Team Leader Frank Sharp tells how this team came about. After his stint at CFS mentioned above in 1976, he then went to the UK in 1977 on exchange where he learned about formation aerobatic teams from the masters:
"I was posted to UK. I was assigned Flt Lt Bobby Eccles as my instructor to convert me to the Folland Gnat. What was marvellous was that Bobby had just left the Red Arrows after three years of display flying.
We were at RAF Valley in Wales. The red Arrows were stationed at RAF Kemble in England and Bob's wife was still living there and he was commuting. Bob was still suffering withdrawal symptoms from the Arrows so, on one 'conversion' sortie, we flew to Kemble. Bob arranged for me to join the team for their display briefing then I flew in the back-seat for a full rehearsal. I then attended the debrief.
We all had lunch then I did the same again in the afternoon. Then Bob and I flew back to Valley. It was a memorable day and I learnt a lot about the team's 'modus-operandi'.
Mid 1979 I was posted back to CFS as the CO. While I had been in UK the end of the Harvard era at Wigram had occurred and the CT4B Airtrainers were in operation.
Shortly after I had converted to the CT4 I read a report written by the previous CO that stated that the CT4B was totally unsuitable for formation aerobatics. Subsequently there had been no interest in raising a team.
I couldn't help reflecting on old reports from RAF air displays at Hendon in the 1920s and 30s. Those guys did amazing things in formation in aircraft, some of which had poorer power/weight ratios than a CT4B.
With Sqn Ldr John Bates, who was the Fixed Wing Flight Commander at CFS (he was ex-Skyhawks and had recently returned from an exchange tour with the USAF flying A-10s), we set about investigating just what was or was not possible with the CT4B.
There is no doubt that, compared to its predecessor the Harvard, the CT4 had an even poorer power range that allowed for the 'outside' man to maintain station through all the conventional manoeuvres.
Harvard team; creeping forward during the early part of the vertical manoeuvre in order to compensate for the inevitable lack of power over the top.
However, we discovered just when the leader had to reduce his power and maintain his position by 'backing into the team' who would otherwise have trailed behind, particularly the No 4 in the box position.
This was nothing new as formation leaders always have to be conscious of the power requirements of others in the formation. However, with the CT4 the problem was the very narrow power range to play with as the leader started with less than full power for any manoeuvre to allow the team members to have a margin to work with.
Reducing the power further reduced the speed and hence the energy and hence the manoeuvrability. The barrel roll was probably the biggest challenge as the 'rolling while looping' needed a significant power reduction for the outside man and the number 4.
The reduction required could cause embarrassment to the inside man who had to throttle back to an uncomfortable level then had to be ready to really accelerate as we came out the bottom and went into a high wing over reversal.
We found that with a 'must have' controlled initial height and speed, careful engine husbandry by the leader and a timely call for "power" from No. 4 we could complete all of the conventional manoeuvers.
As for the mirror formation, following the adage that "nothing is new" this was also inspired by pre-war Hendon air displays. The real trick was that one CT4 had a modified oil system that allowed up to 30 seconds of inverted flight.
Once we got used to being able to maintain inverted flight for relatively lengthy periods we had the bright idea of putting the leader in the 'inverted' aircraft and have the team formate on him during manoeuvers with him inverted.
This quickly proved too difficult in addition to all the other challenges of the CT4, but, we did re-invent the mirror formation. John Bates was No. 4 and would do a solo 'fill-in' routine in front of the crowd while the rest of us clawed for more height and repositioned for the following part of the sequence.
It made sense for John to have the 'inverted' aircraft as he was able to exploit its capabilities in his solo performance. Thus, to achieve the mirror John would rejoin with me then pull a little ahead and to one -side of me and roll inverted. As soon as he was upside down I would fly underneath him and formate on him by looking up and judging distance. We could certainly hear each others aircraft and it took a bit of trial and error to work out just how to position safely as it wasn't a manoeuvre we could would really mimic on the ground.
The team consisted of Myself, No. 2 Flt Lt Frank Parker, No. 3 Flt Lt Dave Forrest, No. 4, Sqn Ldr John Bates. Frank was a helicopter instructor and a lot of this upside down stuff in formation was fairly new to him.
Dave was another ex Skyhawk pilot. It didn't occur to us to call ourselves the 'Red Checkers' although I see from the team photo that we had checker boards painted on the visor covers of our 'bone-domes'.
The team members did their jobs during the day then the team practices were invariably late in the day or in the evening to minimise the impact on the bases flight training schedule.
Like all formation teams the unsung heroes are the ground crews. The guys at Wigram were amazing at ensuring that enough aircraft were available to practise with.
Also, they literally invented the smoke system. There was not much room for an oil tank, but, with some excellent engineering they manufactured oil tanks that were unique to each aircraft (the CT4's were 'hand made' and each on varied slightly in the space available for the extra oil tank).
They then developed a 'venturi' extractor that fitted on the exhaust stubs. This allowed two smoke trails per aircraft and created very good 'smoke'. We considered colouring agents for the smoke until we discovered the cost and quickly forgot about that.
At the start we did not think it politic to seek clearance from group headquarters, but once we had convinced ourselves that e could carry out the basic manoeuvers safely we sought the necessary clearance.
We were lucky that Gp Capt Colin Rudd was the base commander as he actively supported us and once we were ready to demonstrate a basic routine he had the Group Commander watch.
I don't know what transpired but we got the nod to continue but did most of our training well out of site in the training area.
Our first public display was at the Wigram "Wings and Wheels" day on 6/12/1980. The aim then became to have a Support Group team perform at Air Force Day 81 at Ohakea.
The CT4B suffered 'bad press' having replaced the venerable and much loved Harvards. It just didn't have the impact or the grunt and quickly became known as the 'plastic rat'. While I am no aplogist for the CT4B I like to think that our display at AFD 81 changed peoples attitude towards it and helped it to be accepted as the quite capable little aircraft that it was.
It was exciting proving that the CT4B could actually deliver. On one occasion the RAAF CFS had heard that we were carrying out formation aerobatics in CT4s. They also operated the CT4 but had decided that it was not capable of display standard manoeuvres. They visited us at Wigram and we put on a 'practice' display over the airfield. They insisted on making an 8mm film of the vertical parts of the sequence as they wanted to prove to their colleagues back in Oz that it was possible!"