The crowd would never miss them and they wouldn’t let it down. The IAF aerobatic team told us about the thin line between spectacular and dangerous, between accuracy and precision. The team shared experiences on the T-6 Texan II and revealed several innovative moves you may get to see in upcoming ceremonies
Jhonathan Maroz | Photography: Nehemia Gershoni & Tal Shoam | Translation: Loren Mashiah
Two men are entering the room, carrying a heavy TV. They pop in a video and press the play button. Some would become very embarrassed in these sorts of scenarios. The camera has no mercy, and that could be confirmed by anyone who has ever been caught by an unflattering lens. Somehow it always manages to capture your unattractive side, but the guys in the room sitting in front of the TV, staring with admirable concentration at the screen, are actually looking forward to the observing their unsuccessful feats. They are well aware of the fact that they will only be criticized based on their executions.
“Guys, during our next training session we’ll be conducting this exercise ten more times”, says Major Eyal, Commander of the Fight instruction Formation and a leading pilot of the Aerobatic team. The ‘Guys’ don’t attempt to argue, and know that there is no point in trying to change this verdict. They are already used to it; besides, he is right. The photography shows that not all stunts were flawless and the show is only hours away.
“As a pilot on the Aerobatic Team, you can constantly lose”, shares Major Amit, who is also a member of the unit. “Why, you may ask? Because if you complete everything perfectly and do everything on the best terms people will say ‘Good Job, nice performance’, but if you make the smallest mistake, it will be remembered for the rest of your life”, smiles Major Amit as he points toward the hanging picture on the wall.
A black and white picture is displayed in the corridor of the formation’s club house, showing four airplanes of the Aerobatics team flying in a formation. Anyone who might lay eyes on the picture will probably believe that he is looking at another glorious keepsake for the old generations of the team. But if you take the slightest look up you would soon realize that a blunt, throbbing word is hanging from above. A word so big, that even the sight-impaired would have trouble missing it: “FAILURE’.
What failure are they talking about? “If you look closely, there is one airplane that didn’t keep up with the rest”, says Captain Yakir, a pilot of the unit. I take another look. I see nothing. “This picture has been here for 50 years”, says Major Amit. “Your smallest mistake will be documented right on this wall, for years, probably until my grandchild will arrive at the Pilot Training Course”.
Paintings in the Sky
” Have you already written about our pedantry?” asks Major Amit curiously. The word “Pedantry” in relations to the aerobatic team seems like an understatement. They won’t forgive themselves for a microscopic inaccuracy during a flight, god forbid a substantial mistake.
Their need to examine the tiniest mistake in each flight makes you wonder, but there’s no way to understand it. When you’re supposed to maneuver over a yard full of people, while using the sky as a canvas, flying a meter and a half away from three other airplanes, I would guess, wouldn’t be that bad. “We can find the littlest errors in a flight that someone else would call perfect.
It’s important for us to fix every fault”, says Captain Yakir. “If anyone gets too comfortable and does things he’s not supposed to, not could only he get injured but also one of the other five people and four aircrafts with him. Before we train, I eat, drink and get a good night’s sleep. Before every take off I remember that I have a wife and kid waiting for me at home and if anyone here will dare to do something I don’t approve of, he will have to face the consequences. I will be the first to face the consequences if I break the obvious rules we have, since this might be the most complicated type flight within the IAF”.
Not everyone can be a part of the unique team. All members are active combat pilots, experienced instructors of the IAF’s Aviation Academy. They are all authorized to fly the new T-6 Texan instead of the CM-170.
Members of this team are required to apply unique abilities which probably cannot be found in any other squadron of the IAF. “Though you might be able to measure our flight capability level, you won’t hear from me that our pilots are better than others”, says major Amit. “We need people with experience. We don’t have the best or worst pilots but pilots we can trust”.
These people have countless identities. On most days they are IAF officers. In addition they are Aerial Fighters who never miss an emergency call from the operational squadron. During Pilot Training Course graduation ceremonies and on the Israeli Independence Day, they put on white aviation overalls, get up into the cockpit, not in preparation of attacking a terrorist tunnel or launching a threatening missile, but to deliver the most energetic and enthusiastic show out of themselves and their airplanes.
Knowledge Prevents Fear
Their flights are equivalent to ant work in the sense that any slight change affects the pilot’s next step. “For example, when we perform a ‘loop’”, says Major Amit. “Each and every one of us knows the precise orders of operations. We know what to do with our hands, legs, aviation equipment, countervailing and maneuvering power. We know exactly how to manage things before and during practice. For example, if there is a sudden change of speed or altitude, the maneuvering pressures change as well. It’s plain professionalism”.
It might look as straight as a ruler from the cockpit, but for the people sitting in the audience things look very different.
people came to see action: the shockingly deafening sounds of a low aviating airplane, which you can nearly touch, watching a pair of airplanes flying so close to that it seems as if they’re trying to ‘high five’ one another. It’s thrilling because of the fear, not only the audience’s but for the aerobatic team as well-for whom it’s actually a positive thing.
“Our problems as pilots and fighters begin when we stop being scared”, states Major Amit. “I think that fear sharpens your senses, makes you feel focused in anything you do, because if you’re not sharp something bad will happen. On the other hand is complacence, which can get you in trouble. The other side of fear is panic. Panic paralyzes you, hurts your executions. Fortunately, we’re not in that boat”.
One specific reason prevents the pilots from fearing their tricks amongst the clouds: mutual trust in each other. They owe their lived to each other’s precautions. “When I perform I look only to the team leader”, says Major Amit who flies the ‘punch’, the last airplane within the structure. “Two other pilots are flying in the wings and I don’t pay any attention to them. They can perform their tricks by heart and I know that if there’s a problem and they extend from their place they will take initiative and end the training session in a way which won’t hurt me. I trust them with my eyes closed, I can fly two meters from their wings with my propeller without even glancing at them”.
Feels like Forever
It’s show Time. The flyover has begun. The so called leader is the one everyone’s looking at. “We focus on performing the whole structure in the right place and the right time, performing everything we practiced so that its looks beautiful to the audience and is still safe”, explains Captain Roni who operates as a leader. “You try to see when to extend your loop, when to begin the turn and whether you’re flying in the right altitude. If we’re too low, it might be impressive but most definitely not safe. It’s also not good to fly too high because it might be safer but much less beautiful to the audience”.
“They are five minutes of total focus. I don’t even know whether I blink during the performance”, says Captain Yakir. “You’re in a situation when you always have to be ready, you’re always working. When the show ends after the final rose you say ‘wow!’ You finally take your first breath”.
The show has ended-and it’s time for the national anthem. Officers put on their caps and salute. The team members up in the sky also take part of the national anthem as someone sings the anthem on their communications network, and in perfect coordination they fly when the last note is sung. “During the performance, we get an adrenaline rush which only enhances our power and concentration”, says Captain Roni. “When the evening arrives you feel empty. You feel as if a big hole has formed within you. Everything you worked for is over and you start counting days until you get to do it again”.