Precision With a Purpose: A Close Formation Ride-Along with the Phillips 66 Aerostars

8:14 AM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
 Three feet.

That’s the distance between the right wingtip of Paul “Rocket” Hornick’s Extra 300 and the left end of the lead airplane’s horizontal stabilizer. Go ahead, grab a yardstick, hold it out to your right. That’s three feet, the distance the extremely skilled Phillips 66 Aerostars pilots held from the moment we departed Appleton’s runway 03 in a formation takeoff until we arrived over that same runway to begin a hard left break maneuver inbound for landing.
I have just returned from what is by far my wildest “Oshkosh Moment” ever. As invited media, I was given the front seat of Hornick’s Extra 300, and from the moment ‘Rocket’ lit off the 300HP AEIO-540 Lycoming up front, I knew this was not a typical hamburger chasing mission in your granddaddy’s Skyhawk.
In fact, the Aerostars team serves two purposes. First, they are an exciting way for the Phillips 66 brand of aviation fuels and lubricants to stay visible. The company sells 75 million gallons of AvGas a year – about 40% of the market in the U.S. However, their second mission is to educate and inspire young people about the pathways available to a career in aviation and aerospace. More about that program in a moment, but first, let’s take a thrill ride:

The Extra 300 in Phillips 66 Aerostars colors looks good from any angle.
The Extra 300 is one of the most capable aerobatic airplanes flying today. Many of the acts we see in the afternoon airshows at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly them, and now I know why. Hornick hit the ignition, and after the usual five or six blades, the engine didn’t just roar to life, it exploded in a symphony of raw power. The whole airframe shook as if the brakes on the Extra were struggling just to hold it on the ramp. If you are a “car person” you know what I mean when I say the engine sounded like a cammed 454 V-8. It did not find idling a pleasing power setting, it preferred lots of Phillips 66 100LL AvGas being poured into the cylinders. This plane is not designed for a lollygag to Grandma’s house for cookies. The power up front is meant to yank this ship high into the sky, hold a respectable Hammerhead, before falling back to Earth in a series of loops and spins, basically any high G maneuver you can throw at it.

I was strapped in tight with a seven-belt system, wearing a parachute that was so comfortable that I forget it was on my back. On that subject, part of Hornick’s briefing went like this: “If we have to bail out, pull the big “D” ring. Come out head first, and try to miss the horizontal stabilizer on the way out as you will be going backwards as the plane will still be going forward. Count to two, and pull the ring.” He just chuckled when I told him that I’ve never logged one skydive. “Trust me, you’ll learn fast.”

The four Extra 300s in the Aerostars formation were cleared onto the numbers of KATW’s runway 03, and they lined up in a slightly looser formation than they will use for the remainder of the flight. This is in case one of them blows a tire on takeoff, the others can avoid a collision. When “lead” gave the signal, all four pilots poured on full power, and with the brakes protesting but doing their job, my heart raced a bit. “Lead” started rolling and Hornick – just off his left wing, released his brakes a millisecond later. As if tied together, the four Extras instantly were on their mains (they are taildraggers), and blasted off down the long runway in rapid acceleration. In a very short time, all four ships gracefully departed the runway at the exact same time, and when I say “exact” I am not kidding. The precision of this takeoff could only be surpassed by the Yak-110 airshow plane, which happens to be two Yaks literally welded together.
After a tight formation climb to about 6,000 feet just SW of Appleton, the lead pilot make a hand signal to the others that it was time to drop the nose and gain speed for the first aerobatic maneuver, a formation loop. Soon, the four ships were aimed at the Wisconsin countryside, rapidly gaining speed. When lead pulled the control stick back to climb and start the loop, ships 2, 3 and 4 followed in perfect sync. Up and over we went, with Hornick always maintain that three feet separation. After a brief moment of being inverted, we powered out of the loop to the down side, and I was looking straight down at the ground. All I could think of was that the trees were getting bigger fast.
Without a second of hesitation, the team flew right into a formation barrel roll, which is some very complex flying with one airplane, and completely insane with four ships three feet apart. Back on the ground, Hornick explained some of the complicated aerial geometry that goes into this maneuver, again, with his right wingtip staying a mere 36” away from lead’s tail. We then flew into a third maneuver, a 120 degree right wingover. Honestly, I had to ask Hornick later that evening at the EAA Young Eagles banquet what that third maneuver was, because by that point in the flight, the sky-ground-sky-ground-sky flying had me pretty much wondering which way was up. It was all very smooth, low G flying, and the Air Canada surplus sick sack stuffed between a couple of cables in front of me was never needed.

