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  • Ryszard Zadow

Herding Catbirds.

Thursday of AirVenture 2019 was “Burt Rutan Day” and the flight schedule showed at 3pm “Various Rutan Types”. That was an understatement. That day OSH attendees got to see airplanes that don’t usually fly in the airshow. For the first time ever at AirVenture a group of Rutan designs nicknamed the “Rutan Reunion Flight” flew before the crowd.

The flight schedules and programs for shows like this are published way in advance but as anyone that deals with airplanes knows, things don’t always go as planned. Weather is unpredictable and breakdowns happen to even the best maintained aircraft. Making things even more complicated try organizing a demonstration flight by getting Pilots to bring airplanes from almost all corners of the country. Amazingly things went really well only because the kind of people that gravitate to Rutan types are the type that go above and beyond.

This all started when EAA reached out to the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience asking if we could help organize airplanes to display on Burt Rutan day with possibility of flying them in a “showcase” period during the airshow. RAFE obviously lept at the chance to help. RAFE President Ryszard Zadow has been involved with Rutan airplanes for nearly 40 years so he knows some people. A flurry of phone calls and emails started getting things organized. Little had to be done to convince anyone this was an opportunity that needed to be grasped. Within about a week RAFE had assembled a lineup that reflected its goal to fly one each of Burt’s Homebuilt designs and a few of his other unique one of kind airplanes. Once that line up was finalized and all the information gathered, Ryszard forwarded all the participants info to Dennis Dunbar at EAA with a request. Dennis and Ryszard discussed the possibility of doing something way different than the typical “showcase” flight. Typically the showcase flights launch one aircraft and it makes about one circle around the runways while the announcer describes the airplane to the airshow crowd. As that airplane finishes its lap another is launched. At best there are two, maybe there airplanes flying. One being described by the announced while another is landing and another taking off. The RAFE lineup was 9 airplanes and Ryszard wanted them all airborne at the same time! The method that would make this possible was from Ryszards experience flying in airshows with the Commemorative Air Force and it’s called the “Trainer Parade”. The CAF Trainer Parade launches all the WWII trainers attending the airshow and stacks them in front of the crowd separated by type and altitude. With the mix of Rutan types assembled this lent itself perfectly. The beauty of it is the crowd gets to see all the airplanes flying at once, the aircraft get multiple passes in front of the crowd and the announcer gets more time to inform the spectators about each type. EAA thought the idea would work.

EAA was promoting the event from early on so it was important RAFE deliver. During the week one announcement stated: “Additionally, the afternoon air show today is slated to feature a group of Rutan designs the likes of which has never been seen in Oshkosh before. Attendees will not want to miss out on this rare collection of types. “

For RAFE. the weeks leading to OSH were a constant effort of herding cats, or on this case, herding “Catbirds”. RAFE supplied two LongEZs. - The Kennedy LongEZ, a former Wright Brothers Award winner represented a stock LongEZ with baggage pods.

- The David Brown LongEZ represent the evolution on the design with the longer noise and downdraft cooling. It also represented the awesome story of David Brown who achieved his dream of building a LongEZ by spending 30 years to build it but he never gave up.

The RAFE David Brown LongEZ and the Kennedy LongEZ enroute to OSH 2019

The whole time David Brown was building, Keith Welsh was flying his Quickie! Keith is one of the few very high time Quickie Pilots with over 400 hours flying his Q1. He flew it to OSH the week before the show to make sure it would be there and ready. His efforts paid off as during the show he won Outstanding Plans Built Champion!

Keith Welsh with is award winning Quickie.

Leif Johnson‘s airplane was selected because it’s a fine example of a stock Varieze that Leif still hand props! His airplane and experience as an Air Force F-15 Pilot, Airline Captain and RAFE formation Pilot made him a natural for alternate lead for the flight. After flying in the AirVenture Cup Leif joined the lineup on EZ Street.

Leif Johnsons very stock, but fast AirVenture Cup winning Varieze

Izzy Briggs has restored and modified Steve Wright’s Varieze and offered to donate it to the RAFE after the airshow. He fought weather delays to make it from New Hampshire.

Charlie Spinelli was the star of the lineup bringing the only flying VariViggen all the way from Phoenix Arizona! It has been a very, very long time since OSH attendees have seen a VariViggen flying before the crowd.

