Heritage Flight

By Jeff Rhodes
Photos By John Rossino

It was a most unusual formation. A World War II-era P-51 was flying slightly nose low to maintain as much speed as possible, its Merlin engine humming at very high rpm, the sun glinting off the Mustang’s metal skin. Tight on its right wing was an F-22 Raptor in low-visibility gray coatings, at wings level, with its Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engines set at cruise. The scene was literally a moving picture of sixty years of US Air Force history.

“The P-51 shows where the US Air Force came from, and the F-22 represents where it is today,” says Lt. Col. Michael Shower, the Raptor pilot. “People love seeing the old aircraft flying with the new stuff. They think that is really cool. A formation like that builds appreciation and support for the Air Force.”

This unusual formation occurred in early March during Air Combat Command’s annual Heritage Flight Conference held at Davis-Monthan AFB, in Tucson, Arizona. During the three-day conference and training session, current Air Force fighters like the F-16, A-10, F-15C, and F-15E are flown in formation with vintage aircraft from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. This conference was the first time the F-22 attended.

ACC leadership assembled a select group of retired military and civilian pilots at Nellis AFB, Nevada, in 1997 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Air Force. From this gathering, the Heritage Flight was born. “What started out as a one-time event has grown in popularity and demand,” says Mark Thibeault, Heritage Flight coordinator, a civilian position at ACC headquarters at Langley AFB, Virginia. “Now, Heritage Flights are performed at airshows and special events in the United States and around the world.”

The Heritage Flight program is one of many programs managed by the ACC Aerial Events Branch. It also manages such programs as single-ship demonstration teams and airshow flyovers. “Two people manage the Heritage Flight, one as the primary point of contact for the program and the other as funding manager,” notes Thibeault. The Aerial Events Branch publishes the regulations for Heritage Flight participants after coordinating with Standardization/Evaluation, Safety, and other relevant command offices.

The Heritage Flight pilots receive training before flying airshows. The warbird owners and pilots are encouraged to attend the annual training conference, but attendance is required for pilots new to airshows. New pilots also go through a one-year probationary period. The ACC demonstration team pilots and F-15E weapon system officers are required to attend each year. The ACC demonstration pilots volunteer for a two-year tour.

“The conference prepares us for the airshow season,” notes Shower, who was selected as the F-22 demonstration pilot in large part because he has the most flight time in the Raptor among pilots in the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley AFB, Virginia, the first operational F-22 squadron. “The Air Force pilots get the warbird pilots on our wing, and we work on timing and spacing. That way, we all gain confidence flying with each other.”

This year, a P-40 Warhawk, a P-47 Thunderbolt, and four P-51s formed the privately owned World War II aircraft contingent, while a civilian F-86 Sabre represented the Korean War. An Air Force crew flew a QF-4 full-scale target drone painted to represent an operational Vietnam-era Phantom II. “We have absolutely no difficulties flying the Raptor with dissimilar aircraft,” Shower says. “Flying with propeller-driven aircraft from World War II is not a problem. Flying with the F-86, I go a little faster. The F-22 allows me to go as fast or as slow as I need to go.”

The pilots fly two or three sorties a day during the Heritage Flight Conference. The first flight on the first day is a two-ship formation. The second flight is a two-ship with a different warbird, or a three-ship formation. By the last day, the pilots are flying four-ship formations with two current operational aircraft and two warbirds.

A standard routine is flown on all the flights: an arching pass, flying right to left; then the pilots reposition for a flat pass from left to right in front of the crowd; and for the finale, the aircraft are flown from behind the crowd line and either split up or cross in front of each other at the show line, and then finish with an aileron roll. The three passes make for an eight- to ten-minute demonstration. “These maneuvers were chosen because they offer the crowd the best views of the aircraft,” Thibeault notes.

In addition to the formation flights with the warbirds, the F-16, A-10, and F-15 demonstration pilots also had a chance to practice their single-ship routines. As always, the maintainers kept the show aircraft clean and highly polished. These flights also gave them, the pilots and ground crew the opportunity to practice their pre- and post-flight routines to keep them sharp.

Although there have been single-ship F-22 demonstrations at airshows before, the 2006 season is the first busy year for Raptor demonstrations to the public. “The public has shown a lot of interest in the F-22,” says Lt. Col. Jim Hecker, the 27th Fighter Squadron commander. “People want to see the newest aircraft and what it can do.” Indeed, every time the F-22’s engines were started, pilots, maintainers, and support personnel on the Davis-Monthan ramp stopped what they were doing to watch. “Even other pilots are excited to see the F-22,” adds Hecker. “We’re glad we are able to show the Raptor to them.”

The F-22 single-ship demonstration this year is relatively straightforward. It consists of a maximum climb to the vertical after takeoff, bleeding off excess speed and power