Caravan VI, July 26, 2003

By Jody Voss – Mooney Lead

The 2003 Mooney Caravan was the sixth and most successful event ever. While all caravans have been successful in that all pilots arrived safely, each year saw great variations in size and performance of the groups, with mixed reviews from EAA, FAA and caravan participants. For 2003, all parties involved agreed that this was the safest, most well-executed flight that the group has made, with most of the credit going to changes in procedures, location, and leadership. And, while this was the best year, it is an event that almost did not happen.

The Mooney Caravan has been an organized, group flight into the EAA’s Airventure at Oshkosh since 1998. At that time it was conceived to allow a group of Mooney pilots to camp together. Parking at Whittman Field is arranged on a first-come basis, so the only way to camp together is to arrive together. This goal, with the ultimate focus on safety, has been the foundation of the caravan and remains as the ‘soul’ of the event.

The caravan is organized and led by a group of volunteers, most of whom have been involved with the event since the start. With the 2002 caravan, leadership had progressed through the ‘list’ of those who had expressed a desire to lead and who could commit the time to prepare and organize the flight. With the termination of each previous caravan, there was a ‘selected’ leader to plan and take responsibility for the following year. Not so after 2002. Not only was there no planned successor, the previous leaders were busy with work and other changes in their lives, and there was also a flurry of criticism about how previous caravans had been executed. As late as April of 2003, there were no definite plans to fly this year and no leader had surfaced to drive the event. Normally, by January of each year the flight and particulars had been arranged, including the web site being updated with registration slots already having been reserved. It looked bleak.

Then, in late April, as some folks were asking what plans were being made, an email circulated among past leaders with the title ‘Let’s have a Caravan,’ and it simply asked if each person would do their part to organize and lead this year’s event. Bill Rabek, and FAA ARTCC controller and Mooney Lead in 2001, was the natural selection to be Mooney Lead. Since 2002 he had been working on improved procedures, reviewing the size and make-up of the caravan, and had the contacts and capabilities to be an effective leader. Bill answered the request, as did everyone else, and at that point the 2003 Caravan was in the works. By May the web site was up and taking registrations, and before the end of June over 42 planes had signed-up and paid their registration fees. Procedures were posted and agreed-to with FAA, and Bill had addressed most of the concerns that had arisen from the previous year.

Performance during the 2002 caravan was less than ideal in that the flight was not closely spaced, flight groups overtook one another, some pilots wandered off-course and the entire flight consumed more time on arrival at OSH than EAA and FAA preferred. As leader for 2002, I certainly assume responsibility for the group’s performance, but we also faced several other challenges: a new location for departure, several turns enroute, including a 150 and two 90 degree turns, and high crosswinds that affected many pilots’ ability to stay on course (including the lead plane!). As a result, everyone agreed that we needed to do something to help create a safer, more crisply executed flight. After all, without changing the parameters of the experiment, how could we expect different results?

Bill Rabek took the lead in discussing changes to our approach and what needed to be handled differently. As one can imagine, the discussions that took place and the suggestions for improvements were vast, but in the end Bill came up with several changes that ultimately created a safer and better flight. Among these were:

    • A return to Madison as departure point, resulting in one 45 degree turn to final for runway 36 at OSH. During 2002, the departure from Watertown had required an excessive number of turns towards OSH.
    • Reduction in the number of aircraft participating, from as many as 97 in 2000, down to 42 (It is interesting that the inaugural flight in 1998 was comprised of 42 aircraft).
    • Reduction in the size of individual flight groups, from 10 planes each to six, with a reduction in take-off separation from six- to four-second intervals. This resulted in seven groups of six aircraft, or 42 in total.
    • Careful selection of flight leaders, to include those that were most expected to fly the specific flight profile.
    • A change in the pre-flight briefing, to focus on having each participating pilot simply stay on the aircraft ahead of them in the group.
    • And, lastly, a careful selection process for participating pilots. For the first time there were requirements that each pilot flying have a certain amount of hours, be a previous caravan participant and to be able to keep station on another aircraft in a loose formation.

The caravan itself is not a ‘formation’ flight, in that planes are very close and fly similarly to a military style formation, but rather as a loose accumulation of aircraft, much as one might find in a crowded traffic pattern at an airport. Pilots must be able to maintain visual separation and stay on an aircraft ahead and to their right or left, depending upon position, and maintain that constant separation throughout the flight.

The result of the changes noted above, combined with outstanding weather and winds, created the most satisfying, smoothest flight we have experienced. To aid in communication during the flight, each pilot tunes into a discreet ‘Mooney Flight’ frequency. In previous years this frequency was abuzz in constant chatter, comments and sometimes-dire warnings about one plane’s performance or another plane’s speed, all indicating a certain amount of mayhem in the sky.

This year the Mooney frequency was mostly quiet, with very few comments. The only really significant, and questionable comments, came as the leader of Echo Flight relayed a dubious compliment from OSH Tower – Don Maxwell, leader of the Echo Group, suggested that he had received from OSH tower, on a discreet frequency, a congratulations on being the best group and having out-performed the rest of the flight. The Mooney Caravan legal department, headed by Dave Piehler, is investigating…..

