Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Mike Leonard’s book “An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond” available from SOFREP-Books here.

Lt. Col. Leonard is a retired Air Force officer and highly experienced global business executive. He was a United States Air Force command pilot with a military career spanning 20 years, including two combat tours to Vietnam in 1965-1966, and 1969-1970. Mike spent four years flying the VC-140B Special Air Mission aircraft during his time with the 89th Military Airlift Wing, the “Home of Air Force One.” 

His combat decorations include three Distinguished Flying Crosses, nine Air Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.  What you are about to read is one of those just-so stories of military service that illustrate how the deadly serious business of military aviation can also be very funny at times.

Mike has also written a SOFREP piece about his Air Force flying career. You can read it here.

Enjoy this story of a Runway-Ballet from Mike Leonard; say hello to him in the comments; and please give his book a look. 

The Cessna T-37 was designed to be an Air Force primary flight trainer by Cessna in the mid-1950s. But during the Vietnam war, the U.S. developed it as a light attack aircraft known as the Dragonfly.

Bob and I sat there watching and listening. Just then Bob turned to me and said, “You know, I think they’re talking about doing some formation flying tomorrow.” I smiled and turned to him and said, “No way. We’ve barely even soloed in the T-37; we don’t know jack about formation flying.” But that is exactly what they were talking about. Our instructors had decided that since we were both headed over to Brookley AFB in Mobile, AL on our first leg tomorrow and then onto Naval Air Station (NAS) New Orleans, we ought to use the Tyndall to Brookley leg to practice a little formation flying. My assumption at that moment, again, was that our two instructors would take over the flying duties for that leg. We arrived at base operations Saturday morning ready to observe and learn formation flying at the right hand of those in the know. Boy was I wrong! Jim looked at me and said, “We will be Vance 1, the lead aircraft, and Bob and Dave will be Vance 2, our wingman.” Then as an afterthought, Jim added that both Bob and I would be flying the planes, “But don’t worry, we’ll talk you through it.”

Lt. Col. Bo McGowan and Maj. Jeff Grayson, members of the 97th Flying Training Squadron, prepare for a four-ship formation flight in a T-37 Tweet. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Tonnette Thompson/U.S. Air Force)

After some muffled choking and gasping by Bob and me, our flight plan was filed, weather briefed, pre-flight checklists completed, and everyone headed to the aircraft. After engines started and additional checklist items were finished, I requested taxi and takeoff clearance from the tower. I pushed up the throttles and headed for the runway with Vance 2 right behind me.  Now the fun began! Tower cleared us for takeoff. I taxied into position on the left side of the runway, while Vance 2 pulled up on my right about a plane length behind. I glanced over to my right rear and everybody was in position.

Two T-37 Tweets taxi out to the runway (Photo by Staff Sgt. Tonnette Thompson/ U.S. Air Force)

Now try and get a clear picture in your mind as to what happened next. But before I proceed you need to understand a couple of things. First, the T-37 aircraft seating arrangement is side by side. Both students were in the left seats and would be doing the flying. The two instructors were in the right seats. For me to see Bob in the other plane, I had to lean slightly forward to look across Jim at Bob in Vance 2. Bob, on the other hand, being in the left seat of Vance 2, could see Jim in the right seat with no problem, and could see me but not quite as easily. Second, formation flying utilizes a lot of unique hand signals. Signaling by hand allows the lead aircraft in a formation to direct his wingman without engaging in a lot of unnecessary radio chatter. Any radio calls to or from the flight by Air Traffic Control (ATC) are handled by the flight lead and monitored by the wingman.

So, we were lined up on the runway and cleared for takeoff! Being instructors, Jim — and I assume Dave — were motor mouthing to their two inexperienced students about how to perform a formation takeoff. In Vance 2, Dave was saying to Bob, “Watch for a throttle up signal from lead. This will be seen as a hand in the air followed by a rapid circular motion. So far, so good?” In the meantime, my instructor Jim was telling me the same thing, with a slight catch: As he was verbally telling me how to do it, he was demonstrating it. Of course, Bob, being the ever so sharp student observed Jim’s demonstration and dutifully pushed the throttle up as directed by the hand signal demonstration. Jim then proceeded to verbalize the next step in the formation takeoff process, which is a forward snap of the head, which directs the release of the brakes. To demonstrate he leaned his head against the seat headrest and snapped his chin down to his chest, telling me, “This is the signal for brake release.” Now you can see what happens next!

I glanced to my right as Vance 2 started to accelerate past us down the runway. Jim saw them and frantically yelled, “They’re going? Go!” I released the brakes to start my takeoff role but quickly noted that Vance 2 had jumped on his brakes when he realized that we weren’t moving. Jim saw that our wingman had stopped, and yelled at me, “Stop!” Again, duly obeyed, but surprised, there went Bob again, flying by, thinking lead was moving. Anyway, we played Start/Stop about four or five more times on the runway, until Tyndall AFB tower finally came over the radio and said, “Vance 1 Flight, we love your moves, and when you’re finished with the dance, feel free to take off whenever you’d like.”

Now there’s one more scene in this short act: I was trying to keep the plane steady and fly like the professional the AF was trying to train me to be, but I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. I could see Bob and Dave in Vance 2 as they came up on our right immediately after takeoff rocking back and forth in hysterics, as well. The only one not having a good time was Jim. The rest of the flight into Mobile and then on to New Orleans was happily by the book. As you can imagine, the story of the “start/stop formation takeoff” has been told many times since and though I can envision the names of the perpetrators being long forgotten, the anecdote will be passed along to a generation of pilot trainees. I know for a fact it’s been told and retold at every one of our 68G “Good Guys” gatherings.

Author Mike Leonard, Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.)

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