Extra Manoeuvers

What It Takes to Pull Formation Gs
at World Championship Level

Written by Monica Kade

Flying is an unexpected romance, one that many have come to know intimately in their own way. It seems to choose the individual, rather than the other way around, and it’s a feeling that’s hard to shake from the soul. 

Those who love it, live and breathe it—and a select few, they become it.

Inverted and flat out – a fantastic view from inside The Silhouettes’ precision formation display.

Top level at low level

Meet The Silhouettes, a professional Australian Display Team gracing the sky with awe-inspiring aerobatics. Since their first taste of flight, some 30 years ago, pilots Enzo Iacono and Joel Haski have passionately pursued and revelled in their respective love of flying.

From a 10-year Red Bull Sponsorship to flying three seasons of international airshows in China and then an exclusive invitation to the World Formation Aerobatics Championships in 2017, the display duo sure have experienced the upper level adventures of aviation.

The Silhouettes pilots – Joel Haski (left) and Enzo Iacono (right), talking with their hands as they prepare to perform their competition formation aerobatics routine.

But unless you’ve dedicated hours, days—possibly years of your life to mastering the art of aerobatics or formation flying, what transpires behind the scenes to achieve low-level displays of such high calibre is often overlooked.

While flying professionally comes with numerous perks, the logistics associated with preparing for airshows, the downtime between contracts, or responding to unexpected challenges—well, all that calls for even more tenacity than looping and rolling through the sky.

Let’s glimpse into The Silhouettes’ end-to-end operations in preparation for the first-ever World Formation Aerobatics Championships (WFAC).

To fly with the world’s best

In 2016, Joel received an invitation from Mark Jefferies (Aerobatic pilot, UK Global Stars), asking him to put together an Australian team to compete at WFAC held in Zhengzhou, China, in 2017. Joel had made a connection with Mark over a couple of Avalon Airshow periods in 2013 and 2015. 

At the time, neither The Silhouettes nor Red Baron Display Team (their debut team name before rebranding in 2019) weren’t in existence, but the eagerness to fly in the championships ignited its creation. 

Enzo would fly the lead, and Joel would be the wingman, a role reversal to their formation gigs until this point. 

The shift would free up Joel to take on the managerial and logistical components of the team.

The panel of VH-XRB is all about what matters most – speed, altitude, G-forces, balance and engine parameters.

WFAC was the first event of its kind, and since no one had ever competed in formation aerobatic championships, no one knew what to expect. 

“Creating the team, the display and practising it to world championship standard was huge undertaking,” Joel says.

“Being the lead meant a whole lot more solo training and practice for me to become more consistent and precise with my sequence—which is pretty normal for anyone who trains to be a lead in formation,” Enzo agrees

Practice, practice, practice

The competition involved two components with a panel judging both:

  • An airshow style of display—think freestyle formation.
  • The Classic—six of ten Aresti aerobatic figures flown in the box. 
Barely outside his lead’s smoke, Joel in VH-TWA, follows Enzo in VH-XRB through the vertical during their formation routine.

“There’s a fair bit of work required at the start to get to a competition standard, which took months—something like 50 hours or more,” Joel explains. 

“We began flying the sequence a few times, making modifications, but once we settled on it, it was practice, practice, practice to be comfortable with it by the show.

And the view from inside TWA, as Enzo (XRB) dives back past the smoke trail of the pair’s recent upline.

“We sort of over-prepared ourselves too. We practised the Classic component with our six Aresti figures and made them flow from one to the other. But we only realised after performing them that all you had to do was present the figures as accurately as possible in the box.

“So other teams would fly a figure, exit the box to get a better set up—factoring spacing and wind conditions—then fly in for the next manoeuvre. 

It wasn’t a problem. It simply meant we had a more seamless sequence than the others—and it added to the learning experience,” he adds with a smile.

Transporting precious cargo

Jumping into the cockpit and starting up the engine is a breeze compared to the logistics of transporting aircraft for international shows. 

Helping hands guide the wing of The Silhouettes’ disassembled Extra 300L VH-TWA out to the waiting container at Bankstown (YSBK). Note the massive carbon fibre spar carry-through – good for at least ±10G with one POB.

Disassembling the planes before loading them into a shipping container in Australia is always a somewhat laborious process. The Extras are strapped and bolted down, then sent abroad with hopes they’ll arrive on time and in good form. 

Some months after despatching their two aircraft to the pilots flew to China with an Engineer who’d sign off the aeroplanes for flight. Keep in mind, the engineer’s travel expense was a deduction from the team’s display fee. 

Things weren’t looking so great, especially because part of the invitation included payment for flying in the championships.

However, that was contractually predicated on The Silhouettes actually showing up and flying in each show—which sounds great until you’re on the other side of the world, ready to compete without an aircraft.

