Capt. John Politis
by John Mansolas
Few months ago I had the chance of 'meeting' via the internet a fellow compatriot from Greece who later followed a military aviator's career in the Canadian Air Force and he is at present an airliner pilot with CATHAY PACIFIC (CPA) . I think it was on the occasion of me doing a model plane (1/48 scale of Hobby Craft) of the Canadian air acrobatic team the renown 'Snowbirds' and precisely the one carrying the number 036 which John confirmed it was the very one he was flying himself (!) in this team , in the 80s. We did exchange a number of e-mails and sent me some pictures of him . I then promised two things :
a) meet him in Honk Kong , where he is based now and
b) make a short presentation of this material on my site
I was unable to fulfill the first promise due to family reasons , although I had already planed my trip in August 2008 but then many things went wrong . At least here I have the chance of fulfilling the second one .
So , John Politis was born in Athens Greece , migrated to Canada and joined the RCAF becoming a Captain with the famous 'Snowbirds' the Canadian acrobatic team , squadron 431. He was part of the team in the period of 1981-82 . It was a remarkable experience , one of those that mark people for the rest of their lives . This is how John Politis himself refers to his own emotions with this group :
Flying On The Canadian Air Force Snowbirds
by John Politis
I was a member of the 1981 and 1982 Snowbird teams. Today, over 25 years later, there is seldom a day that I don’t cast my mind back and draw on that experience. I draw a rush of emotions. Sometimes, a feeling of disbelief will overcome me as I think of how fortunate I was to have been a part of something so rewarding, or how amazing it was to have done such things in the air.
In the fall of 1980, I was selected for a tryout to be held for four open slots on the Snowbird team. I was just twenty-four years old. I practiced for months, trying to hone my formation skills. The tryout lasted two weeks, and at the end I was chosen to be the new Solo pilot. I was ecstatic and bursting with anticipation. The idea of flying in the famous nine-plane formation, and performing head-on aerobatic passes, as one of the two solo pilots was intoxicating.
On the Snowbirds, the flying positions are team Leader, two Inners, two Outers, two Line Astern, and two Solos. The distinguishing aspect of the Solo position was that it encompassed both worlds of display flying: formation aerobatics and head-on maneuvers.
The Snowbird show consists of nine-plane formation aerobatics, and seven-plane formation maneuvers interspaced by the two solos performing head-on passes. The show lasts for about 25 minutes, and team aims for no more than seven to ten seconds spacing between the formation maneuvers and the two solo jets.
The show begins, and usually ends, with all nine jets flying in nine-plane formation. Maneuvers such as the nine-plane Big Diamond, Big Arrow, or Concorde usually open and close the show. In between, the show becomes a stream of formation maneuvers, and solo head on passes.
As a solo, two very different flying styles need to be mastered. In the nine-plane, the solo pilots fly on the extreme right or left side of the formation. While in formation pilots must fly smoothly, never jerky or rough with the controls. In formation a pilot should never come close to using full-scale deflection of the controls. From a spectator’s perspective, the nine jets move as one in a fluid and poetic motion. Each pilot is keenly aware of the jets around him, and keenly aware of the box of space he must fly within.
For the first five minutes of the air show, the nine jets fly together. Then the two solos break out, and the whole show takes on a dynamic twist. In Snowbird vernacular, this is the point where the solo pilot’s “fangs came out”!
Capt. John Politis in front of his 'Turor' 036
Capt. John Politis in the brochure of the Snowbirds as No 8 (1982)
Now, the solo must switch to a new flying style, as he will need to use full-scale deflection of all flight controls to squeeze every ounce of performance from the airplane. It is no longer essential to fly smooth and steady, now he needs to throw his jet around the sky with all his strength. Full rudder and aileron, pulling plus seven G and pushing minus three G, is necessary.
How does he learn to do this? From his initial selection to the team the solo pilot’s road to “show standard” is a long one. Old habits have to be broken, as most pilots are not taught to fly low and fast. The exception, of course, would be fighter pilots who in their training are indeed taught to fly low and fast. But even fighter pilots are not taught to fly aerobatics in nine-plane formations, rolling and looping close to the ground with their wings overlapped! Normally, pilots develop instincts to fly “away” from the ground and other airplanes…and to never fly below 1000 feet, unless taking off or landing.
For a new member of the Snowbirds, these habits and instincts have to be broken. In fact, one needs to be taught to ignore just about every conventional rule about flying low. In fact, the ability to fly aerobatics at near ground level is now a necessary requirement. To learn this skill, the solo will need to start at a moderate height, around 500 feet, practicing loops, rolls, and inverted flying. Each day moving lower and lower as he gains confidence and becomes more comfortable.
