IAF Magazine Articles

Artistry in the Sky

The people gathered in the crowd did not allow themselves to miss them and they did not allow themselves to miss a millimeter. Three pilots of the Air Force's Aviation Acrobatics team share experiences from their new plane and discuss how many new maneuvers might appear at the next wings ceremony

Two men drag forward a heavy television, put in a videotape and press play. In cases like these, sometimes there are those who feel a little embarrassed. Anyone that ever had the misfortune of finding themselves trapped by the camera's lens.
Somehow, it always seems to capture the less complimentary side, but the people sitting down in the room now, looking with concentration at the screen, only want to see what didn't work. Even they know that they are measured by their overall performance.
"Men, the next time we will do this exercise 10 times", gruffs Captain Eyal, commander of the flight guide squadron and a leading pilot in the Aviation Acrobatics team. The men don't argue. They are used to their orders and he is correct. The pictures show that not all the exercises were perfect and their next performance is to begin in a few hours.
"As a pilot in the Aviation Acrobatics team you only have what to lose", shares Major Amit, another pilot in the team. "Why? Because if you do everything perfectly and are the best that you can be, then they will tell you 'great, good performance', like those who preceded you. But if you make the smallest of blunders, they will remind you the rest of your life", he says as he points at a picture.
A black and white photograph hangs on the wall of the Squadron's clubhouse. Four planes of the Aviation Acrobatics team fly in formation, a seemingly glorious memento of the team's heritage. But upon glancing upward, you see a stinging word written in bold letters: "The Blunder".
What Blunder? "If you look closely, there is one plane moving backwards", explains Captain Yakir, another of the team's pilots.
I look but don't see anything. "This picture has been hanging here for 50 years already", says Major Amit. "You make the smallest mistake and your name will be engraved here on the wall, probably until my grandson gets to pilots course".

Flying with Precision

"Well, you have already written about our pedantry?" Says Major Amit curiously. The word pedantic seems like an understatement with regards to the Aviation Acrobatics team. They won't forgive themselves of any microscopic imprecision not to mention large ones.
But their pedantry should be expected. When you are supposed to maneuver over a gallery packed with people, to use the sky as a canvas and to fly with just a meter and a half between yourself and the three planes around you, a little pedantry doesn't hurt. "We can find small flaws in what can be seeing from the side as wonderful executions. It is important to us to correct ever flaw", says Captain Yakir.
Behind what appears to the audience as a flight filled with youthful spirit, is primarily considerable restraint. Every movement is measured with precision. "There isn't a millimeter for games or a centimeter for mistakes", says Major Amit. "Those who feel too comfortable and do something that he is not supposed to do, he can immediately hit, in the full sense of the word, another five people and four planes. Before we train, I eat and drink properly and don't miss any sleep, not even a minute. Every trip I make, I remember that I have a wife and a child waiting at home and if anyone here dares do something that I don't like, he will get a 'rinse'. I will be the first to get 'washed' if I do something outside the framework of the completely clear laws and regulations that we have, because this is maybe the most complicated flight there is in the Air Force".
Indeed, not every pilot can be a member of the team. Every member is an active fighter pilot or a senior instructor in the Air Force's flight school and beginning this year, are experienced pilots of the "Efroni" Texan T-6, the successor of the Tzukit plane.

The joy of flight

There is no parallel to the abilities they demonstrate in this flight and yet, they don't think that their level of flight ability exceeds that of any other pilot in the corps.
"Yes, one can measure flight level, but you won't get me to admit that we have better pilots here than in other squadrons", says Major Amit. "Here we want a group with experience. Just like I cut the vegetables and my wife is the cook, so too here do we divide the tasks to everyone and what suits him. The better pilots don't fly here and also not the worst. These are people you can trust".
For most of the year, these men are officers in the Air Force, everyone at his post. Additionally, they are air-crew fighters in every respect, not to mention the emergency teams in an operational squadron.
But in the wings ceremony and on independence day, they put on their bright white flight suits and climb into the cockpit in another mindset, not in order to attack a terrorist tunnel or to intercept a threatening aircraft, rather with the goal of extracting from themselves and from the plane the most energetic and exciting show possible.
"Since this is not an operational mission, the approach here is different", explains Captain Yakir.
"The thing that controls us here is the joy of flight, the fun. This is one of the values that is important for us to pass on to the Air Force Cadets, who look at us and know that that is where they aspire to. This is perhaps the main difference between a combat flight and what we do: this magic, that when flying low you see everything up close and also the experience, its not just yours like in a combat flight, rather it is carried forward to the crowd, for all of the State of Israel, for anyone who sees".

