It was not just another day at the flight school – the film cameras were testament to that. In the pre-dawn darkness, the normally mundane act of pushing open hangar doors was met with the dramatic silhouette of an aircraft lit by stage lights, radiating their beams from behind. The artificial sunrise illuminated the hangar within and I knew that the clanging of sliding hangar doors was destined to be dubbed over with romantic orchestral chords once the film was produced. The footage was to promote the wonders of Australia and its idyllic setting for pilot training. The first sortie would fly over the famous harbour in Sydney, highlighted by the coat hanger-like bridge and the iconic opera house. The second formation flight would head west over a rural pastures, rugged ranges and expansive dams. But first the aircraft needed to be readied.
Beyond the hangar, torchlight beams cut through the darkness as pilots unlashed aeroplanes from their land-locked moorings and began preparing them for the flights ahead. Dawn was just a dim glow in the east, but already the crews had attended a full briefing and submitted flight plans. The intent was to take to the skies early, in the calm air and the best light. Of the five pilots, three had military training and two of those had flown jet fighters. One had flown in combat. That pilot was my father and today he would fly in the seat beside me to complete my training in formation flying. The experience that surrounded me was a little intimidating, but that feeling would soon be lost to the demands of flying in close proximity to another aircraft.
As the propellers began to crank, the mild eruption of the engines broke the silence of the airport. Blinking red beacons and white taxi-lights cut through the crisp dark air as the two-seater trainers taxied out with the camera ship to the rear. The sun had broken the horizon by the time the engines had warmed and the checks were completed and the aircraft lined up on the runway. I sat to the rear and to the left of the leader, lining up the visual cues on his aircraft and mine that I had defined previously using parked aircraft. On the leader’s call we throttled up and then released the brakes. Every bump in the runway seemed to be magnified as the leader bounced and accelerated. And then his nose wheel lifted off and mine followed suit, easing into the air and endeavouring to hold ‘station’ steadily and with minimal movement of the throttle.
The air was like glass as we wheeled to the north and over the suburbs before tracking east towards the coast. All the while I concentrated with every ounce of my mental might, while my father sat relaxed and content beside me. He reminded me that it was a long day ahead and encouraged me to loosen the formation until we approached the harbour, when the cameras would be rolling. I backed off and edged my aircraft away from the leader just a little. That slightly greater spacing allowed me to take in the scenery below and the beautiful rising sun. The golden rays bounced of the fuselage of the leader as the camera ship made an appearance here and there, up-sun and seeking out the best angle and light. I marvelled at seeing another aircraft in its realm at such close quarters. Without any relative movement, it seemed to just sit there, truly defying gravity and with no apparent urgency to have rushing airflow over its wings to create lift. Of course, it was still carving its path through that air, but as I sat nearby it seemed so still, so peaceful.
My father too seemed at peace. I wondered how many times he had sat off the wing of another – probably too many times to count, including days when the flak and ground fire had filled the air. Like the aircraft itself, he too was at home when he was aloft. There were no phone calls or street-level dramas, just the purity of flight. I looked at the creases around across his leathery face and wondered if I would ever be so at home in the skies. Only time would tell.
The serenity was interrupted by air traffic control advising us that our flight over the harbour would be delayed and that we could hold east of the coast and clear of his airspace. On such a brilliant morning, such news isn’t particularly disappointing. As we dawdled about the sky, the leader broke away before starting an increasing arc back towards us in a manoeuvre that my father interpreted as the beginning of a dog-fight. On his call of “Taking Over!” the little trainer rolled towards his foe and the two ex-military men engaged each other in mock combat. With the weight of two on board our aircraft, we had a decided disadvantage, but somehow we rolled and twisted inside the other aircraft and won the ‘battle’. The fight was over in the blink of an eye and for a moment my father had lit up as if he were a boy. My world was still spinning at the speed at which he had moved from calm to combat and back to calm. He handed over control to me once more and he peered out the window with a distinct smile threatening the corner of his mouth.
With the way clear we approached the harbour and now my father urged me to “tuck in tighter” and reassured me that “you won’t hit him”. Initially, I sat in the ‘line astern’ position behind the other trainer holding his rudder steady above and ahead as we entered the harbour, moving back out to the side as the opera house loomed ahead. The camera ship above and the amazing scenery beneath did not enter my thoughts or vision. My focus was purely on the leader and my aircraft relative to him. The camera ship made teasing comments about how spectacular the setting was, but I dared not drift my eyes away from the task at hand. The enjoyment level was high, but so was the fatigue as I was still learning this craft and trying to fly as smoothly as possible. The minutes raced by and with the camera ship and air traffic control satisfied, we set course for our home base.
We held the formation as we approached the airfield and lowered our flaps in synchronisation. Ready for the landing my eyes scanned between the leader and the side of the runway on which I was to land. The scan continued all the way until my wheels touched the ground just as leader’s did, before we slowed and I slipped in behind him for the taxi back to the flight school, raising our flaps in time with one another. Shutting down our engines, I felt both dehydrated and weary. I don’t think had ever concentrated so solidly in an aeroplane and wished for the time that formation flying would become just a little easier. For the moment, there was only time to replenish and re-brief the second sortie before we would be underway once again.
The second take-off seemed easier, aided by the heavier, faster aircraft we were flying. Retracting the wheels on the leader’s command must have looked impressive as it drew a complement from the control tower as we climbed away past his vantage point. The green fields slid by and the mountain range lay ahead. In contrast to the aqua harbour and the city skyline, the backdrop was now one of dark green foliage and the reservoir’s deep blue waters. The dam wall stood tall with lines of water running down its face as we set course along pristine valleys and flew past the jutting rock formation of ‘The Three Sisters’. The camera ship called for a turn here or a turn there to maximise its perspective, but still I just stayed focussed on the leader and his wing. With his wheels tucked up the aircraft looked so speedy and sleek and the scenery was just a blurred background most of the time. However, the detail on the aircraft itself was close at hand – the leader’s headset, the small aerials and the occasional minimal movement of the control surfaces were all crystal clear. Up close and personal and loving it.
When the director called in that enough footage had been gained, we turned for home and once again landed in formation with the camera rolling and my pulse racing. By the time we had shutdown I was wet with sweat and ready for rest, while my father was at ease in spite of the constant tuition I had drawn from him. He had been in his environment and seemed disappointed to be reunited with the earth. Back in the briefing room we ran through the details of both flights. What were the strengths and would could have been flown better? Were there any lessons to be learned apart from those that my father had in store for me? As I looked around at the experience in my midst I felt privileged to have be trained in the skill by their like. Understated and extremely competent, I learned a good deal more than the manipulative aspects of formation flying that day – these men were aviators. And that night I slept like never before.
These pilots would regroup again months later, but things would be very different. There would be no briefing for me and I would watch from the ground as I heard their imminent arrival overhead. Their first pass was immaculate – a tight vee-formation that had the gathered crowd looking skyward, their excitement shared in silent awe. The trio tracked around the horizon and every eye was locked upon them as they lined up for their final pass. The three aircraft grew nearer and nearer and then, just as they arrived, one pulled vertically into the sky and peeled away from the formation in a manoeuvre known as the ‘Missing Man’. Not a word was spoken and tears ran down many cheeks, for this was a farewell. My father had passed and this was their final salute to the old fighter pilot. He was now at home in the heavens.