Last flight of the Red Baron Squadron

December 6, 2007

Last flight of the Red Baron Squadron

By Alton K. Marsh

After takeoff elevator trim is adjusted toward the nose down position for more precise control, requiring constant back pressure throughout the flight; it feels like carrying a 20-pound weight all day. Strain starts at the fingertips and spreads through the wrist up the arm to the neck. The stick is about to feel heavier.

Four Boeing Stearman biplanes built in the ’40s are flying six to 10 feet apart and ready for action. “Props forward,” calls lead pilot Bryan Regan, indicating the routine is about to start. “Yeah, baby,” answers No. 2 pilot Jayson Wilson, borrowing a tradition from his mentor Sean D. Tucker. The 450-horsepower radial engines begin to digest 25 to 30 gallons of fuel an hour instead of the usual 22. “Dive for the loop,” Regan calls.

As the four-biplane formation dives for 160 mph, slot pilot Travis Aukes—boxed into the center of the formation—accelerates faster than the rest until he is under Regan. Regan’s aircraft lifts from the air flowing off Aukes’ top wing, requiring Regan to add forward stick pressure to counteract. Timing is critical. Before Aukes has time to slide ahead the lead aircraft—risking getting run over by the formation—Regan reaches the required speed and muscle-curls his stick backward to rocket the group up into a 4-G loop.

Now Aukes, still faster than the formation, needs that extra speed just to keep up; he’s on the outside of the loop and must travel farther, like a car traveling around a curve in the outside lane. G forces ease as the group passes over the top inverted and plunges down the backside, rudder pedals twitching and propeller governors surging as pilots jockey the throttles to stay tight.

The way out of the loop is the same as getting into one—another 4-G pull. I am hand-holding a video camera to film a clip for AOPA Online, just a light point-and-shoot, but G forces send it below the edge of the cockpit as I struggle to keep it on the wingman. When we land, the aircraft G meters read 4.5.

Meet the pilots

That’s a typical day at the office for pilots of the Red Baron Squadron. Lead pilot Bryan Regan of Gilbert, Ariz., got into flying with a financial obligation called college thwarting his dreams. But when one of his friends offered to get him a pilot certificate for $2,000, the last of his college fund quickly left the bank. Two months later he was a pilot. He took a break from school&dmash;not that he could still pay for it—to “...get this flying bug out of my system,” but it was the incurable kind. A job flying skydivers lead to ferrying a Stearman used by airshow and movie stunt pilot Earl Cherry. As his dream came into focus he took aerobatic training and got a job with the Red Baron Squadron in 1993. Regan never looked back at college, where he abandoned what seemed in the 1980s to be a useless degree in computer science, but in 2007 he completed a degree in business administration over the Internet—on a computer, in other words.

Jayson Wilson left the cockpit of an Army Apache helicopter for the No. 2 position off the left wing of Regan. His father was a crop duster, his uncle a pilot, too. “All I ever wanted to do my whole life was be an airshow pilot. I am living my dream job,” Wilson said. He bought a Pitts S1C and began training, advised by mentor Steve Griff and airshow performer Tucker. He became known around Fayetteville, Ark., as the only pilot who knew anything about aerobatics, and that resulted in taking two weeks out of a combat tour in Afghanistan to organize the city’s Festival of Flight. There he met the Red Baron Squadron, and they were looking for a chief pilot—a perfect fit for Wilson’s military experience.

Matt Losacker reached the cockpit of Red Baron 3 “...deliberately by accident.” He learned to fly at Chandler Air Service in Chandler, Ariz., became an instructor, and started down the traditional path to an airline career. But spin training in an aerobatic Great Lakes biplane owned by the school changed his course. Five years later a magazine ad announcing Red Baron Squadron pilot auditions led to his job today. He now auditions future Red Barons.

Travis Aukes (pronounced awk’ us), the slot pilot, got a passion for flying from his crop duster father, and a passion for the Red Baron Squadron from his brother who was its crew chief. Aukes decided three things early in his pilot career, that he would fly, that he would learn aerobatics, and that he would one day join the Red Baron team. After eight years of dreaming he joined the group in 1992. When he’s not painting the sky with smoke trails, he is planting the fields of Illinois as farmer.

Act III

“You’ve got the hard job. We flew it and now you have to describe it,” Aukes said. Let me concede early; I’m not sure what all we did and the videotape I shot proved little help. Smoke everywhere, pilots shooting through a corner of the frame. Riding through a series of back-to-back maneuvers was confusing, but here’s a try.

Ok, Act III: It started by climbing into a 4-G loop that changed direction 90 degrees on top, then diving down the back side and climbing vertically immediately to about 1,000 feet for a hammerhead. We climbed until we lost most of the airspeed before kicking the rudder and pivoting (like a hammerhead falling to hit a nail), pointing the nose straight down for 500 to 600 feet and recovering 300 feet above the ground.

At the bottom of the maneuver, using the speed we gained, we entered another half-loop and again changed direction on top, descending inverted initially but rolling right-side up (called a half-Cuban eight because it looks like one-half of the numeral eight lying on its side). By this time the formation had gone into trail—that is, we were playing follow the leader. It’s during that time that Aukes has the best sight of all, looking up while inverted—up is now down—and seeing three teammates flying between himself and the ground.

There were seven maneuvers in all. While still in trail Ryan did a loop but again changed heading 90 degrees at the top. At the bottom of the loop the speed of 140 to 150 mph was used to climb vertically in another hammerhead, each airplane climbing two or three seconds behind the other. That means you pass an ascending teammate as you dive, one that is 50 to 100 feet away. That’s followed by a barrel roll and another half-Cuban that includes a 90-degree turn as the aircraft is descending inverted but rolling upright.

Just as my stomach began sending those signals—you know the ones—the routine ended and we returned to Lakeland, Fla. I could still pretend it didn’t affect me.

The work day

That was a conclusion to a typical work day for the Red Baron Squadron. It began with a flight from Lakeland to the Fantasy of Flight attraction at nearby Polk City, where the display aircraft actually fly. There were a few passes above the grass runway, a landing before a crowd that had come to see a yearly celebration of Ford Mustang cars and flights by museum owner Kermit Weeks in a North American P–51 Mustang, and a ride for a television crew that included a loop or two.

During down time at Fantasy of Flight there was time to chat with Rob Lock and Sarah Wilson, now permanently based there to give rides in a newly refurbished Travel Air and a Boeing Stearman you can fly yourself, with instructor Wilson’s help (see “Sky and Canvas,” from the December 2006 Pilot).

My job was to observe all this, and to ride along. Obviously the Red Baron Squadron and the Fantasy of Flight ride providers have rough jobs, but someone has to do it. To free others of the burden, they selflessly accept the responsibility.

Postscript

All of us like round numbers when it comes to celebrating anniversaries, but the Red Baron Squadron was never to make it to its thirtieth. On Dec. 3 the Schwan Food Company shocked the team’s staff with a decision to move in a new marketing direction due to changes in retail food sales—whatever that means. The Red Baron Squadron pizza box will still feature the helmeted pilot with flying scarf at the ready, but never again will parents hear their kids asking for Red Baron pizza on the way home from an airshow. The team has disbanded.

December 6, 2007