 

 

 

Knowledge Prevents Fear

The men of the IAF's Aviation Acrobatics team find themselves confronted by challenges they don't see in their regular service, all in an effort to provide the IAF wings ceremony with a little showmanship.
"I think that this is the only place in the known world of flight that the true challenge operates on the hands and feet", declares Major Amit. "In every operational mission, the biggest challenge is the planning and how we ended up performing it. This process goes through your head and in the end you really need to guide the missile to the target or bring in the right photograph. Here, you know that you keep the plane in place with your hands, feet and natural features you have. This is a challenge you don't find in any other place in combat flying".
To make matters more complicated, each sequence of the team's performance is planned to the small of details and every small change affects the next step the pilot takes.
"Suppose, for example, that we are performing a loop", illustrates Major Amit. "Each and every one of us knows exactly what is the sequence of operation that he needs to perform with his hands, feet, flight instruments, the deduction and the controls. We know exactly what to do according to the exercise and at every stage during it. If, for example, there is a change in speed or altitude, the pressures on the controls change and in doing so our actions on the plane change. That is professionalism when you go down into the minutiae of flying the plane".
The crowd, however, never notices these small changes or details. All they see is the precision with which these Air Force pilots fly, instilling within them a sense of pride for their military and their country.

The real problem

But really, the crowd comes for the action: to slightly go deaf from the noise of the plane maneuvering low enough you can almost touch it, or to watch a pair of planes flying so close to one another that one might think one of the pilots just couldn't resist giving the other plane a really 'high five'.
Part of the excitement stems from the fear that at any moment, one false move might end the show in a split second. However, the team members actually consider the fear an advantage.
"Our problems as pilots and fighters begin when we stopping being afraid", says Major Amit. "Fear, I feel, is an element that sharpens the senses, makes you be very precise in everything you do because otherwise something bad will happen. At the opposite end of the scale is complacency and when you are complacent, you'll get hurt. The other side of fear is panic. Panic paralyzes, is not good and damages performance but this is not our situation".
One major factor preventing pilots and their crews from panicking while maneuvering through the clouds is the mutual and absolute trust between them.
Each and every one of them owes their lives to the caution demonstrated by the others.
"When I perform the exercises, I sit and look only at the team leader", says Major Amit, the member of the team responsible for flying the "box", or the last plane in the formation. "Two other pilots are sitting on my wings and I don't relate to them in any way. They dance and do their exercises and in my heart I know that were any problem to arise, they would leave their places and would stop the exercise in a way that wouldn't hurt me. I trust them with my eyes closed when I allow myself to fly with my propeller two meters away from their wing without looking at them at all".

Not Seeing with the Eyes

The trust and security of every member of the team is concentrated, above all, on one plane: the formation leader.
The crew in the lead plane sees, plans and thinks for five men who depend on every piece of information or flight instruction they give, precisely why the leading plane has two crew members.
"We don't see that much during the flight and what we hear are the directions and our breathing", says Major Amit. "The only thing we pay attention to is the leading plane. Whatever he does, we do together with him. We don't know our altitude, we don't know where we are in the world and we have no idea what is going on with our plane, except that we are sitting in a formation assembled around the leader and maneuver exactly as he tells us. If he makes a mistake, everyone makes a mistake with him. Therefore, the atmosphere here within the group must be very close and intimate. Any bad thing that someone does, I know about it and he can know about all of my mistakes. So I have to trust him that he will take me to the right place".
It should be noted that no one was thrown into the boiling water of Aviation Acrobatics without preparation. Initial pilot training lasts around three months during which the pilot performs around 50 flights.
"It's not like you can come and perform this flight from the moment you were chosen to be a part of the team", says Captain Yakir. "It's something quite unlikely, impossible and very dangerous. We execute the training gradually. At first, only the leader and an additional plane go up to perform the flights and this is also done at a higher altitude in order to distance ourselves from the ground".
Slowly, they come closer to the ground and add more planes to the formation until the pilot is skilled enough and has become integrated into the quartet. "We also train in the case of failure, during which someone is not in order and now you learn how to get out of it without crashing into the other planes".

What a Show

7:00 AM. The Hatzerim Air Force Base is still mostly sleeping but the Aviation Acrobatics team is already in the midst of a dress rehearsal as their friends are supposed to emerge soon from the ceremony grounds.
At first, you hear the sound of a single engine and then suddenly, without warning, you see four Efroni planes in a "rose" formation coming out of the skies that were empty just moments before.
"We go up into a 'loop' and on the vertical drop we spread out into a quartet", explains Captain Ronnie, navigator of the leading plane and the man responsible for making the exercise seem fairly simple. "This time we are practicing two different performances for two different situations: one for good weather like there is today and that is called the vertical show. On the other hand, in the winter it could be a cloudy day and then we perform a performance where the exercises are a little more horizontal. This is essentially how we build the show, which lasts five and a half minutes. We know exactly where we need to be, when and where, as this thing we call the wings ceremony is scheduled to the second. There are a lot of changes that the audience is unaware of throughout the performance. We are just one part of everything but even in this small part we try to be the most accurate".

