The long holding pattern over Lake Winnebago turned into an hour, and still there was no word from OSH tower as to when we would be allowed to land. Guys began to complain about running low on fuel. Mongoose ordered a fuel check. Each of the 12 aircraft reported how much time he had left till “Bingo.”
A discussion developed between a few aircraft on where to go. In the briefing Mongoose had said that Fond du Lac (FLD), 20 miles south was the best alternate. FLD was an over-flow airfield for Oshkosh.
But now we realized that with OSH being closed, many more aircraft inbound to OSH would divert to FLD. Thus FLD might be saturated. A 12-plane formation showing up there with no notice to the tower could produce a nasty situation.
Appleton airport and Sheboygan were suggested, and Appleton was settled upon as the Bingo airfield. Mongoose had the seriously hectic job of mitigating this radio discussion, while leading the formation, while monitoring OSH tower with his other radio.
Aircraft were in different fuel states. Some had taken off with less than full tanks. Some planes had more fuel capacity than others. Mongoose identified the guys who were in the most serious trouble and those who had at least 30 minutes before Bingo. Then one guy said, “I’ve got five minutes to Bingo!” Mongoose told him the tower was about to open the airfield again. He called for all of us to switch to OSH tower frequency.
All 12 of us checked in on tower frequency. The tower controller was talking to some vehicles on the ground and some other aircraft. He told Mongoose that we could land in five minutes. Mongoose told the flight leaders to go into echelon and prepare for a 360 degree overhead pattern. The tower controller said, “NO! NO OVERHEADS, PERIOD! WE ARE TOO BUSY FOR THAT!”
Mongoose said, “Okay, but that’s the quickest way we can get these planes on the ground.”
The tower said, “I don’t care how you do it, but no overheads!”
This was highly unusual, as overheads are commonly used for arriving warbirds at AirVenture. Now Mongoose had a serious problem on his hands. There is no efficient and reasonably safe way to spread 12 planes out in a long string so as to land one at a time, and do it in radio silence and without pre-briefing it.
Mongoose began issuing instructions to us as to what he wanted us to do. The tower controller turned even more irate. “RED STAR FLIGHT I NEED THIS FREQUENCY. QUITE TALKING ON IT!”
Mongoose was ‘once a fighter pilot’ (as the saying goes) and these were fightin’ words. I could imagine his face flashing through shades of rubicund. He stepped up his voice. “TOWER, I’VE GOT TO CONFIGURE MY FLIGHT FOR SINGLE SHIP STRAIGHT-IN APPROACHES. THERE ARE NO HAND SIGNALS FOR THAT!’
Tower: “I DON’T CARE HOW YOU DO IT, JUST DON’T BOTHER ME RIGHT NOW! YOU’RE ALL CLEARED TO LAND RUNWAY 27.”
Mongoose wisely backed-down and issued one quick order. "Take spacing for straight-ins." We all knew what he meant, but many details were necessarily left out. We would have to use our own judgement.
Somehow the flight managed to string its self out and turn toward the airport. The second group of six was still in front of us, so I got a good view of Mongoose in front of me and the six in front of him. Since we never briefed this possibility (And why? Who could have anticipated that the tower would not cooperate?) our intervals ranged from a couple hundred feet to a quarter mile. It was a FUBAR affair if I’ve ever seen one.
With our leader in the middle instead of out front where he should be and wanted to be, we must have looked like a ragged bunch coming in at so many different intervals. And, without pre-briefed guidance, guys flew at different airspeeds and began throwing out their gear at all different points along the approach. This of course created even more problems as portions of the line inevitably bunched-up.
Some started S-Turning to keep their spacing from getting too close. S-Turning is a good way to increase your spacing between you and an airplane in front of you, but it can create a dangerous situation because you tend to get slow, your bank angle increases, and thus so does your stall speed. This is why S-Turns are prohibited on the normal arrival route into AirVenture.
We had no choice but to do it, and the tower didn’t care—he probably was too busy with whatever else was demanding his attention. (Runways 35 left and right were still closed due to the accident.)
I put my gear down and checked for three green and pressure. I looked ahead and checked Mongoose’s gear. It was down. Then I looked at the guy in front of him, who was nearing the runway.
His was up.
Recall from the previous post, this was the guy who got too far out, lost sight and broke out. We thought he had crashed into the water. I was about to press my mic button to warn him when I heard Mongoose warn him.
When a guy is about to land gear up, you don’t take that extra second or two to remember his call sign, you just yell the first warning that comes to your mind, and you yell it loud. “CHECK GEAR! CHECK GEAR! CHECK GEAR!” Mongoose yelled. Of course everybody in the flight instinctively checked their gear, including the guy who needed to hear it. It was then that I saw him commit his third mistake of the day. Instead of powering up and going around—as he should have—he put his gear down very close to the runway, from my perspective, and landed.
We all got down safely and taxied back to our spots. I shut down and looked over at Mongoose. He looked back and shook his head like a resigned tutor over a hopeless pupil.
Back at the warbird tent the debriefing was heated and long. Accusations flew. Fingers pointed. A guy sitting behind me told me, “Why did you throw your gear out so soon? I almost ran up your ass!”
I turned to him. “To keep from running up the ass of the guy in front of me!”
Mongoose told everybody to calm down. He pointed at the guy who almost landed gear-up and grinned. “Dude, you owe me big!”
Embarrassed, the guy tried to smile. “You’re right, Rich. I’ll buy you beer the rest of your life.”
Then Mongoose turned somber and reviewed the proper break-out procedure when you lose sight. That was Mongoose’s way. He always criticized with constructive instruction. He never condemned or scolded.
Finally, the debriefing cooled down and ended. I rejoined my friends from my old pilot training class, who were standing at the door of the tent and listening. I spent the rest of the day with them walking around the grounds, looking at planes and watching the airshows. We did a lot of ruminating about old times. We would stop at a plane, tell an old story, laugh and go on.
Despite the botched formation I enjoyed myself that day as much as any in my life. And it was only Day 1 at Oshkosh.
Taxi out and run-up