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My guess is the only time most people have seen Piper Cherokees fly formation was in the James Bond movie Goldfinger where five Cherokees of Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus spray gas over Fort Knox to knock out the soldiers.

Unless you were at Wittman Field Friday afternoon when 23 Cherokees and a rogue Cessna (whose pilot likes to say he’s an aerobatic Cherokee flying inverted) arrived en masse.

Last year’s inaugural Cherokees 2 Osh was to celebrate the type’s 50th anniversary—but was scratched after the North 40 was closed due to soft ground.

I was right in the middle of the formation—Echo 3—flying the only Cherokee Arrow on my first flight into AirVenture.
The idea of flying into Oshkosh always made me nervous; coming through the Fisk arrival requires precision control.
As a relatively low-time pilot who has heard high-time pilots express their trepidation about flying in, I doubted my skill and ability.

So instead I signed up to fly formation with Cherokees 2 Osh, which I thought would be fun—but which scared me more.

I wasn’t sure I could participate—the requirement is to have a minimum of 500 hours; I’m well shy of that. I’ve never flown formation. And I don’t have commercial or instrument ratings, both of which improve your air work and precision.

But Cherokees 2 Osh organizer Terry Hocking encouraged me to fly in one of the required mini clinics and said the instructors would evaluate whether I showed the skills to fly safely. If not, he was sure there would be a seat in one of the planes so I could still experience the arrival—a good backup plan.

Mass arrivals offer pilots one of the few ways to get formation training, which alone is worth more than the $125 registration.

I learned:

  • Formation flying is a lot of fun.
  • It’s not very hard with a solid briefing and instruction from Flight Ops Director Dwayne “Ferg” Fergusson, a former C-130 pilot and retired airline pilot, and Assistant Flight Ops Director Chip Gentry.
  • This is a great group of people from all over the country with two things in common—we love to fly and we fly Cherokees.
  • Most importantly I learned how to fly my airplane in a way I never had before: Using constant, small throttle and pitch adjustments and visual cues, staying in a loose formation is easy…and safe.

Arrival Day
We all gathered in Waupaca, Wisconsin, on Thursday to practice once as a complete flight of 24 aircraft. After the flight, I told Chip, my element leader (Echo 1), and wingman Ken Hudson (Echo 2) that I wanted to fly tighter. Chip’s response: “Don’t be surprised tomorrow if I call, ‘Echo Flight, tighten up.’”

Chip didn’t have to say a word. Ken and I tucked up nicely on our leader; Chip has the video to prove it!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After briefing Friday, Ferg announced we would take off an hour later and have another briefing. Winds changed; instead of landing on Runway 36 we would arrive on Runway 18.

No problem. The flight leaders were prepared, briefed the flight on the new route, and we were good to go.

Being in the middle of 24 aircraft lined up in three-ship echelon formations was exhilarating. Elements took off at five-second intervals with 15 seconds between elements.

I was lined up on the left side of the runway, caught a bit of wake turbulence just after liftoff (as expected), and once at 500 feet AGL slid into position just off Echo 1’s right wing and staggered slightly behind Echo 2 off Chip’s left wing.

With my gear up, I started moving ahead of Echo 2—so I dropped my gear.

For the rest of the 30-minute trip, Echo flight danced gently through the sky, adjusting position and altitude with minor control inputs.

As we lined up for a 5-mile final, the tower cleared us to land and said, “Cherokee Flight, you guys look so cool coming in with all your lights on.”

That alone made the flight worth it.

We landed in a staggered position—lead on the right on the yellow dot, Echo 2 on the left halfway to the pink dot, Echo 3 on the right on the pink dot.

The first Cherokees 2 Oshkosh complete, our AirVenture 2011 officially was underway.

“The mass arrivals create the excitement that has become an important part of the pre-event activities before AirVenture Oshkosh opens,” Tom Poberezny said.

“People rush to the flightline to watch the airplanes arrive because it signals the start of aviation’s premier event!”

Hopefully, our little mass arrival knocked everybody out—like those Cherokees in Goldfinger.

I know it knocked my socks off, and I can’t wait to fly an even tighter formation next year.


FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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