For a brief instant in mid-May, four RVs made Sydney International the busiest airport in Australia, in an aviation celebration of the revocation of NSW's COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
We have to blame Don Harvie.
The initial seed was planted as an off-hand quip by Brayden during a hangar conversation at Wedderburn, where it sat quietly for want of fertilizer until Don sent an email entitled, "Working from home boredom" to our formation pilots chat group on April 22. "So I guess we've seen the guy with the RV-8 doing low passes down the three major New York airports," he observed, in relation to a popular YouTube video circulating at the time, "How does a formation into Mascot sound?"
The rest of us had a bit of a giggle, and the conversation devolved into a back-and-forth about the likely magnitude of the landing fee. Little did we know that Eddie would take it seriously, and started making phone calls.
Eddie is the Stooges team lead for this year, and he did all the organising legwork to make it happen. It's safe to say that this event wouldn't have existed without his efforts.
Air Services were initially sceptical about letting a formation in ("Have you read the ERSA? It says, 'No airwork.'" "Yes, but a visual approach to land isn't airwork, is it?").
Eddie tried the strategy of calling multiple times, in the way that a child will ask Dad when Mum says, "No," but it wasn't working.
After a few iterations, he pushed, "You've let everyone else in lately, why not us?" which yielded a suggestion that Sydney Airport Corporation (SAC) might not want to approve a formation, so he reached out to them to ask (Glenn in Stooge #4: "You've come this far, why stop now?")
He ended up talking to Fiona in the airport's Media Unit. The novelty of the situation seemed to appeal, and strings began to be pulled. On the last day of April, the word was, "Thanks for your patience ... from Sydney Airport's perspective we're comfortable with a land and depart, so please feel welcome to liaise with Airservices Australia to confirm a slot."
The approval from SAC started to move mountains. Airservices Australia became phenomenally helpful. They hooked Eddie up with Airport Coordination Australia (ACA) for a slot allocation. Third organization, third set of challenges.
ACA's role is to run an auction system where airlines can buy and sell "slots" for arrival and departure at Australia's major airports to manage contention by providing access to the highest bidder. That's why GA aircraft can't usually go in: We're not prohibited, but when your Piper Cub is competing against Emirates for access to a runway, the folks who hurl A380s around the sky always win the game.
The game is different in the coronavirus era, because most of the slots are uncontended, and a zero-dollar bid can win the auction. One still needs to coordinate with ACA for the slot to win it, though.
Two weeks later, Jennifer from ACA issued our slots. Fiona organized parking. We were also set up with Kurt, the SAC media guy, who'd asked us to touch down between the PAPI and taxiway F for the best camera angles. Air Services Australia had our flight notification.
It was starting to look like it might actually happen.
We spent Saturday 16th May at Wollongong/Shellharbour practicing, to make sure we wouldn't make fools of ourselves. We didn't have access to a runway wide enough to land in fingertip, so we shot many approaches into YSHL runway 16 on Saturday with lead, #2 and #3 landing in Vic on the pavement, and #4 aiming towards the grass next to the runway and initiating a go-around on late final to simulate the 4-ship approach we'd planned. That was a great opportunity to refine speeds and reconfiguration cues needed to keep everything together all the way down final.
YSSY 16R is 50% wider than YSHL's runway, and on the day we'd have 33% more aircraft width, so we figured if we could make it work with three at Wollongong, four at Mascot should be easy. Preparation works.
Sunday 17th began with an extensive briefing. All the frequencies we'd need, in the sequence we'd need them. Departure sequence and rejoin procedure. Clearances. Transition from box to right-fingertip. Roll-out, with spacing so that the four aircraft could safely merge into a single file in number order on the centreline before A3. Expected taxi route. Lost comms procedures. Go-around expectations. Alternates in the event of emergencies. Everything that could go right, everything that could go wrong.
It all went right, with a touchdown within a minute or two of our arrival slot. Great work, Eddie, you helped us achieve better dispatch reliability into Sydney than Tiger Airways, single-handedly coordinating a bigger fleet than Virgin Australia!
The flight started with a taxi call from Eddie's hangar: "Wedderburn Traffic, Stooge Formation, four RVs, taxiing for runway 35, departing for Sydney."
Ha-ha. First time anyone's ever heard a radio call like that at Wedderburn.
We executed a stream takeoff at Wedderburn, rejoining into box. Eddie grabbed Sydney ATIS and contacted SY CTR 124.55.
"Stooge, cleared to enter class charlie airspace on climb to 3000 and cleared direct to Sydney, just make sure you get over the top of the Holsworthy restricted area."
The readback for that clearance suddenly made it "real." Until now it'd been something which could be killed off without warning for operational reasons: "Clearance unavailable, maintain clear of class charlie," would have wrecked the whole mission. But here we were, "cleared direct to Sydney," heartbeats raised, the good burghers of Campbelltown on the ground below hearing "WHOO!" from our cockpits drowning out our engine noise as we made victory shouts from overhead.
Over to Director, cleared onto a 3 mile final for 16R. Handed over to tower, "Stooge Formation, Sydney Tower, ... wind 150 degrees 6 knots, runway 16R cleared to land." Don't screw it up don't screw it up don't screw it up don't screw it up...
We didn't screw it up. Reconfigured from box to finger-4 over Sydenham train station, then Eddie's 360° camera confirmed 4 simultaneous creditable landings we can all be happy with.
We were there for about an hour, doing socially-distanced interviews and photo shoots with Kurt, whose camera equipment looked like it cost more than our airplanes. Lots of selfies, marvelling at the billions of dollars worth of tin scattered all over the paddock.
Then we strapped in, received our taxi clearance about two minutes before our departure slot, taxied across 25 to holding point F. Formation takeoff in finger-4, with a nice compliment from the tower as they handed us off to Departures. Cleared to exit the class C at 2500 tracking from Jibbon Point to Seacliff Bridge, setting us up to dodge rain showers and transit back to Wedderburn.
It was a massive weekend, that was only made possible by massive preparation, mostly by Eddie. Huge kudos for a hell of an achievement, mate.
Our mission as a formation team is to wave the flag for amateur-built GA. When we fly at airshows, our message is, "We're just a bunch of normal dickheads, none of us are special, and we only get to do what we do because we're average people who have received exceptional training." It is completely realistic for anyone in our airshow audiences to believe that they can get a spark of inspiration, start hammering away at an aircraft kit in their garage, and train in their own airplane until they're flying with some of the absolute best aerobatic display pilots in the nation. That's what we're trying to convey.
This obviously wasn't an airshow display. But with the masses of photos and videos we've been posting around social media, Vans Airforce, the SAAA Sydney group, and anywhere else we can find, our message remains the same: Aviation is accessible, it's reasonable for average idiots no better than us to play with toys in a way that makes pretty special and unique accomplishments achievable.
Besides doing something instagram-worthy for our own personal satisfaction, our collective ambition was to conduct our amateur selves as professionals. I think we achieved that, and we're all going to be proud of this logbook entry for many years to come.
If we can do it, anyone can. Don't just stand there, get into it, you're missing out.
|Stooge Formation 2020|
|Lead||Eddie Seve (RV-7)||VH-EWS|
|#2||Mal Kains (RV-6A)||VH-DWC|
|#3||Mark Newton (RV-6)||VH-SOL|
|#4||Glenn Bridgland (RV-7)||VH-VNZ|
These images have been kindly supplied by Anne-Marie Seve, Di Kains and Kevin White.