Tucked away: VH-TWA strapped and bolted down inside the container. Next stop, China.
And the reverse view, highlighting that it’s not only a plane which needs to get transported but tools, spare parts… everything.

The aeroplanes arrived one week after the gents and, on opening the shipping container, it was quickly evident that the engineer would not be signing off two flight-worthy Extras. Despite all the careful preparation they had been damaged in transit. 

In the end, they hired two of the British team’s aeroplanes from Mark and flew the show, while theirs were shipped on to the Extra Aircraft factory in Germany for repair.

Extra 200 VH-XRB being worked on after it arrived in China. This gives a great view of Walter Extra’s classic and incredibly strong welded tube engineering.

“It was a bit of a debacle and quite stressful. But, you know, we still got to fly in this amazing competition with some of the best aerobatic pilots in the world,” Joel says.

The other challenge with an airshow series is that the next event is often in a different province, and flying to it isn’t permitted. So every aircraft gets disassembled (again), packed up and transported to the next location, and then reassembled on arrival. 

Aside from the actual flying, display teams spend much of their time in transit.

The Silhouettes’ China team, from left to right: Team Manager Joel Haski, Formation Lead Enzo Iacono, and their erstwhile Team Engineer, Lyndon Trethewie.

Airshow game face

Underpinning all the stress is the unrivalled camaraderie of flying in formation. 

Formation flying at such an elite level is a true testament of character. The degree of trust and transparency between Enzo and Joel far exceeds that of many workplace partnerships you’ll come across. There’s no margin for error. 

“Once the canopy’s shut, it’s be here now,” Enzo states.

And yet, dancing on the edge is what makes this exciting art form so addictive and, in time, very familiar and comfortable.

It’s mental and physical. It requires precision. It demands exceptional situational awareness – especially at high speed and low altitude, in formation.

The aerobatic sequence is the linchpin of formation flying, but once harnesses are secure and the engines are rumbling, it’s playtime for The Silhouettes. 

Really, aerobatics pilots only do two things during a competition: Their bizarre-looking ballet as they rehearse on the ground…
…and watching the other displays. Enzo and Joel take time to spectate from the wings of VH-TWA.

They guys know their cues and figures – all 30 of them – a huge feat executed over 12 long minutes. As a reference, in a typical airshow sequence, pilots will perform 8 to 12 figures in approximately 6 to 8 minutes. 

Twelve minutes is incredibly demanding – physically, mentally and emotionally. But, for the audience, it is 12 minutes of captivating visual elegance.

Back to earth

After a week of displays, the skyward affair in China came to its end and it was time for the teams to head home again. It’s a bittersweet moment, dusted with anticipation for the next show. When? How long will it be? No one really knows.

Joel turns his back on the action for a moment, to pose with the team’s Chinese comp crew.

Any airshow is incredibly complex to organise and orchestrate, and the factors that must come together to make a successful, achievable and viable formation appearance for an elite team like the The Silhouettes are almost beyond counting.

Add the disruption of a global pandemic and those bittersweet questions are left hanging in the air, unanswered.

For now.

In the meantime, you can catch The Silhouettes in action on Instagram – including formation training sessions, personal aero practice, plus various air displays for local community and corporate events.

Be sure to check out this in-cockpit video from China and follow the team here: @Silhouettes_DisplayTeam

The Silhouettes formation display routine. Of course, this is just a cue card. If you haven’t committed it all to memory, you’re not ready for the competition.

THIS ARTICLE was kindly written and submitted by freelance writer Monica Kade. If your business needs positive, carefully crafted copy, head to Monica’s website and get in touch.

And I’m sure she joins me in a big ‘Thank You’ to Joel and Enzo for their cooperation.

5 thoughts on “Extra Manoeuvers

  1. Either Monica is a pilot or she does here homework VERY well. That is excellently written. My question has to be, “Where does the money to reach this standard and maintain the aircraft come from?”

    1. Hey Bob,

      Enzo & Joel here.
      To answer your question, being aerobatic and formation pilots and instructors (at The Aerobatic School Sydney) contribute greatly to the standard-along with all the other commercial flying we’ve done over the years. The school in combination with paid contracts for flying in various airshows allows us to continue doing what we love best.

      Are you interested in doing some aerobatics yourself?

      PS. Thanks so much for your kind comments re the article Bob (Pilot in the making and do my research) — Monica.

    2. Thanks Bob, I’ve passed your compliment on to Monica – as you can probably see.
      I think Joel and Enzo are being a little humble in their reply though. Sure, performance fees and their other commercial flying activities possible NOW, but let’s not forget that there would have been years of sacrifice, or living on beans and rice (or possibly cheeseburgers) before the costly training even began to pay off. Flying demands commitment on several levels – not least financial.

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