One of the most amazing sights and sounds of EAA AirVenture every year is the warbird segment of the airshow. On some days, over 100 airplanes fill the sky together in a tremendous display of historical air power. The majority of these aircraft are part of the mass formations that circle and cross overhead, providing a backdrop for the other aircraft below.
The formations are usually organized by aircraft type; the T-6 Texans, the T-28 Trojans, the T-34 Mentors, and the Red Stars formation of Yak-52s and CJ-6s (plus one misfit SF-260 that I have had the pleasure of riding in). These groups represent pilots from across the country who fly and train together throughout the year to put on shows like these. Each of the groups arranges a pre-AirVenture gathering at an airport near Oshkosh in the days leading up to the event as a chance to meet up and get some last minute practice flights in. This year, I had the privilege of joining the T-34 Mentor Association members in Manitowoc, WI for their annual pre-AirVenture meetup.
Manitowoc County Airport (KMTW) is east of Oshkosh, near the shore of Lake Michigan. It is an untowered field with good ramp space and most importantly, EAA Chapter 383. Members of the chapter play host during the gathering, and their hangar and office are the hang out spot for the pilots. This year at least 20 T-34s were in attendance, with two, three, and four-ship flights launching in several waves beginning Saturday morning.
I was invited to join one of these flights, a four-ship. We headed out over the lake to work through different formations and rejoins, while other groups did the same in different pre-determined areas. Everything was expertly organized and briefed by T-34 Association President Billy “Smitty” Smith. Flights like this are required for each pilot to earn and maintain their “FAST card”, a certification of their ability to fly formation. Without this, they are not allowed to fly formation in waivered airspace, such as during the AirVenture airshows.
After several rounds of these smaller group flights, the group starts putting together the large mass formation. This usually begins to come together on Sunday afternoon, but unfortunately this year the weather was less than cooperative and it was delayed. I had to leave for Oshkosh without seeing the mass flight practice.
I’d see the group soon enough though, as they arrived during the airshow in typical dramatic fashion. If you’ve never witnessed it, it is quite shocking to see. All of the formation groups come in from different directions and at different altitudes, all pointed at show center. Last year they nailed the timing, resulting in a thrilling triple cross directly overhead. From the cross, each group begins a carefully calculated orbit to continue passing over and in front of the crowd while avoiding the dozens of other airplanes sharing the sky.
The chaos is incredible to witness, and most on the ground have no idea of how much work, practice, and planning is behind the spectacle. Luckily, these pilots are willing to put in the hours necessary to give us all a safe and entertaining show!
Check out the rest of my photos in our photo gallery – T-34 Mentor Gathering 2016 – Manitowoc, WI
Thank you to Billy Smith, Stephen Bohlig, Adam Silverstein, Malte Lorenz, Tim Kolp, the rest of the T-34 pilots, and EAA Chapter 383 for allowing me to join in the fun!
– Ryan Sundheimer