For the last two years a small group of (mostly) middle-aged men have been meeting surreptitiously at a location in the Cotswolds, and occasionally at other locations across England. Chris Wood tells us more….

An observer would’ve have noticed them indoors having discussions followed by a briefing from their leader. They would then have been observed carrying out a strange open air ritual, before climbing in to their flying machines and taking to the skies. This pattern would have been repeated several times before they dispersed.

Meanwhile, on 14th April 2021, in France, one of its citizens celebrated his 100th birthday.

How are these things linked? Well the French citizen was René Fournier, designer of a range of motor gliders. The ‘men behaving strangely’ were owners and pilots of some of Monsieur Fournier’s designs, training and preparing for a formation flypast at René’s 100th birthday celebrations.

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René Fournier’s first production aircraft was his RF-3 © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Starting with a single example of his RF1 which first flew in 1960, René went on to design a range of light aircraft, most of which were motor gliders, all the way up to his RF10. His most popular designs however were the RF3 and its aerobatic version the RF4D (D because they were built in Germany), both single seat motor gliders with 89 and 159 built respectively, and the two seat RF5 and RF5B with 145 and 80 built respectively plus some licence production in Egypt of around 20 aircraft.

To this list can be added the RF47 (combining aspects of the RF4 and RF7) and the SFS-31 Milan (combining the fuselage of the Sportavia-Fournier RF4 and the wings of the Scheibe SF27 (Sportavia, Fournier and Scheibe providing the SFS and the sum of the numbers equalling 31, hence SFS-31). His RF6B was the basis for the Slingsby T-67 Firefly of which some 287 were built so, in total with derivatives, over 1000 aircraft can be credited to René. His aircraft are still popular today and are valued for their relatively low operating costs, excellent handling qualities and their longevity.

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This is currently one of only two active RF-6Bs in the UK © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The intention of the British pilots was to perform a flypast in a ‘100’ formation at René’s birthday celebrations, but unfortunately the event was postponed for 18 months due to the Covid pandemic. Consequently the plan was updated to a ‘101’ formation for the rescheduled event in September 2022.

To achieve this required ideally ten aircraft; three in line astern for each figure ‘1’, and four in a diamond to create the ‘0’, but this could be achieved with eight, utilising two for each of the ‘1’ figures.

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‘101’ could be achieved with eight aircraft © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The man with a plan was John Taylor – known to everyone as ‘JT’. JT has a lifetime of experience with small aeroplanes, specializing in aerobatics and formation flying. He is also highly experienced with Fourniers, having founded the Skyhawk Aerobatic Team with Brendan O’Brien in 1983, performing formation aerobatics with Fournier RF4s.

It was JTs idea to fly the formation and he initiated the formation training. This started at Ringmer in East Sussex in September 2020 with Mike Millar, Vice President of Club Fournier International – UK (CFI-UK). The first sessions involved Mike, his wife Amanda and Simon ‘Spiney’ Norman. Mike and Spiney were both in a syndicate operating an RF5 whilst Mike and Amanda also owned an RF3. Mike started his flying with the RAF and both he and Amanda are experienced glider pilots whilst Simon is a former Royal Navy rotary and fixed-wing pilot, and also an instructor, glider and former airline pilot.

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Simon Norman and JT get airborne in Simon’s RF-5 to start the first training session at Ringmer © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The next session, also held at Ringmer, introduced Mike Dentith with his RF4D. Mike is another highly experienced light aircraft pilot, who’s extensive aviation CV also includes time with the Skyhawk Aerobatic Team, as well as considerable time flying wing walkers.

Mike’s aircraft has an interesting history, having been flown across the Atlantic by its original owner Mira Slovak.

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Mike Dentith’s aircraft, named ‘Spirit of Santa Paula’ was flown across the Atlantic and onwards to Santa Paula in California in May 1968 by it’s then owner Mira Slovak. Unfortunately it crashed on arrival at its destination. After being rebuilt at the factory Mira flew it eastbound across the Atlantic a year later as part of a Daily Mail air race. The routes he took are depicted on the aircraft. It then spent nearly forty years in a museum in Seattle © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

This session saw the trio: RF3, RF4D and RF5 deploy to a farm strip near Hailsham in East Sussex.