The other only flying example was the Solitaire brought by Harold and Edi Bickford. The Solitaire is probably the rarest of all Rutan Homebuilt’s and the Bickford’s have the only known flying example with the retractable engine. Not being a cross country type of aircraft the Bickford’s towed it from Nebraska.

So few Defiants are flying that they too seem rare. Jim Rodrian and his beautiful Defiant lived only a 20 minute flight from OSH and represented the small Defiant fleet in the show.

Two Rutan types were in the lineup that never had plans sold for them but none the less are representative of Burt’s ingenuous design. Zach Reeder flew in the Catbird from Colorado and Tres Clements was bringing the Boomerang all the way from California

The last participant was one of the most popular, one of the few remaining Beech Starships owned and operated by Rob Scherer. What we didn’t know was Rob was flying Burt and his family to AirVenture in his Starship!

Rob Scherer’s Starship behind Keith Welsh’s Quickie parked on Boeing Plaza

By Wednesday all the airplanes were on Wittman Field except for Tres Clements and the Boomerang as they’d encountered mechanic issues over Nevada and turned back home.

Thursday morning stared early as everyone gathered on EZ Street for the big move to Boeing Plaza. There was one big constrain though. Really big. This year was the 50th anniversary of EAA airshow being at at Oshkosh. It was also the 50th birthday of the 747 and a UPS 747 was straddling over all of Boeing Plaza. None of us saw a problem as we could all easily fit under a 747, but UPS had a different view on things.

We parked right in front of the little grassy area next to IAC headquarters, but the UPS 747 was going to gate pulled out of Boeing Plaza right before we needed to pull put to go fly. UPS insisted nothing would be under the wings of the 747 as it was towed out. We were right under its right wingtip, 30 feet under its right wingtip but we had to push all our airplanes together to get out from under the 747s wings. All this happened while the RAFE “Rutan Reunion Flight” was attending the airshow briefing in the Charlie Hilliard Air Ops building. Many thanks to the Jetguys, and all the other RAFE volunteers who helped move airplanes for the 747 to get out.

Since some of the RAFE Rutan Reunion Flight had never flown at OSH before they had to attend the “new guy” briefing that’s held before the main airshow briefing.

Still apprehensive about being able to fly the show they way they’d hoped, Ryszard was extremely relieved when the Air Boss for that days show walked in and it was Ralph Royce, who he’d worked with many times before.

When Ralph asked what we had planned all Ryszard had to do was say “ I’d like to run this like the trainer parade” and Ralph immediately had the big picture. All the details were worked out and the team then attended the main airshow brief. It was a real thrill to be sitting on the room with all the other airshow performers. This was Show Time!

In the airshow brief they go through each acts place in the timeline. One thing you’ll, hear the Air Boss say is “We follow the sequence, not the time.” Airshows are dynamic events and seldom do they run exactly on time. To make things tough on the Rutan Reunion Flight, they cut their slot from the initial 18 minutes described leading up to Thursday to 10.

It was going to be really hard to launch all those airplanes and be done in 10 minutes. Since you follow the sequence and not the time, it’s very important to be ready and running two acts prior to yours. That meant some significant ground idling time and as most EZ pilots know, that can be a challenge for us draft cooled pusher aircraft. The RAFE Rutan Reunion Flight Team, with the help of the Jetguys and the other RAFE volunteers pushed their aircraft out onto the taxiway leading into of Boeing Plaza.

The Team had its own briefing, figuring out the right time to start and get taxiing to the departure end of 18R. Startup too soon might mean overheating for some. Starting too late might risk someone not getting to go if they had a start problem. The time was picked and the signal to start would be when Leif hand propped his Varieze. Because Leif knows his plane and what it takes to start it after its hot his criteria was once he starts he’s not shutting down.

When Lief s Varieze engine sprang to life the rest of the team hit the starters almost in unison. No sooner did that happen RAFE Volunteer Richard Sessions came running over giving everyone the cut engines signal. The ground people told him to tell us it want time to start but we needed to be heading out soon. Ryszard gave Richard a “no” head shake and waved him over and explained they weren’t shutting down.