To me, it was like being in the movie Dam Busters, starring Cliff Robertson, which I remembered watching as a little boy. In it, a squadron of WW2 Lancaster pilots were tasked to learn flying low enough to avoid enemy radar, and bomb dams in Germany. Similarly, as a Snowbird, the Air force gave me carte blanche blessing to practice flying very low, and very fast. What a treat!
For me, this discretion was a “license to kill”! What a heart pulsing thrill it was! Although, technically, I wasn’t allowed to fly low over built areas, cars, or groups of people, sometimes this was just too much to ignore. As my adrenaline rushed through my body, the sight of a sailboat on a lake, or a car on a lonely highway, were juicy targets too hard to ignore. It is just as well that some of the things we solos did while “practicing” were not brought to the attention of our Squadron Commanding Officer. He would not have been amused.
There was so much more to the experience than just the thrill. There was the extreme challenge of performing maneuvers to exact flying standards that are difficult to put into words. At the risk of sounding cliché, words like “split-second timing” took on a whole new meaning. I eventually achieved a marvelous level of flying proficiency. There wasn’t anything I felt I couldn’t make the jet do. I became confidant and calm flying in any attitude, right side up or upside down, under any G loading within the airplane’s flight envelope. In fact, I needed to rely on the airplane’s G meter to keep from overstressing the airplane. My adrenaline would be pumping so hard that without a G meter to gauge how much to pull or push, I would have likely pulled the wings off the airplane!
The airplane and me became one. It became an extension of me. A mechanical entity that sprang to life when I strapped it onto my back. In all my years of flying since the Snowbirds, I never again achieved that level of proficiency. It was a once-in-lifetime event!
In formation flying the first thing the new solo is expected to master is the difficult outside right, or left, point of the Big Diamond formation. The Big Diamond is the most basic and most maneuverable of the big Snowbird formations.
For those that have never flown close formation, it quickly becomes obvious that formation flying is a challenge to learn when only two airplanes are flying together. To put nine jets together, with wings overlapped, looping and rolling, at ground level, is a phenomenal achievement.
In fact, during the winter training months, it is quite common for the new solo to initially hold back a new team’s development as he grapples with learning his dual role of team formation pilot and solo pilot.
This was because the seven members of the main formation spend all their time practicing nothing but formation maneuvers, while the new solo would spend most of his training learning the solo maneuvers. Only a small fraction of the solo pilot’s training time would be spent learning to fly the “outside wing”. Nonetheless, he was expected to keep up, and achieve show standard by the spring. But in reality, most solos didn’t blossom on the outside wing until well into the show season. Because of this, current teams now select the solo from among experienced team members, with at least a year of Snowbird formation flying under their belt.
Maintaining position in a large formation of jets, especially in the power limited, low thrust, tutor jet, while flying in the rough turbulence found below 3000 feet, was never easy. Sometimes, the turbulence became so bad, that all nine jets would begin to bounce and move outside each pilot’s “box”. Airplanes would begin to move into your piece of airspace (your box). Each pilot would be trying hard to stay in his position, with wings overlapped by four to six feet. If it became too hard, or too dangerous, any pilot could call out “wingtip”! This would be called by a pilot who was finding it difficult to hold his position as airplanes were beginning to move and bounce outside their little box of airspace. It meant things were becoming unsafe.
If one of us called “wingtip”, it was a signal for every pilot to slide out from four feet of overlap, to looser positions with no wing overlap. Of course, pilots being pilots, no one wanted to suffer the indignity of being the first to call wingtip. Usually the turbulence had to get very bad before someone would make the call. When it did happen, it was not uncommon for two or three excited wingtip calls to come at once.
John in a 'Flip-Flop' maneuver
John Politis in the 'diamond' formation
The amazing thing is that no matter how bad the turbulence becomes, no matter how big the bounces are, when viewed from the spectator’s perspective on the ground, the movements and oscillations are generally imperceptible. If a spectator really wants to see how bad the turbulence is, he should look closely at the smoke trail behind each jet. If the smoke is nice and smooth, then there is little turbulence. But if the smoke is jerky and ragged, then each pilot is probably fighting hard to remain within his piece of airspace.