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Mike Millar in his RF3 leads in Mike Dentith in his RF4D and Simon Norman with JT in Simon’s RF5 at a strip near Hailsham © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The following sessions were held at a farm strip in the Cotswolds and introduced other aircraft and pilots to the training, building up to eight aircraft. Amongst the pilots joining were Matthew Hill with his RF4D, another former member of the Skyhawks Aerobatic Team and an experienced display and airline pilot, Will Greenwood with another RF4D, another experienced display pilot and Trevor Bailey also with an RF4D, who’s aviation CV includes time with Classic Flight at Coventry and considerable display flying.

Adding to this were Paul Cooper, an experienced glider and airline pilot with another RF4D, plus a team from Dunkeswell including Stuart Hall, Nick Harrison and Ian Mitchell. The Dunkeswell group fielded an RF5 and an RF6B, one of only two operational RF6s of any variant on the UK register. Last but not least, Fournier rebuilding specialist (he rebuilt Mike Dentith’s aircraft, amongst others) and LAA Inspector Dave Bland in variously an RF4D or an RF5; always good to have an engineer on hand!

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Matthew Hill in his RF4D © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The group consisted of a number of highly experienced formation pilots and some for whom it was a whole new experience.

However under JTs watchful eye, and with much sharing of knowledge from the experienced pilots, a safe and successful outcome was achieved every time.

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Three very experienced formation pilots, the Skyhawks reunited! From the left Mike Dentith, John Taylor and Matthew Hill © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Several of the aircraft were operated by syndicates, and various members of the syndicates attended the training sessions. Between them the group were able to field one RF3, a selection of RF4Ds and RF5s plus one RF6B, and heralded from Sussex, Gloucester, Devon, the Midlands and the Manchester area.

Consequently the Cotswolds proved to be a convenient central location for the training.

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An RF3, four RF4Ds and three RF5s await their pilots © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Unfortunately the Cotswold strip was unavailable in the late summer and autumn of 2021 so alternative venues were sought. August found them back in Sussex at a farm strip near Lewes and October saw them venture to Bidford, near Bidford-on-Avon. A small group ventured to Enstone in the spring of 2022, followed by three more sessions in the Cotswolds during the summer leading up to the planned trip to France. Joining for the last session just two weeks before the celebrations were another pair of experienced former airline pilots, Al Cook, and Bob Grimstead.

Bob is also a very experienced Fournier display pilot with his own RF-4D, and he was part of the RedHawks Duo display team with Matthew Hill. He is also well known to readers of Pilot Magazine, amongst others, having written extensively for them for many years about flying.

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A quartet of RF4Ds over Newhaven in East Sussex © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Also by this time several members had left the group, notably Mike Millar and Will Greenwood, who had both sold their aircraft.

Before each session JT carried out a thorough briefing, which was followed by a walk though of the intended manoeuvres (the ‘men behaving strangely’), supervised by JT. Only when everyone was happy with the plan did the pilots man their aircraft and start engines.

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JT breifing the pilots prior to a training sortie © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

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The briefing was followed by a walk through © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Some strips required a back taxi before getting airborne, so care had to be taken to taxi in reverse order of take off as the strips weren’t wide enough for the long winged Fourniers to pass.

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Due to the narrow width of some of the strips, on some occasions it was necessary to taxi out in reverse order of take off © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

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Stream take off © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Initially the profile for the flights was to start with a stream take off, a join-up and then a turn back to overfly the datum (usually the airfield) in the ‘101’ formation, or whatever part of it was achievable with the number of aircraft present – on most occasions a ‘10’!

There would then be a 180 degree turn to downwind, followed by another 180 degree turn and overfly of the datum, and a repeat of that but resulting in a break to a stream landing. Some strips would require the aircraft to continue to the end of the runway and then taxi back in reverse order once all the aircraft had landed.

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It may not be a perfect ’10’, but it is a ’10’! © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Each flight took about 30 minutes and most sessions managed to squeeze in three flights. On some flights JT would fly with the formation, on others he would monitor from the ground and comment via hand held radio.

In later sessions JT modified the profile to replicate the intended profile at the event.

