21 October 2013 | St. Petersburg, Florida. On a delightful Saturday afternoon in April 1992, and above MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, history was in the making. A four-plane diamond formation called “Mystic Flight” paralleled the AirFest run-in line and reached the Initial Point or “IP.” MacDill and the approximately 250,000 air show patrons were some six flying minutes away. Down below, the public address system blared with the announcer’s voice. He enthusiastically informed the crowd, “The next formation flyby will be a four-ship flight of general aviation aircraft. They are flown by your very own Tampa Bay hometown Ye Mystic Airkrewe air show pilots from the Gasparilla Air Force. The team will use a diamond formation of high-wing Cessna and low-wing Piper aircraft. Each airplane is flown by general aviation pilots.” The emcee continued, “Their pass in review during the Air Tattoo today will end with a Cobra Turn . . . .” Puzzled, many enthusiasts asked themselves and others nearby the following question: “A cobra what?”
While the spectators wondered on the ground, in the distance the light aircraft flew in trail until they reached a designated inbound track. At that point only ten miles remained. The flight leader called out for a “Diamond Formation.” Once overhead the planes performed the Cobra Turn. As the airplanes changed heading in perfect unison loud applause erupted from the audience and members of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, who were preparing their F/A-18 Hornets for flight. Even for veteran military flyers the “Cobra Turn” was a memorable sight. In fact, at that moment a number of the naval aviators’ faces also bore a smile of approval and admiration.
How did the Cobra Turn come to fruition? The designation “Cobra Turn” came to Neil Cosentino while he was flying McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs with the U.S. Air Force’s 67th Fighter Squadron in Korea during 1970. Mr. Cosentino explained, “At the time I was flying from Tague Air Base in South Korea. The 67th was then based at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, but tactical flying took place from Taegu.” Neil smiled and continued, “South Korea was a great place over which to fly.” He elaborated, “In those days we were free to simulate all types of ground and air attacks. Everything was fair game with the exception of airliners, the president’s palace and the Demilitarized Zone.” Mr. Consentino stated that his favorite target was U.S. Army helicopters. “I liked to sneak up on them in my F-4 and make passes in attempts to goad them into responding.”
“However,” Neil remarked, “it was in fact a North American OV-10 Bronco pilot who caused me to think of the Cobra Turn concept. One day this particular pilot spotted my flight of F-4s before we could make a pass.
The Forward Air Control aviator stood the OV-10 on its props in a nearly vertical orientation. This skilled man slowly rotated the Bronco, facing us continually, as we circled him trying to find an “attack” opening. The sight of the swiveling OV-10 reminded me of an erect cobra snake. I will always remember how well he flew, turning his aircraft like a cobra to keep two mongooses at bay.”
Neil gained most of his formation experience while flying on combat sorties. He stated, “I was the flight leader of the fourth flight in a sixteen Phantom squadron. This was in December 1972. The unit based at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base. We were on operations during Operation Linebacker II and flying up to the notorious Red River Valley in what was then North Vietnam.”
More than two decades later, in the early 1990s, Ye Mystic Airkrewe formed at Peter O. Knight Airport. Formation flying was a primary focus for the organization. Other goals for the Ye Mystic Airkrewe were to promote aviation tourism, increase the public profile of the group and assist with the Gasparilla Fly-In. “What surprised me was that even non-pilots were eager to join. It seemed that each new member wanted to learn about formation flying and gain skills,” noted Neil. Being an experienced fighter pilot, Mr. Cosentino naturally assumed the position of instructor. “My motivation was to pass on the knowledge, keep the training program moving forward, and, most importantly, keep the activities safe,” remarked Neil.
The AirFest appearance opportunity was too fortuitous to decline. The major problem Neil faced was the limited amount of time in which to teach, practice and learn. “AirFest organizers informed us that we were to fly the Cobra Turn demonstration just prior to the headliner event, which was the Blue Angels’ performance,” explained Mr. Cosentino.
All of the formation flying training took place from Peter O. Knight Airport. Neil elaborated on the subject of training. “At that time there was no manual for us since most formation flying is done in the same model of aircraft. However, in the Mystic Flight no two planes were the same!” He continued, “From past experience I knew that safe formation flying requires a good pre-flight briefing, and that is the responsibility of the flight leader. It is an interesting dynamic in that the leader must provide the information and instill a sense of leadership and confidence in the other pilots.” Mr. Cosentino noted a fact: “Formation flight is never routine.”
Neil described his pre-flight briefing process. “Our briefings included an overview of the mission, the flight objectives, timings, call signs, etc. I designated each aircraft’s position in the flight, the maneuvers to be performed and what pilots should do in the event of an emergency.” He held up a forefinger to stress several points. “The safety concerns and procedures were the most important topics. As the leader, I also discussed when and where during the routine to expect the unexpected and how to prevent mid-air collisions.”
Mr. Cosentino again spoke on the subject of training. “I decided to utilize the in-trail formation as the basic disposition for training,” he said. He added, “The aircraft would taxi out in order of position and line up in an extended trail on the parallel taxiway. The pilots used runway lights to ensure correct spacing. I told the pilots to mark the wingspan of the aircraft in front on their lane’s windscreens with a grease pencil or removable tape. Takeoffs were made in a rolling trail sequence.” Gesturing with hands, Neil continued to explain. “After each participating plane was airborne, we used a wide turn to enable the lower-powered aircraft to join up. We typically climbed to 1,100 feet and departed the area southeast of open farmland on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay. Flights were in-trail along the farm section lines. Spacing was maintained through the use of the grease pencil ‘gun sight’ marking.” Mr. Cosentino noted that he could “tell if the formation looked good by flying headings that resulted in shadows on the ground below.”
Maneuvers would begin at 100 knots of airspeed. Neil remarked, “At intervals I would call for a 90-degree turn. The pilots of all five aircraft would simultaneously make flat rudder turns while keeping their wings level by applying opposite aileron. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the maneuver was that the pilots had to turn at the same rate as the planes ahead and abeam.” He exclaimed, “It was like an aerial ballet!” The trick was that all five airplanes had to turn slowly from an in-trail into line-abreast. “Each pilot therefore had to add some throttle as the turn began and subsequently reduce power when they were on the new heading, all the while maintaining 100 knots of airspeed,” explained Mr. Cosentino. Eventually, the pilots mastered other movements.
During the tattoo Neil flew in the slot position so he could better monitor the other three planes and provide coaching. “Also, the slot was the best position from which to ensure that we did not fly over the crowd or encounter other airborne aircraft,” he said. Mr. Cosentino then described what transpired in the cockpits. “We began the Cobra turn when passing the center of the viewing area.” He paused. “Actually, the turn was needed to stay out of controlled airspace around Tampa International Airport,” added Neil. Everything went according to plan.
Mr. Cosentino provided a few thoughts in closing. “It is always a privilege to lead any flight. That day over MacDill was no different. Yes, the planes were smaller and slower than military jets, but leading Mystic Flight nevertheless instilled within me a sense of great pride.”
Neil Cosentino plans to publish a book Letters From the Cockpit in the future. The above details, as well as many others, will appear within the pages.
The author (John Stemple) thanks Mr. Neil Consentino for his cooperation and assistance.
Sources and Suggested Readings
F-4E Phantom II
MacDill Air Force Base
McDonnell Douglas F/A -18 Hornet
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
Misawa Air Base
North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco
Operation Linebacker II
Peter O. Knight Airport
Tague Air Base
Udon Royal Thai Air Base
U.S. Navy Blue Angels
Ye Mystic Airkrewe