Those of you that attended the Newcastle airshow recently would have seen a Boeing 737 with that Goodyear Eagles in formation. Zwartkop spectators witnessed a spectacular display of a Mango 737 with the Silver Falcons in formation. Airliners are always a crowd pleaser at an airshow but it's a tricky business putting on the display.
South African Airways proudly displays its aircraft at some of the country's major air shows. Most recently, the crowds at the African Aerospace and Defense expo witnessed an excellent demonstration of an Airbus A340 flying in formation with the South African Air Force Silver Falcons team. Another crowd pleaser at the event was formation of two Boeing 737 freighter aircraft. Captain Johnny Woods was the pilot in command of the A340. Captains Scully Levin and Pierre Gouws were the pilots in command of the 737s. A week later, Captain Woods took the A340 to the Mafeking air show where he again flew in formation with the Silver Falcons.
Flying an airliner at an air show is a lot more challenging than flying an aerobatic aircraft. Airliners don't have a bubble canopy and the wings are a long way behind and often not visible to the pilots. Safety is of paramount importance when flying displays; so meticulous planning is involved long before the display can be flown.
SAA for example, only allows certain pilots to fly air show displays. There are designated display pilots on each fleet of aircraft. Display pilots have completed both simulator and practical training and have been tested by a display authorised examiner. Pilots flying in formation must obviously have had years of formation flying experience and their formation authorisation must be current. I speak on behalf of South African Airways but all airlines have much the same standards and procedures.
SAA have a standard display, which is the same for all fleets of aircraft. The format has been standardised because it is safe and well within the operating parameters of the aircraft. Most importantly, it displays the aircraft's characteristics and livery in the best possible manner. Remember, promoting the company is the reason the display happens.
The first step before flying a display is for the pilot to practice in the simulator. The aircraft is going to be operated outside its normal fleet parameters so there will be warnings sounding. The pilot must be aware of what the warnings are and those, which can be ignored. The aircraft will, for example, warn the pilot if it gets too close to the ground with the landing gear retracted. Thus, when the aircraft is doing a low fly past, this warning can be ignored. It is important, however, that the pilots don't simply ignore all warnings. Every time a display is flown, there is a safety pilot on the flight deck. He spends his time looking over the shoulders of the pilots to make sure that they don't, while concentrating on the flying, miss something important. Flying an air show display is an absorbing task for the crew so an extra pair of eyes helps to ensure a safe operation.
The next step in the preparation is for the pilots to fly the display in a light aircraft at the venue. This helps them become familiar with the terrain and any airspace restrictions. They will also attend the pilots briefing before the air show begins.
Once all the practice has been completed, the plan is finalised. The most important rule for the pilots is; never deviate from the plan. Safety must never be compromised so if something happens that wasn't in the plan, the show must be stopped.
Flying an airliner at an air show costs a lot of money. South African Airways displays are always sponsored, so that the cost is never passed on to the customer. Often, the airframe or engine manufacturers sponsor the display, as it is also their product on display.
Airliner display flights are always very popular at air shows. The crowds enjoy watching the display as much as the pilots enjoy flying it. We are fortunate that airlines see the value in presenting their aircraft at air shows and that they are prepared to train pilots to entertain the people on the ground.