Like in Australia

Those chosen give the Efroni Planes their inaugural flight at the wings ceremony, each one of them, Major Eyal, Captain Ronnie, Major Ehud, Captain Yakir and Major Amit, have had at least a year of experience on the Efroni planes, the reason they were chosen to assist the absorption of the plane within the team.
However, its hard to say that everything went smoothly: the smoke emission mechanism suffered from a malfunction and only due to the hard work of the technical staff of the Aviation Acrobatics team, was the crowd able to enjoy the traditional white smoke the plane emits.
At the same time, the pilots from the Tzukit generation had to get used to the new plane and learn it well.
"The most striking difference between the planes is the dynamic nature of the Efroni compared to that of the Tzukit", says Captain Yakir. "The Efroni is significantly more energetic, which is what enables you to increase your work pace. You need to work much harder. The second thing: since we are talking about a propeller plane, leg and yawing (aeronautic language) work come into play. This combination of rolling, pitching and yawing is something you have to get used to. In the Tzukit it was much less significant".
In order to discover the plane's true potential, the Air Force began a search for people and organizations with a good amount of experience flying the Efroni. They found what they were looking for in Australia and sent Major Eyal and Major Ehud to the homeland of the kangaroo to exchange methods and ideas.
"We learned a lot of new exercises, which we are slowly putting into the sequence", promises Major Amit. "The Efroni enables us to perform much more complex and spectacular elements for the audience compared to the Tzukit because the plane is more 'alive' in the sky and it has a lot more power. I believe that already for Independence Day we will put into the flight more complex elements".
What exactly did we learn from the Australians?
"We learned how to perform aviation acrobatic exercises for one or two of the planes from the formation around the rest of the formation. Additionally, we learned how to produce a movement within the formation, that is to say a formation that changes within it".
For a better idea of what that means, try to imagine a quartet of Efroni planes playing musical chairs directly over your head.

"When to pull the loop"

That's it. The show began, everyone focused on the lead plain.
"We concentrate on bringing the entire formation to the right place in the right time to give the performance as we trained so that it will be as great as possible for the crowd and also safe", explains Captain Ronnie of his role as formation leader. "We try to judge when to pull the loop, when to begin the turn, if we are flying at the right height. If we are too low, maybe it will be more impressive but its not safe. Its also not good to be too high because despite the fact that its safe, its not good in the eyes of the audience".
In one of the more well-known exercises, one the members of the team love to execute no less than the crowd does to watch, the planes emit the famous white smoke, drawing a giant heart in the sky.
"In the first stage, three of the plains dive into the audience", describes Captain Yakir. "Upon going back up, two of the 'wings' split to the sides and do not join the leader and the last plane that actually perform the heart itself. They go up until they are pointing vertically upward and there they split turning 90 degrees in both directions and continue as each of them performs half a heart until they meat below. At the end of the drawing of the heart, the two planes that split from the formation perform a very close and impressive switch right in front of the crowd".
In Flight lingo this is called a 'road switch' since there is a line separating the two paths of the planes, one which they are forbidden from crossing.
"As someone who flies on the 'wings' I can tell you that for me this is the highlight of the show. I mainly like this because this is the first time that I succeed in seeing something in this flight", smiles Captain Yakir. "Until that point, the only thing I see is the wing of the leader and I don't know anything about our spatial or orientation status. I only have any idea because of what the leader says and then my head opens and other than looking at the screw on the wing I see that there is a world here".

"You say wow!"

When the pilots have to worry about performing well, all the while making sure that by mistake they don't crash into the plane just meters away, do they feel that the entire ordeal lasts only five and a half minutes?
"No", everyone answers in unison. "Sometimes the weather is like this, when you feel a phenomenon called bumpiness, the air is no stable like in flights abroad on a Jumbo Jet. In a situation like that, five and a half minutes is like forever to us, because the performance is so unstable and you work so hard to maintain your place until you start sweating", adds Major Amit.
"These are simply five and a half minutes of total concentration. I am not sure if I even wink during it", reinforces Captain Yakir. "You are in a situation when you have to be alert at all times. You are always working. When you finish the performance after the last 'rose', you say 'wow!' Suddenly you breathe for the first time".
And with that, the wings ceremony is over. The officers put on their hats and salute. "Hatikva", the Israeli national anthem, is sung and the team members emerge, in perfect unison with the last note.
"During performances we get a crazy adrenaline rush that only enhances the strength and the concentration of the event even more", says Captain Ronnie. "This falling of tension on Thursday night just causes a feeling of emptiness. You have this huge hole that has opened. Everything that you have done up to now is over until the next time".

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