Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 10, 2013
GOLD HILL — The exact time Mike Stewart will be focusing on Saturday night is 7:34:50.
At that moment, he and the 10 other pilots of Team AeroDynamix will be “in the chute,” and turned toward the Charlotte Motor Speedway track. As the national anthem’s last note is played for the start of the Bank of America 500, the team’s 11 planes will roar overhead, brightly lit and spewing out long trails of smoke.
“It will look a lot like a UFO,” predicts Stewart, founder of this formation aerobatics team — the largest in the world.
Compared to what the team normally does at air shows, Saturday night’s job at the speedway is “a relaxing fly-by,” Stewart says.
In less than a half-hour after the flyover, the AeroDynamix team members will breeze into the Gold Hill Airpark, where Stewart and another team leader, Ron Schreck, have their homes.
The team’s RV planes are so quick and nimble — and the pilots equally as precise in their movements — that all 11 planes could line up and land within two minutes of their approach, Stewart says.
The pilots plan to attend a party at Stewart’s house and probably will be there in time to catch the whole Bank of America 500 race on television.
It’s hard to appreciate what Team AeroDynamix does until you see their formation aerobatics in person. As they fly in and out and among each other, a plane’s wings may come as close as 3 feet from the plane next to it.
They’re taking on four-line abreast hammerheads, channel loops and barrel rolls, but what sets them apart is the performance of their aerobatics in formation and, often, at night.
“The smallest mistake, and you’re dead,” Stewart says.
Team AeroDynamix was started by Stewart in 2002. Until this season, it was known as Team RV, reflecting that all the pilots fly Van’s RV aircraft.
Stewart, for one, worried that too many people heard the team’s former name and equated it with recreational vehicles.
The RVs are kit aircraft, and virtually all of the pilots on AeroDynamix have built their planes. (By the end of 2012, according to the manufacturer, about 8,000 RV kits had been completed and flown.)
The small planes have a span of 24 feet, a length of 21 feet and height of 5 feet, 7 inches.
Pilots like them for their high performance and responsiveness, fuel economy and how they can add “cool gadgets” not available in general aviation aircraft, Stewart says.
The pilots themselves come from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Ohio.
Stewart and Schreck live with their families (and planes) in Gold Hill. Ted Sargent resides in Davidson and houses his RV at the Rowan County Airport. Len “Leggs” Leggette lives in Greensboro.
The other pilots include Jon Thocker and Ken Rieder, both of Cincinnati; Bob Gibbons of Sumter, S.C., Tom Dubrouillet of York, S.C., Danny Kight of Anderson, S.C.; Greg Reese of Atlanta, Ga; and Jerry Morris of Dahlonega, Ga.
The backgrounds of the men cover about everything, from Schreck, who is a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and US Airways commercial pilot, to Stewart, a former IBM vice president.
Leggette works in the furniture industry and also is a Realtor, while Sargent is a financial advisor.
Many of the men have built more than one airplane — Kight assembled his first in high school.
Meanwhile, the flight hours of the men vary. Morris is one of the more experienced. Flying since 1968, he has a background in commercial, military, corporate and general aviation flying, logging more than 25,000 hours in upwards of 70 different types of planes.
Despite their long distances apart, the men gather once a week for practices at one of three airports — Stanly County in North Carolina, or Anderson or Sumter airports in South Carolina.
These airports designate air spaces — or aerobatics boxes — in which the team can practice their maneuvers. Prior to Saturday’s run at the Bank of America 500 race, the pilots will gather for a practice session at Stanly County Airport before taking off for the speedway.
Team AeroDynamix’s schedule this year has included 13 air shows from places as far west as Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana to as far east as the Dominican Republic.
At least nine of the shows included a nighttime performance. Besides Charlotte Motor Speedway, the team also did a nighttime NASCAR flyover at Bristol Motor Speedway Aug. 24.
Stewart describes what Team AeroDynamix does as a “choreographed theatrical performance in the sky.” Every pilot’s move depends on another’s, leading Stewart to draw a comparison to the famous Rockettes dancers.
“It’s about the whole line, not one person,” he says.
The pilots actually walk through their routines on the ground before attempting anything in the sky. On a recent day, Stewart, Schreck, Leggette and Sargent walk through the progression of a hammerhead in Stewart’s driveway.
The men say the most challenging thing as team members is achieving the perfect stunt or show — and knowing it will never happen. Every flight will have issues, and that fact mocks their inclination to be perfectionists.
“I think we talk about that frequently,” Sargent says.
What they do is complex and involves a lot of trust.
At air shows, the team has three group leaders: Stewart heads the Alpha group of four RVs; Schreck; the Beta group of four; and Reese, the Charlie group of three planes.
“We keep something front and center at the show at all times,” Stewart says of the 15-minute performances.
The leaders communicate in the air through hand signals or motions of their planes. Talking on the radio is fairly minimal, and except for a few moments, the men follow complete radio silence. With radios, there are too many opportunities to talk over each other or be interrupted by outside conversations.
“World War II could be going on, and I wouldn’t know it,” Stewart says. “… Visual cues and airplane cues always work.”
The team has had as many as 13 planes and pilots, but Stewart says that’s the limit. Safety degrades after that, he adds.
Stewart says new maneuvers have to be introduced gently and judiciously with the pilots, because change also brings in new risks. When the idea of performing at night was first introduced, “you would have thought a nuclear bomb went off,” Stewart recalls.
But everyone eventually agreed. Stewart says if one pilot doesn’t go with a change in choreography, then it doesn’t happen. Changes in the air show routines also are only introduced during a window from November to March, he adds.
“I help massage it,” Stewart says of the maneuvers, “but we decide as a team what we like or don’t like.”
Team AeroDynamix is paid for its performances and paid well, says Stewart, who works at this full-time, unlike the others.
Venues such as Bristol Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway have sought out the private air show performers because the government sequestration has cut out military flyovers.
Stewart says he also has been in talks with the National Football League about possible appearances for the team.
“Our goal,” Stewart says, “is to have the best aerobatic formation team in the world.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.