As I mentioned earlier, the other problem with flying large formations in the little Tutor was its lack of thrust or power. With so many airplanes in a roll or bank, pilots need to make huge power changes to hold position. In rolling the Big Diamond for example, the pilot on the extreme inside of the turn would need to bring his throttle well back to near idle, to avoid sliding into the next airplane, while the pilot on the outside of the roll would need max thrust to keep from sliding back and out of the formation.
At the halfway point of the roll, the dynamics naturally reverse. The inside pilot would now be on the outside of the roll and need to quickly apply full thrust, while the outside pilot, who only a moment ago needed full thrust, would need to bring his power well back and extend his speed brakes to avoid sliding into his team-mate. Missing the exact point of reversal could be disastrous.
The team lead would need to set an exact power setting, one learned from many months of trial and error. It was here that the Tutor’s lack of power was a real hurdle to overcome. If the leader varied his power as little as one or two percent, it had huge consequences, especially for the jets on the outside points of the formation.
A fractional power error at the wrong moment will toss the outside jet right out of a rolling maneuver because that plane would not have the thrust to hold position while trying to fly the bigger radius of roll. Conversely, the pilot on the inside of the rolling turn would find himself careening into the formation because he could not reduce power fast enough…even with speed brakes extended!
What’s more, the Tutor had such little excess thrust that many formation changes were very challenging to achieve with power changes alone. You would find yourself “out of power” if you were trying to move forward but discovered that, even though your throttle was at maximum, you were moving back in the formation. New tricks of geometry and physics had to be learned and applied.
Due to slow engine spool-up times, Snowbirds always tried to keep their power up. During a looping maneuver, to change position and move back, a pilot would keep his power up but move lower relative to the jet beside him. In physical terms this meant he would be flying a bigger circle, and for the same speed, therefore, slide back in the formation.
Conversely, and as mentioned above, a pilot may already have full throttle but find himself moving back. So he would move high on his reference jet during a loop. This has the result of flying a smaller radius and will cause him to slide forward. This also worked during a turn. Thus, you learned to apply various laws of science to your advantage. Position in the formation could be varied or held by adjusting power and circular radius.
Needless to say this took a great deal of practice to accomplish safely. But it was critical to master, as it may be the only arrow left in your quiver if you were suddenly in a position where max, or idle, power was not enough!
Another element that regularly came into play when flying on the outside of the formation was a phenomenon similar to cracking a whip. This occurs when a small movement or bounce by an inside jet, would cause a bigger bounce by the next wingman, and then a huge bounce for the next wingman, and so on. It was like cracking a whip. Sometimes this phenomenon could become so pronounced and violent that the outside wingman would be flicked right out of the formation. The poor sod would now be on his own, exposed to the world and embarrassed. Rejoining the formation for the next maneuver would be difficult.
But as I stated in my introduction, the never-ending formation challenges were only part of the solo pilot’s job. His specialty, or reason for being, was the head-on cross. Spine tingling and heart stopping if flown properly, dangerous to get wrong!
The head-on begins, one or two miles apart, nose-to-nose, at about 100 feet. Initially each pilot will line up on each other’s nose light, and maybe on each other’s smoke trail. This is tricky as there is usually some kind of crosswind causing each aircraft to crab and drift. Wind makes line up references hard to gauge, especially over water. The two solos will be closing at a combined closing speed of 700 miles per hour. Out of the corner of each pilot’s eye, the air show crowd will come into view as the jets speed toward stage-centre. At the exact closing distance, the Lead Solo calls the roll, “Solos, Roll Now!” Both pilots then slam their controls to initiate the roll and affect the miss, crossing only a few feet apart.
It is the Opposing Solo, a first year Snowbird in my day, who is responsible for the miss. The Lead Solo is responsible for staging the cross to take place in front of the crowd or VIP stand, at stage centre. Truth be known, no Lead Solo is going to let himself to be cut in half if he sees an impending collision. One or both jets will tighten, or loosen, the miss to a personal comfort distance. The comfort distance will grow closer, and tighten with time and practice. Early in the season the miss distance might be as much as 50 feet. As the season progresses, and the skill level of each pilot increases, the crosses will become tighter and tighter. Over the top of the Co-Loop, during a nice tight cross, maybe 30 feet apart, you can hear the other jet “whoosh” as it zips past! A heart-stopping thrill that always put a smile on my face.
If at any time the Opposing Solo misjudges the line-up, and the impending cross is deemed dangerously too close, the Lead Solo will call “Solos Break It Off!” Both solo pilots will then through their jets into predetermined escape maneuvers. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often, only a couple of times for me.
