Guanghan, Sichuan province another World first by the global Stars. 5 Ship pyros
We slipped our moorings at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 on Saturday 21st September a little after ten o’clock in the evening, and after a long taxi towards the M25 departed Runway 09 Right for Chengdu and the opportunity to road test a Global Stars’ 5 ship formation display over five days. Earth rotation and what looked like a great circle route via the Baltic countries meant that night was a relatively short-lived affair. We were not surprised to be touching down in Chengdu ten hours, and two small glasses of red wine later, a few minutes more than had been advertised. Once on Chinese soil late on Sunday afternoon, the formalities being minimal, we were whisked away by Olive and onto the tour bus to the hotel a little over an hour away where we would meet Joel, our fifth pilot who had flown in from Sydney.
Monday could not have started any better: A reasonable night’s sleep, breakfast and a civilised start time at the airfield that was only fifteen minutes away across town. Five pilots and four engineers soon had the containers unpacked and airframes moved into the large hangar for re-assembly. By the end of the day we were all still talking to each had only a few odds and ends to tidy up on Tuesday morning prior to the acquisition of fuel for ground runs. We were well ahead of the game by now and had consigned Wednesday morning to a trip out before convening again for lunch at the airfield and relocation of aircraft, tools and spares to the display village just a stone’s throw from the runway. Having re-built all five aircraft in little more than a day, engineers Keith, Chris, Neil and Arunas now had the task of keeping them serviced and replenished with fuel, oil and smoke oil for up to three and occasionally four flights per day.
Pilots Mark, Chris B, Chris C, Steve and Joel faced the new challenge of flying a greatly diversified repertoire of formations that are not available to a four-ship team. Possibly the greatest challenge of all was going to be flying two aircraft on either side of the leader in what we decided to call “Big Vic”: Numbers 2 and 4 to the leader’s right, and 3 and 5 on his left. This is not as easy as it sounds. The elevation at Guanghan airfield is around 1500 feet so our old adversary density altitude would start to nibble away at the excess power available to wing men, numbers 4 and 5. Anticipation and a hand full of throttle would work a treat as the leader must set around 19 to 21 inches of manifold pressure to prevent the formation simply running aground five minutes in to the fourteen minute performance. Living according to your means is a principle that every display pilot knows, and the principle was put many years earlier by the character Wilkins Micawber to David Copperfield:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and six pence: result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual income twenty pounds, ought and six pence, result misery……and you are floored as I am”
That fifth element makes quite a difference to the overall visual density as the formation can be changed to “Apollo” for instance in which 4 and 5 slide across behind 2 and 3 using rudder. Put 5 into “Box” position and hang 4 off the back, and you have “Arrow”. The view from 4’s position with the pyros lit up is quite impressive!
The team soon got into the routine of brief, fly, de-brief, refuel and re-smoke; and the challenges began to be confronted and overcome in turn. One such challenge was that faced by Joel as he swapped from flying in a 2 ship on his leader’s right, to flying the five ship on the leader’s left. All of a sudden, the sky around him would feel quite busy as each aircraft moved around slightly about its ideal position. On a more personal level the neck ache associated with looking predominantly in one direction would inevitably swap sides.
The performance area also presented itself as something of a challenge, not so much on the main axis defined by runways 31 and 13, but at right angles to it. The height minima were 600’ inside the airfield boundary and 1000’ outside. A bespoke sequence that fitted the space available and showed the formation off to the full was soon drawn up to be evolved over the next three days.
No expedition to China would be complete without one or two days of reduced visibility, and this one has not disappointed so far, coming as it has with persistent early morning mist on most days. We’re pleased to say though that we got quite accustomed to practicing and displaying with only 2500 metres or so visibility at ground level and an overlay of haze. As a result, the opening ceremony with its mass fly past by all the teams became a fly past and display by the Global Stars.
