Aerobatics and Formation Flying in Really Big Airplanes

Fighter jets and aerobatic planes are awesome and all, but I’ve always had a thing for the behemoths of the air.  I’m particularly fond of the 747, and of course then there’s Antonov’s massive cargo fleet, and especially their giant, the An-225 Mriya, which remains pretty much in a class by itself.  (Not many airplanes can make the A380 look small.)

But you don’t often see these aircraft doing much besides the workhorse runs they were built for.  Airliners and cargo jets and bombers are built as very utilitarian vehicles, but they have their own beauty, and they are all splendid flyers thanks to the extra capability built into them to support their maximum payloads.  So with that in mind, here are some videos of large aircraft, showing off.  😉

First off, Airbus produced this amazing video for the launch of their new A350 XWB airliner.  Five of them, flying in formation and carrying out standard tight formation routines normally associated with flight demonstration teams.  Bear in mind that these are *not* aerobatic aircraft, and far bigger and wider with more wake turbulence than, for instance, the F-18 Hornets flown by the Blue Angels, and with far worse visibility.  But they do it splendidly, even if their greater size makes the whole routine more ponderous — the Hornets fly like raptors, but these fly like majestic swans.

Airbus likely spent a lot of money to make that a reality, but they had reason to know it would make an impression.  Years ago, when jet airliners were new, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnson pulled off a famous unscripted aerobatic maneuver in the new Dash-80 airliner (which would become the 707), and attracted enormous attention with it.

Of course, I always get a bit misty-eyed at another Boeing airliner, dubbed by its pilots “the world’s most sophisticated biplane”: the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.  NASA operated two of these vehicles, and while the handling was much more difficult than a typical 747, especially with the Orbiter on back with its wings and stabilizer, and the extra stabilizers added at the back would tend to resist much aerobatics, the pilots always made a point of giving beachgoers in Florida an extra treat, dipping the wing so they could really see the special passenger riding on their back.  Here are the two SCAs in formation, possibly the only time they ever flew together, over Edwards AFB:

And here’s Endeavour arriving in LAX, starting off with a low pass over the airport before they loop around to land for real.  The SCAs did this on all three Shuttle museum deliveries (Discovery to Washington, DC, Enterprise to NYC, and Endeavour to Los Angeles).  Not even Air Force One gets to tie up the airspace like this.  Utilitarian as the SCAs may be, nobody can deny they’re special in a way a luxury VIP transport like that can be.  It’s not fancy aerobatics, but when you have a billion dollars worth of spacecraft on your back, you take it a little easy.

Here’s Discovery arriving at Dulles, with ATC chatter audible.  “Pluto 95 Heavy” is the SCA’s callsign.  It’s a sedate arrival, but beautiful.

Of course, professional flight demonstration teams are not above using big airplanes from time to time.  The Blue Angels are known for their F-18 Hornets, but their support team rides from show to show in a different vehicle: a C-130 Hercules named “Fat Albert”.  And not only does he get to wear the Blue Angels livery, but he gets to play a part in the show as well.  The signature piece is a near-vertical climb-out with JATO rockets, followed by a very short landing — the C-130 may be “just” a cargo plane, and ugly to many, but it was designed for very short take-offs and landings (VSTOL) on even primitive runways.

And I’m not kidding about very short landing and takeoff — there was an experimental effort to land C-130s on aircraft carriers.  (This was in the 60s; carriers are bigger now.) With neither arresting wires nor catapult, the C-130 demonstrated it could do it.  Rather easily, too.

This one’s a small cargo airplane, but this Italian cargo plane wasn’t gonna let others have all the fun.  (Mind you, the Alenia C-27J Spartan is built to be agile.  Like C-130, it expects to have to land in difficult situations, and then get out of them again.)

And if you’ve been to enough airshows, you’ll have had a chance to see this unforgettable and surprisingly quiet beast: the B-2 Spirit.  At airshows, it dances like a leaf when it turns.  I couldn’t find a video that really shows that off, but I’ve seen it holding off beyond the airfield, patiently waiting its turn in the spotlight, dancing back and forth with hardly anyone noticing it — it’s really quite inconspicuous in the distance, despite its 172′ wingspan (wider than most airliners).  But this still gives a nice view:

It seems like these massive, strong fliers would be child’s play to fly — and indeed, they generally are, having been designed for efficiency and endurance.  (The B-2 is a notable exception due to its lack of a vertical stabilizer; without computers, flying it would be suicide.)  They’re built to stretch their legs, so to speak.  But aerobatics and formation flying are always dangerous, and bigger aircraft ramp up the danger level in ways that aren’t always obvious.  They have poor visibility of their own enormous structure, it can be difficult for other pilots to gauge their positions accurately, and they produce a lot more wake turbulence.  Lest we forget the danger, here is a sequence of still images from a photoshoot done on June 8, 1966 for General Electric, which makes aircraft engines.  The shoot involved a fairly straightforward but tight formation of five aircraft with GE engines: four nimble little fighters (F-4 Phantom, F-5 Tiger, T-38 Talon, F-104 Starfighter) and the gigantic XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental delta-winged supersonic bomber that dwarfed the other aircraft.  The Starfighter, piloted by NASA’s chief test pilot Joe Walker, was maintaining position relative to the Valkyrie based on what he could see of the huge aircraft’s forward fuselage.  He could not see the enormous delta wing from his position.  The sheer size of the aircraft made it difficult for him to accurately judge his motion relative to the Valkyrie, and he drifted close, into the wake vortex of the Valkyrie’s right wingtip.  His aircraft rapidly rolled over and contacted the Valkyrie, and then exploded.  Joe Walker was killed.  In the meantime, the Valkyrie’s two crew were unaware of the accident but soon realized they had lost control of the aircraft — Walker’s aircraft had clipped their ring wingtip, rolled over, sheared off their vertical stabilizers, and then hit their left wing before exploding.  They entered an uncontrollable spin.  The Valkyrie crew triggered their ejection system.  The system was arranged such that pilot would be jected first, followed moments later by the copilot, so that the two capsules would have a safe separation: the result was that only one capsule managed to eject.  Pilot Al White’s arm was crushed in the clamshell mechanism of the escape capsule, but he survived.  Copilot Carl Cross was unable to eject and was killed.  So this is the sobering “lest we forget” coda to these stories of really big airplanes flying fancy.

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