Monitoring the Air Boss frequency it became apparent the airshow was already running 10 minutes late. As we lined up at the hold short the concerns for a long idle time were on everyone’s mind. Few of the RAFE Team Aircraft have two radios so communicating would be on the airshow frequency and chatter has to be limited. There were lots of hand signals.

After about 20 minutes of idling Zach Reeder made the call he didn’t want to make. His oil temp was already up to 250. He taxied back to parking, but an F8F Bearcat had been towed from the warbird area and blocked the taxiway. Zach shut down Catbird and pushed into the grass. Catbird was out.

About ten minutes later the Air Boss called the Rutan Reunion Flight to line up and wait. As Ryszard led the flight onto Runway 18R the Air Boss called them to takeoff and everyone throttled up. Soon the crowd got to see one Rutan type after another take to the skies over AirVenture.

The aircraft stacked the highest take off first. Ryszard led the whole flight and climbed to 1100 agl, circling in an oval racetrack pattern over the runways and out east towards the eastern boundary of the airport. With Catbird out the only other aircraft in the top stack was Jim Rodrian in his Defiant. The middle stack was led by Leif in his Varieze. Trailing behind him as he climbed to 800ft agl was Shane in the RAFE Kennedy LongEZ and Izzy in his Varieze. The last flight to take off was led by Keith Welsh in his Quickie followed Charlie in his VariViggen and they climbed to 500 ft agl.

Two other airplanes were conspicuously missing from the flight. Just before the airshow briefing the Team got a text from Rob Scherer saying an unforeseen commitment would, preclude him from flying in the show. At that time no one realized Rob had another really important job and that was hosting Burt! Everyone was disappointed to not have the Starship fly in the show with them but understood the importance of Robs commitment. The Solitaire was on display in Boeing Plaza still and would remain there since Harold hadn’t had the time to make a few necessary steps to get it flying. Harold become our announcer and did an awesome job. Unbeknownst to him, while announcing Burt Rutan walked into the announcers stand to watch the flight. Harold had prepared well for announcing but suddenly instead of what he thought he was going to say about each plane and pilot as they came by turned into a discussion about the planes with Burt going over the loudspeakers! It couldn’t have worked out better!

Because of the secondary spectator areas it’s difficult to make the oval race track pattern at an altitude below 500 ft. Even the airshow performers have that limitation so it was decided that in the fly by over 18R the aircraft could go to 200ft agl over the runway then climb back up to 500ft over the restricted areas in the backside of the oval.

When Keith and Charlie were in position Air Boss Ralph Royce gave them a couple passes then called them down to land. As they entered a base over the shoreline the middle stack got moved down , and the top stack followed becoming the middle stack. Each aircraft got to make several passes before the crowd as Harold and Burt talked about each type as it went by. When the middle stack flight was landing Air Boss Royce moves the top stack flight down and the final pass was Ryszard in the RAFE David Brown LongEZ, smoke on!

The flight staged on the taxiway waiting for everyone to land and then taxied as a group past the crowd.

Everyone in the crowd and the cockpits weir waving as the flight taxied north. About half way up the taxiway, Izzy was busy waving at the crowd and didn’t notice his engine start to stumble. By the time he reacted his prop stopped! There he was in front of the entire Oshkosh crowd stopped on the taxiway. He hit the start button a couple of times to no avail. The aircraft behind him waited and anticipated him pushing off the side until help could arrive but Izzy had other plans. He jumped out of his cockpit and started pushing his Varieze, at a run! The crowd cheered him on. After doing the best he could for a few hundred yards Izzy pushed over to the side letting the rest of the flight by. It was a huge moment that was captured by lots of spectators and even wound up on YouTube!

As everyone pulled into their parking spots on EZ Street there was a whole lot of high-fiving and congratulations going on. Unexpectedly lots of people made their way to where we were parked to tell us how much they enjoyed seeing the Rutan aircraft fly in the airshow. Eventually Izzy got pushed back to his spot and Catbird joined the lineup. The Solitaire made its long journey back from Boeing Square via crossing runways and being towed up the east side taxiways. Richard Sessions, Harold and Edi Bickford must’ve walked five miles alongside that plane. Though Oshkosh sees many LongEZ, Variezes, Defiants and Cozy’s, rare was the group parked on EZ Street. The response was unanimous, people really enjoyed seeing these types gathered together, on display and FLYING at AirVenture!

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