Flying in a vintage four-seater Soviet aircraft a wingspan away from five others is nothing like piloting a commercial jet.
When Tom Spreen sits behind the control panel of a Boeing airplane, he’s working with a whole team of people to ensure the flight goes as smoothly as possible. There’s a rulebook and a plan in place to make every trip as close to standard as possible. And, it’s highly automated too.
“We fly it on autopilot 90 per cent of the time,” he said.
But, when he climbs into his 1977 Soviet Yak, it is anything but. Starting up the aircraft takes two hands and every ounce of attention.
“It’s more of a visceral experience,” Spreen said. “It makes lots of little noises and it’s got round dial gauges. The engine starts off and there’s a huge plume of smoke.”
He has over 20,000 hours of flying experience commercially, but with only a year of flying formation, he’s the rookie of Greater Victoria flying group Yak Flight.
Residents have likely seen the group of six flying in various intricate patterns – figure eights, tail chases – over the Inner Harbour or above the region’s cenotaphs on Remembrance Day. But, despite honouring war veterans being their most important flight of the year, only one of the members is a current or past military member themself. For the most part, they are simply civilians with a passion.
“It’s very serious fun,” said Chris Walker, owner of Christopher Developments and a wingman like Spreen. Walker got his commercial and aircraft maintenance licenses after high school, before getting into custom home building in the 90s and picking up flying as a hobby about seven years ago.
Of course when he started, flying his Chinese Nanchang 15 feet away from another aircraft at 230 km/h was nerve-racking. But, ultimately, formation flying is about trust.
Wingmen base their speed and flight path almost entirely off their lead.
“Instead of depending on instruments the whole time, you’re looking out the window to fly,” Spreen said.
Their group of six has two leads, group founder Mike Sudul and instructor pilot and previous Navy member Dave Gagliardi, and four wingmen – Spreen, Walker, Mike Mitchell and Brian Yeomans. Sudul, Gagliardi, Mitchell and Yeomans prefer to stay out of the public eye, but Spreen and Walker were happy to chat.
“I feel like I’m a member of a very exclusive club,” Spreen said. “There’s the thrill of doing something nobody else gets to do.”
There’s nothing like it, Walker agreed. The best outings are flying over the Victoria waterfront – which they call their sandbox – on a clear, calm day.
“You’ve got the Olympic Mountains in the background and the freighters down below you and it’s just magic, it’s absolutely magic,” Walker said.
It’s definitely not a hobby for most people – it’s expensive and extremely challenging. But for those who do take it on, it’s the ultimate taste of freedom. They’re hooked.
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