One of our most impressive figures has to be the Carouselle. Running in on the B axis for a loop in Arrow, as the formation approaches the down vertical on the back side of the figure the front three aircraft bend right while numbers 4 and 5 at the rear bend left to position at opposite ends of the main axis to run in for the first cross. As the two elements cross on the main axis crowd centre, they each roll into a steep turn so that they’ll cross head to head again a little further out. Keeping the turn going they heave around again towards the crowd to make one last cross aiming once again for crowd centre. At this point Steve and Chris head crowd left for a half Cuban in echelon to gain height and turn around. The down line is held slightly shy of 45 degrees so as to fill the long crowd line, and at this point Chris half rolls from inverted to position himself beneath the lead aircraft in mirror. Looking for a minimum of 160 kts Steve pushes to around minus 3 and Chris does his level best to maintain that mirror. Trade-mark Global Stars is something happening all of the time in front of the crowd so while Steve and Chris position for a formation stall turn the main formation of three aircraft loops and rolls a little further out. A short solo from Chris is followed by a roll around the main formation in “Diamond” before the four of them head outbound, separate into two pairs and run in for the finale, the “Double heart”. Timing and spacing are critical here to complete the figure safely. The instruction to pull up for the hearts hinges on the word “Pulling” split into tow syllables, “Pull…ing”. On hearing the phrase “Pull” from Mark, Chris H and Steve pitch up to 70 degrees. On hearing the phrase “ing”, Mark and Joel do the same, but just that little bit further on to prevent the hearts being coplanar: Separation guaranteed!
You may have seen mass weddings on TV but for me this was a first chance to see a mass wedding at an airshow. The happy couples stood on stage watching the show while being married. Girls this must be your dream wedding!
The team flew a variety of display profiles in the first four days of the exhibition, day formation, pyro formation, solo and pyro slalom. Five days of shows in addition to the practice days is quite a lot of flying by anyone’s standards. Long days indeed, leaving the hotel at 0900 to prep’ the aircraft, fly the display, prep’ the aircraft again, then wait around to do it twice more.
The pyro shows were flown at a time of day somewhat less than optimal, as last landing had to be before sunset. As the light started to fade, the way it does at this latitude, everyone will then head for the bus to cross a town that will be busy with traffic leaving the event. We’d usually arrive back at the hotel around eight o’clock and be straight into dinner/ supper. Bed-time, and another day ended.
Come the fifth day the weather started grey, heavy, damp and indifferent, and would continue like that into the afternoon thereby robbing us of the opportunity to fly again three time and improve our performance. Just occasionally there would be a little texture in the cloud base, and hopes would rise, but the buildings beyond the runway’s end North west of us having provided a metric for visibility all week were invisible to us all day. By mid-afternoon one after another, each team fielded an aircraft into the gloom beneath a 600 foot base, though the pilots could do little in the way of a flat show as their hands were tied by the increased minima. Finally!! We were given the go-ahead to retire to the hangar and start dis-assembly. This was welcome news as the team had been invited a few days earlier to ship to another event at Taiyuan due to the grounding of the Sbach team. Mark’s four aircraft were headed there, while Steve’s would be packed away ready for shipping to Hyderabad in India for shows in early 2020.
By eight o’clock in the evening and in the poor light of the hangar, the wings were almost ready to be lifted off and we now had a very significant gain on what would have been an early start and an extremely busy day on Friday. As ever, with the aircraft strapped down, the process of packing away tools, spares, odds and ends is one of those that almost looks as though it will never quite end. Mathematicians would describe this as asymptotic: A process that is quite clearly converging on an outcome but remains distinct from it. This is wrong of course, and eventually the container doors are closed, and we head back to the hotel to clean ourselves up and fall asleep.
Saturday, and we say our good-byes to the other teams and to each other. Neil and Steve will travel back to the UK with Roger the FDD. Chris and Mark will head off into the mountains for a few days while Keith and the others have a look at some Pandas before heading up to Taiyuan to unpack two containers, four aircraft to do it all over again. You could be forgiven for thinking that’s it, but no, the team will be in Macau with four aircraft for two days of shows just before Christmas! That’s the Global Stars for you, every trip is different, that’s what we do.
During the show two of our management team were presented there UK, PPL-M licences having visited the UK twice for summer holidays over the last couple of years. Flying training with twotwofly.co.uk at Little Gransden.