Blackjack Squadron's ace pilots turn precision into performance

ARLINGTON — On most Saturday mornings, a group of men gathers at the municipal airport's Gateway Cafe and goes over complex diagrams.

Then they take to the air, turning the diagrams into crowd-pleasing displays of formation flying, with a dozen or more airplanes rising and falling, twisting and turning, spiraling and soaring as if they're joined in a single unit.

The pilots are members of the Blackjack Squadron, and they'll be performing during the Arlington EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Fly-In through Sunday. They'll put on five shows, part of about 20 free displays they'll do throughout the summer. The squadron members don't receive any money; it's simply something they love to do.

Like many parts of the fly-in, the squadron started with less-ambitious expectations.

The members fly planes they build themselves from kits produced in Oregon.

The founders include Marty Foy, a former airline pilot from Kirkland, and Wes Schierman, a former Air Force pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.

"I built mine in 1984 and started flying aerobatics," says Foy, gesturing toward his blue-and-white RV-4, parked on a taxiway. "I've been flying all my life, since I was 15. ... The thing just kept growing. Today we have about 27 guys."

The Blackjack name came through a fluke, when the original pilots were flying into an air show at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Foy was asked for a call sign. On a whim, he said, "Blackjack."

Now the name appears on the planes and even on shirts.

The squadron is made up of retired aviators and others who work full time; some members can be found at the airport almost daily, while others mostly make it on weekends.

Still, the procedures are always similar, starting with the pre-flight briefing, where the formations are laid out, determining whether the planes will form into patterns with names such as Airplane, Delta and Arrow.

"We'll go at 120 (mph). We'll level off at 3,500 feet," Foy says during a briefing, and everyone nods. "I'll do a 90-degree turn to the right and a 90-degree turn to the left, and that ought to be enough. We'll go from Arrow to Airplane."

There are some jokes about whether to wear parachutes; someone offers to lend a passenger a spare that doesn't work.

Then it's into the planes, all variations of a design produced by Van's Aircraft of Aurora, Ore. Some 3,300 of the kit planes have been completed and are flying; about 35 are based at Arlington.

On this trip, Jim Wilson, an Arlington resident who's been flying out of the airport here since 1972, is taking a passenger in his RV-8, completed two years ago.

The plane, like all RVs, is a low-wing monoplane. This version seats two people in tandem seats and is powered by a 180-horsepower Lycoming engine. It'll cruise at more than 200 mph and climb at 2,500 feet per minute.

Getting in means stepping into a scrunched seat behind Wilson and stretching into foot wells on either side of the pilot's seat. A sliding canopy is pulled forward to enclose the cockpit.

It's not much like a commercial airliner. Wilson warns about avoiding the control stick, which emerges from the floor, and the throttle, protruding from the left side of the cockpit. When he tests the main throttle, the duplicate control in the rear cockpit hits the passenger's knee.

Wilson motions toward another RV on the taxiway.

"There'll be about three feet of distance between our wingtips," he says. "You can't believe the incredible, intense hours it takes to learn this."

Takeoff is at 11 a.m., and one by one, the engines cough to life, then settle to a steady vibration. The planes form into a staggered sequence for takeoff. Wilson's plane is positioned slightly behind and to the left of a jet-black RV-8 flown by Tom Roberts, a Queen Anne dentist.

There's no long takeoff roll. Instead, Wilson revs the engine and in what seems about 50 feet the plane is airborne.

With unrestricted upward and 360-degree lateral visibility, the view is spectacular. Seeing Roberts and Hinchen in the black RV is like seeing someone in the next car at a stoplight, but the planes are a half-mile high and moving faster than 100 mph.

Then Wilson separates from the rest of the squadron, partly to provide a better view, and the remaining planes go into formations.

On this day, the squadron moves into a trailing formation and goes into a series of barrel rolls.

Seen from above, the entire route is visible. The display presents a hypnotic spectacle that looks mostly like a playful flight of birds chasing one another over hills and along valleys, following a precise pattern. First one plane reaches a particular point and then 10 succeeding planes make exactly the same move.

Then Wilson goes back to the Arlington runway, touching down so gently it's impossible to tell where air stops and ground begins.

He pulls to the side of the airstrip and pushes back the canopy to watch the rest of the planes arrive: They come over the field in the trailing formation, then again do a precise break, roll to the left and come in one behind the other, swinging along the taxiway and ending up in a line in front of the Gateway Cafe.

"We do have a good time," Wilson says.

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or