OCEAN CITY — In its "Year of Extreme Flight," the Ocean City Air Show featured plenty of military aircraft and solo performances that were meant to awe the crowd with overwhelming power and gravity defying aerobatics. Also present, however, was the world’s largest precision air show team, Team RV.
Founded in 2002 by flight leader Mike "Kahuna" Stewart, Team RV is made up of 13 pilots from the southern United States who are dedicated to providing the best performance possible for their audiences.
Named after the homemade aircraft design for which they fly, Team RV’s performance includes various formation passes as well as barrel rolls, loops, opposing passes and plenty of smoke trails and horsepower in between. And last Thursday, June 8, I was given the chance to fly with them.
My "Team RV Experience" began in the morning with what seemed like a family reunion taking place on the tarmac at the Ocean City Municipal Airport. Pilots, wives and even the team’s mascot, Riley the dog, greeted each other with hugs and handshakes as though it had been months since they had last seen each other.
Watching this scene unfold, I realized this was not your typical group of air show pilots. They were way too happy to see each other after an hour and a half flight.
After the greetings subsided, I was greeted by six pilots in matching red, white and blue jump suits walking toward me. I admit it was an impressive and mildly nerve racking sight. As a lifelong resident of Ocean City, a professional pilot to me was someone who pulled a banner behind the plane advertising local businesses. Yet, these six pilots alone have combined over 57,000 hours of flying experience in over 20 different types of airplanes, and they were only half of the team.
For the flight, I was assigned to fly with wingman Len "Leggs" Lennette in the number five plane. Naturally, I was disappointed to not be flying in the number one plane. Yet, by the time I managed to say something, flight lead Ron "Smokey" Schreck had already gone over the flight plan and the pilots were out the door and headed toward their planes.
All of Team RV’s pilots fly some variation of the Richard Vangrunsven designed aerobatic series of aircraft. At an empty weight of approximately 1,120 pounds and with a 200 horsepower engine, the group believes that "this platform is perfectly suited for the tasks of both aerobatics and formation [flying]." This, however, is where the similarities of the group’s planes ends as nearly every pilot has individually built and chosen the color scheme for their plane.
When I first stepped foot on the tarmac and saw Leggs’ plane, I immediately asked him how he came up with such a comparatively complex paint job. The body of the plane itself featured four different colors set in stripes of various widths and lengths.
Overhearing the conversation, wingman Robert "RB" Gibbs (whose plane won the Bronze Liddy award for workmanship) assured me that Leggs did not come up with the design on the back of a liquor napkin. In fact, Leggs and his son spent three and a half years building and designing his plane from a kit box. I felt slightly embarrassed.
Following take off, the team joined up into delta formation and banked over Route 611 toward Assateague and for several moments, I forgot what exactly I was doing. Not because I was nervous or scared. Rather, the constant whine of the engine and the feeling of the propeller cutting through the air took my imagination back to the early years of avionics.
In the age of technology and jet powered aircraft, it is easy to forget how relatively basic aircraft once were: no oxygen mask, no computer-controlled systems. It was only the pilot and his ability to maneuver his plane. Air shows are often portrayed as a time to watch the raw power of the United States Armed Forces, such as the F-18 Hornet or B-2 Stealth Bomber, fly overhead. Yet, maintaining formation and feeling the constant tug and pull of the rudder really turned back the clock of avionic evolution in my eyes.
The amount of concentration required just to maintain an average distance of five feet between each plane in the formation was simply incomprehensible to me. Take, for example, Leggs’ response to my repeated requests for him to look out the side of the plane so he could see my house: "I would really love to, but I need to concentrate on flying the plane." For the record, I would rather he have kept flying the plane too.
After several formation passes, we began what in aerobatic terms is called an extended trail formation. Starting with the flight lead, the planes broke off one by one into a series of lazy eights followed by a loop.
From the ground, this would have looked like a game of follow the leader in airplanes but from my seat the sudden acceleration and turning of the planes in front of me served more as a warning of what would come next.
Instantly, Leggs banked left and the plane accelerated downwards from its previous position. These several moments of decent were then followed by a rapid climb that completed each individual eight.
As originally planned, the first four planes to come out of the extended trail formed up into a diamond formation with the number five and six planes trailing to help stagger the landing times.
As we flew back toward the airport and the airplane’s tires touched the ground, I asked Leggs what it was like flying in the Ocean City Air Show for the first time.
"It is scary," he said. "You never want to break formation or mess up because you know the guys will call you out for it."
For the pilots of Team RV, their routine is clearly about more than just flying for the audience. It is a way to help each other keep a passion for flying alive.