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JT with Paul Thomson, syndicate member, in his RF5 © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

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Stuart Hall and JT in the Dunkeswell group RF5 © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The major challenge facing the team for formation flying was the lack of power of the aircraft. The RF3 and 4Ds were mostly powered by 1200cc Volkswagen Rectimo 4AR engines providing a mere 39 horse power. The RF5s had more powerful engines, either a 1700cc or 2000cc Limbach producing 67 or 80 horse power respectively, but were heavier, especially if both seats were occupied. Both these engines were derived from the engine that powered the Volkswagen Beetle.

The lack of power produced two issues; catching up if you got behind and performing a 180 degree turn with a wide formation. The first problem could be mitigated by allowing enough time during the run in to the datum for any stragglers to catch up.

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Another ’10’ – keep up no 5!

The problem with turns was that the outboard section going high would not have sufficient power to keep up, while the outboard section going low would not be able to slow down enough to avoid overshooting the lead section. So the 180 degree turn was achieved by the outboard ‘1’ section and the centre ‘0’ section, starting with the ‘1’, changing sides during the turn relative to the lead ‘1’ section. This would involve them sliding across, behind and below the lead section during the turn, whilst retaining their positions within their sections. Ideally when the lead rolled out of the turn the other sections would be alongside, but on the opposite side to the start of the turn.

The other tricky bit for the leaders of the following ‘0’ and ‘1’ sections was maintaining a line abreast position; never the easiest formation to fly.

The final training session in the Cotswolds occurred on the August Bank Holiday weekend with seven aircraft. This was a mere two weeks before René’s celebratory event, which was taking place at Blois, situated in the Loire Valley between Tours and Orleans.

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Bob Grimstead and his RF4D joined the group for the final training session © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The plan for the trip to France was to rendezvous at Headcorn in Kent on Friday 10th September and then head out across the English Channel on route to Rouen for a fuel stop. A further flight would get the aircraft to Blois on the Friday afternoon. The flypast was scheduled for Saturday evening, so that would leave plenty of time to have a practice flight at Blois. This was important to familiarise the British pilots with the area and also as JT had arranged for a number of experienced French Fournier pilots to be available to join in to make up the required number of aircraft for the ‘101’ formation, and they’d require a practice.

However the few days leading up to the 10th saw the weather break in southern England, with thunderstorms and the associated heavy rain, low cloud etc. JT took the decision to delay the Channel crossing until early Saturday, with those who’d made it to Headcorn on Friday night stopping there.

Six aircraft made it to Headcorn on Friday, with JT, Simon Norman, Mike Dentith, Matthew Hill, Trevor Bailey and Al Cook in the driving seats.

Unfortunately the Dunkeswell contingent of RF5 and RF6B struggled with the weather and eventually turned back to Dunkeswell. Two down but still seven to go, as Bob Grimstead was planning to join them early on the Saturday.

The next morning dawned with low cloud and poor visibility, so the planned departure time of 0800 came and went without any prospect of getting airborne. Meanwhile Bob Grimstead suffered a technical problem with his RF4D and landed at a strip near Lamberhurst. Three down, six to go. However his Aeronca Champ, which was acting as support, did get through to Headcorn. The weather slowly improved but nothing else moved at Headcorn until nearly 1100, and then it was still murky to the south east.

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Waiting for the weather to improve at Headcorn © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Eventually at 1200 JT made the decision to cancel. A lot of time and effort had been expended to prepare for this trip so the mood was a little sombre. However after a restorative cuppa it was decided to fly somewhere, anywhere so the day wasn’t wasted.

So after Al Cook had departed for home, the remaining five Fourniers started up with JT leading, performed a stream take off, turned back over the airfield in a tight formation and then headed off in the direction of Brighton en route to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight.

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Fournier Formation departing Headcorn, heading west rather than south east © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

After another cuppa at Bembridge, the aircraft departed to their home airfields, or at least tried to. Matthew Hill found a problem with his aircraft so had to leave it there overnight, while Trevor Bailey had electrical problems shortly after take off but made it home.

So not quite the adventure that everyone had hoped for. However there’s always next year, with a Fournier event being planned for September near Nantes. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘will there be a 102nd party?’, and ‘how are we going to do a 102 formation?’!