L-29 FAST Flight with the Mach Man


The smell of jet fuel at sunrise is a worthy substitute for high test coffee on most days. So it was on June 26 when I happily accepted to ride back-seat in N20PL, a 1973 Aero Vodochody L-29 Delfin piloted by Dr. Tom “Mach” Schnell, director of the Operator Performance Lab at the University of Iowa. The ride was his yearly FAST (Formation and Safety Team) ride, an authorization of sorts provided by the North American Training Association. Representing FAST was John Ockenfels, who would ride back seat in OPL’s other L-29, N429GC, piloted by Aaron Williams, a former F-16 fighter pilot and Rockwell Collins sales rep by day. Williams flies missions for Schnell, which can include testing new avionics or researching human factors.

The FAST authorization, which NATA and several other organizations provide as a surrogate for the FAA, is the ticket that air show performers need to fly in “waivered” airspace, Ockenfels explains. That means air show promoters will want to see a pilot’s FAST card or cards before letting him or her fly in formation at their show, particularly at massive shows like AirVenture 2014 at Oshkosh this week. There are different cards for different types of aircraft as well as for the formation leader or wingman. The name and ID number is removed in the example of a Leader card, below.  

For Schnell, the authorization was coming two days before the Fly Iowa airshow at the campus’ local airport, Iowa City Municipal (KIOW). Schnell and Williams do formation flight passes of the crowd, but not aerobatics given that the L-29s are OPLs bread and butter for technology work. FAST authorizations are done in groups of no more than four aircraft flying at one time.


Ockenfels was looking for safety first and foremost, in observing how the two pilots conduct the briefings and do the flying. “Standardization is the key,” says Ockenfels. Included in the safety briefing was a review of hand and visual signals that Schnell and Williams would use to indicate a change of lead or other maneuvers during right and left “fingertip” formations (the wingman offset and behind the leader). The NATA hand signals for Williams were different from his Air Force days, making clear the importance of the pre-flight briefing every time. Formation flying depends heavily on hand signals rather than radio chatter. “Hand signals are more efficient,” says Schnell.  

After an interval takeoff and initial left turn with Williams leading, Schnell fell in behind and to left in the left-fingertip using geometry rather than power to catch up. Ockenfels was looking for how well the two held position in flight and “making sure together they know what is going on”.   The job was made easier by the relatively smooth morning conditions over the eastern Iowa farmland. After a series of steep turns, one led by Schnell; the other led by Williams, we practiced in-trail formation before heading back to KIOW for a military style arrival, Schnell first, followed by Williams. Schnell and Williams both aced their card renewals. Below is a video I made of the adventure.   

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