in a hanger to discuss the routine. Each member will get his position and then they will walk the routine on the runway. Team RV has been flying together for so long that each member knows his role. Nevertheless, precision flying is a perishable skill and routines constantly have to be honed and kinks worked out. A pilot who has been away from his plane for two weeks might not hold the formation tight enough, or he might drift around in his position, leading to what is known as “flight breathing,” a ripple effect that causes the entire formation to expand and contract with the movements of the imprecise pilot.

After the flight, each unscripted move or error will be discussed in a debriefing. “What we do requires a lot of discipline,” says Stewart. And yet the team is still able to laugh at themselves, too: a link on the Team RV Web site called the “Hall of Shame” features pictures of some of the mistakes made during performances.

Formation flying, says Stewart, “is about performing; it’s about having fun with our airplanes; it’s about the camaraderie that you build. You’ve got all these guys working hard as a team trying to make something look good. There’s so many nuances to it.” While they love to make noise, perform and show-off their airplanes, the joy for the members of Team RV comes from “doing it better each time; trying to perfect something and being really good at it.”