M-18 Formation Adventure
by Chuck Fairchild

Chuck sent us the following information about N4156, which unfortunately was destroyed in a crash in Saganaw, Texas in 1980.

"I bought 4156 from Dave McClure, Simi, CA. He delivered the plane to me in ABQ in June, 1963. I sold it to Robert (Bob) Hanold, of Los Alamos in 1969. He spent 5 years storing the plane here and obtained a certificate to put a 90 hp engine in it. He then traded the 90 hp plane on a 4-place Mooney in '74 or '75.

During my ownership I added the dorsal fin, larger spinner, and fighter-type gear doors. In 1966, a local friend [Phil Ehart] bought M18L, 395A, in Kansas. We developed a formation flying team and performed at air shows.

In 1965 we started our illustrious formation-flying-team with Mites N4156 (M-18C-55, Fairchild) and N395A (M18L, Phil Ehart). The Mites were dreams to fly together because of their superb maneuverability and good visibility from the cockpit. In formation they were just beautiful from any angle.

It didn't take long to teach Ehart to fly formation. He was a sharp, natural pilot and took to it like a 19 year old Navcad. We then worked out a routine to use at airshows that included a formation take off and wingover reversal, a low level pass up the runway, a climbing wingover break to each side, a head-on pass perpendicular to the runway with 100 ft vertical separation, a head-on pass 20 ft AG along the runway centerline with 50 ft horizontal separation, a turning rendezvous, and finally a formation landing. We practiced and practiced to get the timing right and decrease the time and space required. We didn't want to drag it out since mites don't have much noise or visual impact from a distance. To practice we generally used a remote, straight road to simulate the runway. The few cars that came along were surprised and maybe panicked to find two airplanes playing around their highway (it was really ours).

M-18C, N4156, Panther 1 of Black Panther flying team, 1968. Plane with all mods: dorsal fin, large spinner, A-75 hp engine, gear doors. [click to enlarge]

We became fairly sharp in our maneuvers and took the pride of professionals in flying well done. We participated in only 6 or 7 airshows at various small airports but we had a ball at those. A few groups of scouts or cub scouts even requested that we put on shows for them. How famous can you get?

Of course, our formation capability wasn't confined to airshows. Anytime we went anyplace, or even coming back into Los Alamos we would ask for a formation landing. We entered upwind directly over the runway at 600 ft and about 12 feet apart, made a 5 second delay overhead break to provide separation as we came around the pattern in trail, and landed about 50 yards apart. We didn't dare land much closer together. If the lead plane would have blown a tire or swerved, the second plane would have been all over the runway trying to avoid him. And almost every takeoff was in loose formation, which also could have been disastrous if the lead plane had engine hickup, but it got us into formation quicker after lift off.

Our flying was undoubtedly impressive, although I think lots of people thought we were out of our minds, and I know that some didn't figure we would live very long. Nonetheless, we did live through it and I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything! Not many men are given the chance to experience the thrills, the exhilaration, and the heart in the throat feeling that skimming along 5 ft AGL in company with another plane gives. You have to pull back slightly on the stick to pass over fences, and when you go over the edge of a mesa or cliff and are suddenly 500 ft off the ground the feeling is indescribable. ………Or upon cruising along 5 ft above a dirt road near Albuquerque you and a state policeman are mutually surprised when his car comes head-on over a rise. He immediately slams his brakes and jumps out to get your number. But you break into laughter as you blow over and away so fast that he just stares in frustration!

About a year after we had the two planes and had perfected our formation demonstration, we traveled to an Aviation Day held in Alamogordo in October, with the main feature being an airshow to entertain the gente. My previous trips to this had been merely as a spectator. But this year we went to exhibit the two mites.

Black Panthers, Fairchild & Ehart at airshow, 1967.

We had to start the trip of 2 hours fairly early, which found Phil not too alert or eager. But the day looked good and was forecast to stay much the same even though there was a cold front moving down from the north. Cruising down the east side of the Sandias and Manzanos was really pretty because of scattered clouds capping the peaks. Since we flew in a loose scouting formation we didn't have to sweat each other. While in transit Phil usually set the pace since my plane was faster, and I would merely maintain station.

Upon arriving at Alamogordo we closed into our exhibition formation with Phil about 6 ft below, 10 feet behind, and our wings overlapping about 3 feet so that he could practically feel any maneuver I would make. Making a low approach up the runway (with controller approval) we made an extra nice climbing break and formation landing.

There were already numerous planes and a good crowd when in we taxied. As performers we, of course, were allowed to park the Mites on the main ramp near the crowd. It's kind of exciting even now to visualize the picture of us as we deplaned. Hopefully, we presented a glamorous picture in our bright red and white planes, with black panthers on the side and numerals 1 and 2 on the vertical stabilizers, and red flight suits with "Black Panther" breast patches (self designed). Actually, we probably resembled a tramp air force with engines half-hanging out of diminutive airplanes, flight suits that had obviously seen better days, and one pilot with very gray hair. However, we enjoyed it, and so did the crowd I like to believe.