As in previous years, the caravan participants gathered over the weekend preceding the opening of Airventure, with 30 aircraft having arrived in Madison by Saturday evening. Many folks got together in impromptu dinner groups and enjoyed the camaraderie and friendships that have evolved over the years. For many this is a time to get together once a year and enjoy this special event. It is also a great time to meet new folks and to create new friendships.

Sunday dawned with mostly clear skies and the remainder of planned participants arrived at Madison. Pilot briefings began at noon, for group leaders, and the general briefing commenced at 1pm. Ken Beaubien, who lives in the Madison area, did a wonderful job of taking care of arrangements at MSN and also made sure that lunch and refreshments were available on Sunday. Bill Rabek kicked-off the briefings, going over the flight details and emphasizing safety and crisp flight performance. Waldo Born assisted, added his insights regarding station keeping.

By 2:30 the main briefings were complete and each flight group went through their individual briefings as well as gathering for a flight-group photo. At 3:40 most pilots had finalized their preparations, preflighted their aircraft and were ready for engine start.

Mooney Lead called for departure clearance and, at exactly 4pm, released brakes to initiate Caravan VI. At four second intervals each succeeding plane took off, with 20 second group intervals, and in a very short time 42 aircraft were streaming towards OSH. It was exciting to be a part of such a group flight, surely one of the largest in-flight gatherings of Mooneys that occurs each year.

Despite cruising at a leisurely 125kts indicated, the flight seemed to be almost over as soon as it started, as Bill turned towards OSH and reduced speed to 105 for descent. We were fortunate to again be arriving to the north, using runways 36L and 36R, which made it safer and easier for simultaneous arrivals on the left and right. After landing it was a long but careful taxi in the grass to the North 40 camping area and then shutdown in camp. As usual each year, the time after shutdown is a mix of excitement at the recently completed flight combined with the need to get aircraft parked in appropriate spaces. Before long most folks were busy securing their aircraft and getting camp set up, as this would be home for the duration of the show.

The weather at Osh was simply delightful for the early part of the week. Clear skies prevailed through Tuesday, with rain arriving late Wednesday morning. Temperatures were a cool 55 at night and in the low 80’s for daytime highs, a respite from the usual summertime heat most folks endure.

Monday was set-up day at the show, but most folks were able to wander the show grounds and see some interesting aircraft as well as visit the EAA Museum, which rivals most aviation museums for its content and facilities.

Tuesday evening we hosted what is the other most significant event – the Mooney BBQ. John Bartholomew again planned a great central Wisconsin culinary delight of BBQ pork, roasted corn and all the trimmings, as well as excellent Wisconsin ale. Although we had planned a scaled-down event, just fewer than 200 folks dined in a terrific setting, all surrounded by scores of Mooneys and friends. Mooney Airplane Company staff joined us as did Trey and Lela from MAPA. Trey offered a few kind words about the status of the Mooney community, happenings in Kerrville as well as plans for the fist MAPA convention in Kerrville since 1998 – a true homecoming.

We also were able to give away many valuable prizes at the BBQ, thanks to the generous support of our many sponsors. Each year the Mooney Caravan has enjoyed support from many companies, each of who contribute cash or prizes to be given away at the annual Mooney Caravan BBQ. This year we were especially well supported, with over 16 companies supporting the Caravan and ensuring a good time for all attendees. The following companies gave of their time and resources and we want to again thank them and hope you will show your gratitude and give them your Mooney business:

Cash sponsors:

    • Don Maxwell Aviation
    • Lake Aero Styling and Repair
    • Midwest M20 Sales & Service
    • Mooney Airplane Company, Inc.
    • Prize Donors & Other Support
    • Aerox
    • Executive Flight Training
    • First Priority Bank
    • Flightcomm
    • General Aviation Modifications, Inc. (GAMI)
    • M20 Turbos
    • MAPA
    • Oregon Aero
    • Orion Flight Services, Inc.
    • SkyOX
    • Topgun Aviation
    • Trajen Flight Support

Each year several individuals contribute a significant amount of time to organize, lead and create the caravan experience. Those we most want to recognize include the following

    • Bill Rabek – Mooney Lead, FAA liaison, procedures preparation;
    • Ken Beaubien - Madison/Wisconsin Aviation logistics;
    • John Bartholomew – Mooney BBQ;
    • Jonathan Paul – founder of the event, registrar / organizer and webmaster for 2003;
    • James Oliphant – Caravan apparel;
    • Dave Piehler – Mooney Tail (and resident Yankee Lawyer),
    • Darwin and Deanna Puls & Bill and Jeanne Scott – Registration, BBQ bartending.
    • And I am sure that I missed somebody, so please forgive me.

As noted in previous years, while the dedication of the organizers is appreciated, we couldn’t have an event like this without the participation of those who fly with us. We appreciate all of those who chose to spend a portion of their vacation sharing the passion we have for aviation and things Mooney-related. For those interested in joining us next year, please stay tuned and contact us with suggestions and offers to help. Until next year, fly safely!