The "back office" of Hornick's Extra 300.
Still in the same formation, ATC cleared the flight for a left downwind back to runway 03. “Lead” flew all the usual maneuvers that goes into a transition from cruise to pattern, only with three of his closest friends shadowing his moves. On final, Lead motioned for Hornick to slip under him so they would be lined up 1, 2, 3, 4 for a speed pass to break. It would have take a microscope to see any stick movement as Hornick gracefully slipped underneath Lead, so close I think I would have been able to see even the smallest drop of oil on Lead’s underbelly…which was not going to happen on these immaculate, perfectly-maintained Extra 300s.
Halfway down the runway, Lead slammed his Extra hard left and was gone. I knew what was coming, and when Hornick cranked and banked his Extra hard left, the feeling was abrupt, forcing onto my body a significant but very brief G load for about .5 of a second. Hornick followed Lead to the numbers and put the Extra down after a few seconds of dancing with the rudders before the plane’s springy landing gear eventually gave in and settled onto the concrete. It seemed that the Extra did not want to land, this level of performance machine wants to fly, not roll along on its Goodyear tires.
Once back in the FBO, Hornick and “Lead” pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek told me about the team’s real mission. “It’s common knowledge that there is a great demand for pilots, mechanics and management,” Meek said. “There are two main barriers to get into this profession. First is an awareness of the profession, and the second is the financial aspect of getting the required licenses and certifications. We as a team can help with the awareness, educating our youth and explaining the pathways now available for them to get into aviation as a career.”
Hornick explained that a big part of the Aerostars mission is not only speaking to kids, but also educators, guidance counselors and parents. “So many teachers and counselors are not even aware of the route you need to take to become an aviation professional. Many of them incorrectly assume that the only pathway to becoming a professional pilot is to come out of the military. We as a team have the platform to educate and inspire while also educating the educators on how to get the kids into the pipeline,” he said.
The Aerostars team is perfectly positioned to carry out their educational and inspirational mission. “Air shows are a phenomenal outreach to the local community,” Meek said. “They are a targeted market to reach youth because by virtue of actually being at the show, they have demonstrated an interest in aviation. We often send one of our pilots to a community before the air show begins to speak to local high schools and explain what is possible regarding careers in aviation and talk about what a pathway to that goal looks like.”
Hornick talked about a time when he took a friend of his son flying, and it changed a life. “We were flying from Northern Illinois to Dubuque, Iowa for a show, and my son’s freshman year roommate had never flown in any airplane, ever. This young man’s first airplane ride was in Harvey’s back seat when we were still flying the Yaks. After the show, the kid was so inspired he joined the same U.S. Marine Platoon Leadership Course that my son was in, and now this young man is on track to becoming a Marine Corps pilot, all because of that one ride.”
“You never know who you are going to touch or when you are going to touch them,” Meek added.
As an invited guest of Phillips 66 for the EAA Young Eagles banquet at AirVenture, Meek explained that the Aerostars have immense respect for that highly successful EAA program. He said that the program they present at about 12 air shows a year does not just focus on fun flying, but delivers the message of what it takes to make aviation a career. “We tell these interested youth that flying and aviation does not just have to be a hobby, they can actually go out and make money in the industry,” Hornick added. “A part of our presentation is that this important message is coming from someone other than their parents or teachers. If these young people want to pursue a career in aviation, they need to keep their nose clean and not do stupid stuff. You can’t be going to parties and drink beer or smoke marijuana, and then post pictures of it all online,” he said.
The precision flying demonstrated by the four pilots of the Phillips 66 Aerostars was a glorious sight to behold. I may never again fly with a guy so smooth on the stick as Paul Hornick, it was “stick and rudder” taken to almost inhuman levels. That precision carries over into the team’s youth outreach program, which is serving the industry as a whole in a highly visible way.
Throughout this process, from initial email inviting me on the media ride, through the ride and safety briefing, and later as their guest at the Young Eagles banquet and at the EAA Pavilion to watch the Wednesday night air show, every person I came into contact with from Phillips 66 was extremely courteous, professional, and passionate about what they are doing.
And “what they are doing” is making a difference. They are delivering the right message at the right time, to the right demographic, the next generation of aviation professionals.

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