All performers had a briefing before the day's performances began. In addition to our act there were aerobatic exhibitions, sailplane performances, commercial flyovers, chopper demonstrations, firefighting demonstration, and the Air Force Thunderbirds. We and the Thunderbirds were the only formation teams, ahem! The FAA man in charge was pretty relaxed and cooperative, yet he wanted to be sure the proceedings were safe. He grilled us about our routine, but mainly wanted to be sure that we didn't fly too close to the crowd during our passes. We were scheduled to fly at 13:00 and were allowed 9 minutes for our routine.

I don't remember much about our performance but I think it went O. K. Some of our head-on passes and overheads may not have been perfectly synchronized, but all in all the crowd enjoyed it and we had young admirers and friendly adults around afterwards. One problem I do remember was that, although it was nearly calm on the surface, about 200 feet up there was a fairly brisk, bumpy crosswind blowing that gave us fits on our timing.

Autographing, watching other performances, bullshooting, and lunch over, we were ready to depart after the T-bird performance. (They didn't have as good a performance as ours, but we stayed to watch out of professional courtesy — besides the field was closed). It was getting breezy and there were clouds forming over the nearby mountains. The briefer informed us that the weather farther north wasn't great, with snow showers around ABQ and SAF. Nonetheless, we intrepid aviators filed to LAM as a pair (confounding the briefer a bit). Getting out of the crowd and to the taxiway presented slight problems since the shows hadn't ended yet, but with escorts clearing the way, keeping our adoring fans at a distance, we departed without chopping anyone.

Mooney Mite gathering at ABQ Coronado Airport, 1967. If you can identify any of the other Mites in this photo, please let us know.

We hadn't proceeded north too far when it became evident that we indeed might have some weather problems. A big, ugly cloud that was obviously dropping sufficient snow to obscure visibility appeared in our path. We turned west just north of Carrizozo to see if we could outflank it. Amazingly, it appeared to be developing in that direction faster than we were. Well, perhaps if we landed at Carrizozo for a while it would pass us by. So we turned southeast, but as we proceeded it looked as though the snow was thinning to the north. Anyway, we turned north along a dirt road near Gran Quivera National Monument, flying about 50 ft off the trees. The snow was worse than I thought, with visibility briefly less than 200 yards. I wasn't too worried about me because I was familiar with the road, but I was somewhat worried because Phil wasn't familiar with the area. I kept glancing back at him about 200 ft behind and to the right. Sure enough the next time I looked he wasn’t there, but I saw his plane in a right bank, disappearing to the south. I thought for a few seconds and then reversed and headed south. Just about the time I was on south I caught a quick glimpse of Phil's plane zipping north nearby. I started to turn around again but then I thought, "this is crazy, we're gonna run into each other if we keep this up in this stuff", so I kept heading south, hoping that he had seen me and would turn south again.

When I reached the clear, south of the storm I circled, just waiting. If he had seen me that last pass, surely he would turn around and head back. But what if he hadn't seen me — and why did he turn back north after he had made a decision to get out of the storm to the south? After 5 min or so I was starting to worry. Phil was a good pilot but he wasn't instrument rated, and even had he been his plane had no IFR capability. I was becoming more apprehensive by the minute, blaming myself for getting him into this fix. After 10 min I decided that I had better go after him to see if I could spot him or contact him by radio, or else get some help to search for him.

Back into the storm along the road I went, staying over that road like on a wire. Just before reaching Mountainair the snow let up, the visibility improved, and there was clearing to the northeast. However, he didn’t reply to radio and of course was nowhere in view, so I decided to land at Mountainair to see if I could get a search going immediately. The dirt airstrip looked very muddy from a drag pass — I decided to land on the highway into town. There was little traffic and a good stretch where there were no poles or posts, so the landing was easy. I taxied into a gas station that was closed, then hitched a ride with a couple of young cruisers who drove me around looking for the sheriff. He was out of town and I couldn't find any other authorities. By this time the weather was so good that I decided that Phil had probably penetrated the storm and headed home. I was still plenty worried but decided to head to SAF to contact the FAA and CAP.

Moriarty provided a gas stop — needed because the weather again looked formidable toward SAF. It was a fortunate decision because the gas lady informed me that the other mite had landed there 2 hours before. Glory be!

After that I headed on to SAF much relieved. There was still a bit of weather to fight through, but with circling around to the north it gave little problem. When I called SAF the tower operator said that the other mite was waiting there. Indeed he was.

He had been worried about me too. He had turned around in the snow initially because his engine started misfiring and he decided to get out of the low visibility and hilly terrain to look for a landing spot. However, almost as soon as he headed south the engine smoothed and he again reversed course. He didn't see me flash past so he continued on and eventually broke into better weather. Assuming that I was somewhere ahead of him he proceeded to Moriarty and SAF. Approaching SAF he again had engine trouble and barely made it into SAF. Needless to say he left the plane in SAF for some work.

September 20, 2003