Cross Country With My Flock


I've had the pleasure of teaching a number of folks to fly. This past Saturday, May 10, 1997, introduced three of them to the world of adventure flying cross country.

Thomaston Georgia holds an annual airshow. This year one of the organizers called to ask if I would fly my Flightstar up for display during the show to try to promote Ultralights in their area. Naturally I gladly accepted the invite. Little did I know at the time what an adventure it would turnout to be.

A while back I wrote of "Mr. Smith", my WWII B-17 bomber pilot. Just a couple weeks ago I announced that Nick had Soloed. Well, when they heard I was going to Thomaston, they eagerly asked if they could come along. Neither had ever flown cross country, nor had Pete....a student that I soloed about a year ago. So the four of us made loose plans, and agreed to meet early Saturday morning for a pre-flight briefing.

We all arrived at the airport around 6:45 A.M. to find the wind blowing vigoriously from the NW...exactly the direction we needed to Fly. What made it even worse...it was COLD. Around 40 F., which is very cold to us here in Georgia, especially when we're use to 80f this time of year. We spent about a half hour going over the sectional, ploting our course, checking weather...and trying to get all the radios working. We almost succeded. Nick and Petes radio worked fine, but Mr. Smith...who we've nicknamed "Doc", had trouble with his new helmet-radio-PPT set-up. We finally were able to get him to hear us....but we couldn't hear him. I told them all to try and stay fairly close to me, since it's very easy to loose sight of one another while flying due to ground clutter. I knew that Thomaston Airport was going to close from 9:45 till 10:45 to allow the Armys Golden Knights to perform...so we had to get going. It was already 8:00 A.M.

We all took off fairly close togeather and climbed out into a beautiful clear blue sky. Visibility was terrific...but now it was REALLY cold. Leveling off at 1500 MSL I noticed immediately that we weren't going to make it safely to Thomaston with out a Fuel Stop....even though Thomaston was only 41 miles away. We were only traveling at 26 MPH due to the strong headwind, and their 5 gal fuel capacity just wasn't going to be enough safety margin. For the time I kept it to myself since conditions might change...and I had planned for some alternate landing spots just in case.

I glanced to my left and there was Nick in his beautiful new Hurricane. He had just bought the "Show Plane" Hurricane had at Sun N Fun...and boy was it georgeous against the blue sky. I couldn't see Pete though...but a quick radio call and Pete responded he was following behind Nick.

Looking to my right I "Spotted" Doc...boy did I spot Doc....he was flying what appeared to be just a few "inches" from my right wing. Way to close for comfort even in calm air...and today was REALLY bumpy. I quickly radioed to Doc to move over a little and give me some manuevering room. I saw him nod his head and peel away. I started breathing again. It's obvious B-17 pilots flew "close" formation by the way Doc likes to fly !

The next half hour we all flew along just enjoying the views...and me constantly calculating and recalculating fuel burn against time to go. Doc and Nick were each flying Rotax 447s, but since they had never ventured off before neither knew what their fuel burn would be. To be safe I figured 4 gal/hr. I knew this should be way too much, but would at least give us a safety margin. Our Speed had picked up to about 37 MPH by now....but we had been flying almost an hour with the Garmin telling me we still had close to 20 miles to go. Even though it meant we may not make it before they closed the field...I decided we would land at a private strip in Roberta Georgia just to check fuel....and WARM UP a little. We were all FREEZING. I radioed for them all to line up behind me....and like Mother Goose leading her flock to water...we all settled down to a very nice landing at my Flocks first "away from home" landing. They all did great, despite the fact that some crop-dusters were also using this field at the time using the Runway in both directions.

To be on the safe side, I transferred some fuel from my tank into Docs, but everyone else had plenty. No one seemed eager to go back up right away...it was so cold...but we knew we had to if we had a chance to get in before they closed Thomaston...so off we went...Mother Goose in the lead.

Shortly after Take-off I switched to Thomastons Unicom Frequency to monitor what kind of traffic they had. For the first time in a Loooong time I heard a continuous stream of aircraft reporting inbound, downwind, base, and final !!!
Aircraft were arriving from all over the Southeast US....I was beginning to worry a little. I switched back to our air-to-air frequency and told my flock to stay close and I would try to lead us all in as a group. But I told them to watch closely for traffic and if we all got split up, then to do what they were trained to do. Act like an airplane and enter the pattern with standard radio reporting. They knew what to do. We all switched to Thomastons frequency.

Traffic was EVERYWHERE...Cessnas, Pipers, and all types of WWII military aircraft. Everyone was heading for Thomaston. Listening, I heard Unicom telling everyone to report a 2 mile final. I realized that if we flew a 2 mile final, we would hold up the progression of traffic so I radioed to Thomaston Unicom we had a flight of four ultralights approaching from the SW, and asked if they wanted us to fly a 2 mile final also. "Affirmative...keep all the traffic in Sync" was the reply. So in we went...entering the pattern and watching all the traffic whiz past us off to our right while on down-wind. I was reporting our position as a "Group" of ultralights on regular intervals just to let everyone know where we were. We turned base when it was our turn...but looking to the right I could see a Vietman era "push-pull" Cessna on a long straight in final that at first appeared to be in conflict with our approach. I radioed again we were on base...and he evidently powered up when he heard me....he passed in front just before we turned onto "final". I radioed "Flight of four Ultralights turning final.....number 3 behind the Cessna Skymaster" After a brief pause...I heard Thomaston Unicom radio to us..."Ultralights...can you speed up your approach?" Not knowing what else to say I radioed back "Thomaston...were peddeling as fast as we can!" I found out later they were boradcasting radio traffic over the loudspeaker for the spectators....everyone got a big "chuckle" over my transmission.

We spent the day watching aerobatics, WWII aircraft, and discussing Ultralights with what seemed like everyone that came to the airshow. Our planes were a big hit.

The return flight that afternoon was great!!! Warm, with a 20mph tailwind. Unfortunately the batteries in Docs radio had died. My pleas to him to move over went un-heard...so I spent the entire flight home in CLOSE formation with Doc. I'm sure he was having flashbacks to bombing raids over Germany...boy they must of flown close formation!!!

Chad Hilbert

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