Some show sites are harder to fly than others, depending on the characteristics of the terrain. Many shows take place away from an airport. Sometimes the first time you see the site is when you’re flying along the show line, up side down. To accomplish this safely, you have to have a good map, or photos to help you in your preflight study. If the team coordinators could get me a descent map, 1:50,000 scale was ideal for detail, I felt really lucky. An overhead photograph of the show site was a rare treat.
You had to memorize as much of the show site as you could. There was no time to refer to a map during the show.
If the show was over an airport, flying the show was much simpler. Lining up your run-ins, and setups would be a piece-of-cake. It was easy to set up an entry angle over a nice long runway. Runways offered natural references lines from which to gauge your crosses, misses, and staging. For the head-on crosses, each solo could line up on the edge, or centre of the runway. You could then confidently nudge your track tighter so that the misses become very close!
More often than not the show took place over a field, with nondescript ground features, and angled or curved roads. No two points could be found to connect and lineup with. Worse of all were the shows over water. Water offered no line up features and judging height over water was extremely difficult due to zero depth perception. Without using the altimeter, it was impossible to tell if you were flying at 10 feet, 100 feet, or 1000 feet. To survive, you simply had to rely on your altimeter, and never try to judge height with only your eyes, as you could over land.
For example, a Tutor needed 3000 feet to complete the last half of a loop. So at the top of a loop you looked at you altimeter to ensure you were beginning the last half, the pull-through, with no less than 3000 feet available. As I was upside down and starting the pull-through, I would look up through my canopy and down at the water. I could never tell how high I was over water. I would crosscheck my altimeter, and as long as it showed 3000 feet, I would start to pull back hard on the stick and start my inverted dive downward. Sometimes, I would mouth a silent prayer, because as far as I could tell the water looked damn close and I was about to fly into it!
One of the most difficult jobs the Lead Solo performs is staging. Directing the two solos on stage, after the seven-plane formation has left the stage, and at the exact time so that they cross in front of the crowd or VIP stand. The Opposing Solo will track downwind and only turn in when directed (“Solos turn in NOW!”) by the Lead Solo. He needs to fly an exact speed, so the Lead Solo can make corrections for any wind blowing down the show line. Any wind will displace the cross left or right of stage centre.
The Lead Solo would adjust for this. For example, a common solo maneuver would begin with the two jets passing at stage centre, and then flying apart from each other. They would then complete a vertical reversing maneuver, returning to centre stage for the cross in front of the crowd. If a 30 mph wind were blowing, the Lead Solo would begin his pull up a full six seconds before he called the Opposing Solo to begin his pull up. Although both solos were flying their vertical reverses six seconds apart, ideally, the final cross would take place exactly at stage centre. Sometimes errors would occur in staging, but the team coordinator would then radio the Lead Solo and advise him so corrections could be made.
The last thing a Snowbird learns is how quickly time goes by when your having fun. My two years on the team went by incredibly fast and I was heartbroken to leave it. Saying goodbye to friends and comrades, with whom I worked so very hard, was a tearful experience. These men became my best friends, my brothers. Two of my teammates were subsequently killed in flying accidents. Captain Bob Drake and Captain Tristan deKoninck are never far from my thoughts and memories.
Today I am a Captain on the 747/400 for Cathay Pacific Airways. It is a different kind of flying, with different challenges, requiring different skills. I love the 747, and I love my job. But it will always be the memories of my time on the Snowbirds that really nourish my soul! It was an honor and a privilege to have been a Snowbird, and I thank God for it!
Captain John Politis
A postcard with the entire group . John is second from left on the top and third on the one below
The No 8 above with John on a 'Mirror Pass' with the No 6
John and his very nice family on a recent photo
It is John in the controls of this B744 of CATHAY PACIFIC
Years after the Snowbirds era he is no longer trying to drive his plane to his limits but cares about passengers comfort
Yet , the Snowbirds memories will never leave him alone
We wish to John to enjoy his life and his family ,to feel comfortable in flying and maintain his immortal Snowbird memories
For those who would like to learn about & enjoy the SNOWBIRDS there is ample information and photos on them in the following links :
Snowbirds Home site : http://www.snowbirds.forces.gc.ca/site/index_e.asp
Best picture album on the internet : http://www.sky-flash.com/snow1.htm
wikipedia english : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowbirds
From the RCAF site : http://www.rcaf.com/archives/archives_features/snowbirds/index.htm
From the airforces site : http://www.airforce.forces.gc.ca/15wing/squadron/431_e.asp
From the aerial postcards site : http://www.aerialpostcards.com/CT-114/CT-114_Tutor.htm