If you look to the skies every Saturday morning when in the Port Macquarie, Lake Cathie and Bonny Hills areas then, weather permitting, you will be treated to a dazzling air show performance by some of the most experienced and impressive pilots around.
The enthralling and daring performance is thanks to a collection of pilots known as the Bobcats who soar through the clouds in their colourful aircrafts in impeccable formation, thrilling observers on the ground.
The Bobcat Formation was started in 2009 by former flying doctor and Airforce pilot Dr David Cooke.
David was joined by friend and former Navy pilot Alan Bradtke and the two members of the Hastings District Flying Club would indulge in casual formation flying, more as a hobby than anything else.
After a chance meeting with fellow pilot Greg Kemp back in 2013, the nucleus of the Bobcat Formation evolved in time into the seven-strong set-up it is today.
"I'm pilot number one," says David with a smile. "That doesn't mean I am any more important than any of the other pilots, just that I lead the formation and am therefore the first pilot to take to the air."
Flying has always been in David's blood and his family has a rich tradition in the aviation industry; his grandfather was an instructor in Bristol Box Kites during the First World War and his father was a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War. Both his boys are jet captains.
"After my father died, my mother married another pilot in 1945," David said.
"He was killed and then she married a third pilot. The day I came home at the age of 16 and said to her that the Air Force was teaching me to fly she burst into tears."
David, a GP for 55 years who also served as a Flying Doctor, was recognised with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his service to medicine and aviation in the Queen's Birthday honours list last year - something he is, understandably, incredibly proud of.
Masters of the Skies
Today, in addition to David in his DeHavilland Chipmunk aircraft and Alan in his KR2 which he built himself, there is Bobcat 3, Rod Hall in his Sling 4 who used to perform aerobatics in his jet fighter, and Bobcat 4 John Hayler in his RV7 who practised formation flying in the Zimbabwean Air Force; Bobcat 5 is navigated by Steve Woodham who built his own Sonex aircraft, Bobcat 6 is flown by Peter Fowler and Bobcat 7 by Anthony D'Angelo.
"Although there are seven of us in total, we only ever have six taking to the skies at one time," David said.
"Who flies each weekend often depends on who is available although we never take more than six planes up."
These masters of the skies absolutely know their craft and they truly understand the dangerous nature of what they undertake.
"Despite having different backgrounds, all the pilots are experienced and really know what they are doing," David said.
"Alan is ex-Navy who still does aircraft maintenance work. Rod Hall used to sell jet fighter rides here in Port Macquarie, John Hayler is a retired Airbus captain from Cathay Pacific with 24,000 hours of flying time under his belt who learned formation flying with the Rhodesian Air Force and Steve Woodham built his own Sonex aircraft and therefore has intrinsic knowledge. Similarly, Anthony Angelo and Peter Fowler are both senior instructors.
"We originally had Greg Kemp fly with us as well but he moved to Queensland so he is unable to join us anymore. He was an instructor for the Australian Aviation College in Port Macquarie."
'Incredible concentration levels'
Planning is key to the formation's success as the different aircraft have different speed performances, unlike in the Airforce where every craft is uniform.
The Bobcats often fly only one second and 15 metres apart and so need to be fully synchronised in establishing and maintaining the correct speed and distance to avoid any potentially disastrous mishaps.
"When you're flying so close to one another you need incredible concentration levels," David said.
"Unless you're leading the formation you are not constantly looking at your instruments but instead focusing on keeping your wings level with the pilot next to you - all you concentrate on is the plane next to you and nothing else. You're about half a second from potentially running into him so the highest levels of concentration are required, particularly when conditions are a bit bumpy."
Typically David leads the formation out and usually Rod will lead back in to landing, although whoever takes the lead is the one in control with the paramount position of responsibility.
"Whoever is leading calls the shots at all times and the rest of the formation follow," David said. "Sometimes I will lead, sometimes Rod, John or Steve and we will often change mid-flight. But whoever leads will set the formation, set the tempo and call out to any other traffic in the area."
As part of the planning process, the pilots will have an in-depth briefing session every Saturday morning prior to them taking to the skies. The addition of an iPad app has helped with the planning, from the order of take-off positions to any mid-flight manoeuvres when changing position.
"It helps considerably when aligning the aircrafts next to or behind one another," he said.
"Sometimes we arrange in an arrowhead formation and we will often have two planes pull up and come back down again. The route each Saturday morning is relatively standard whereby we will head out over the town and the river mouth area, over Lake Cathie and then turn up along the coast to the lighthouse then back over the general area around the town for about half an hour before we come back and form a smooth long line in order to land."
Any new potential pilots looking to join the Bobcats need to have undergone thorough training before even being considered.
"There is a basic course of five hours with an appropriate instructor first and foremost," David siad.
"Some will head down to Maitland in the Hunter Valley to train although several pilots have been trained locally by John Hayler. However, we wouldn't consider anyone new joining unless they have had at least 10 hours of formation specific flying.
"We would then undertake practice sessions, perhaps just two planes up there so the person can get used to flying so close to another plane. Any new pilot would then be added to the end of the stream when we go up. And then gradually as we get to trust the new pilot, and they get to trust us, we can move him or her into position."
David and his colleagues are all incredibly proud of the Bobcat Formation and how it entertains countless observers each weekend and on special occasions such as ANZAC day - they have even performed as part of funeral.
"When you've got a formation going over, where someone has died, you take one of the aeroplanes out and you leave that space and it's called the missing man and you fly like that. It's a mark of respect."
The final question we pose to David is around the actual name Bobcat itself and how it came about.
"Bobcat comes from Alan," he replies with a laugh. "Whereas I started the whole thing, Alan was a military guy where it has always been the norm for cool names to be assigned to pilots rather than numbers, which can get confusing. It's like in the movie Top Gun where Tom Cruise's character is called Maverick. Alan was named Bobcat when he was in the Navy and we just adopted that name. It's funny as I didn't know until recently that the bobcat is actually an animal."
Animals aside, thanks to the passion and skill of pilots like David there are now seven Bobcats, a maximum of six of whom are up in the skies each Saturday morning so make sure you take time to marvel at these magnificent men in their flying machines at the first chance you get.
Interested in learning to fly?
The Hastings District Flying Club (HDFC) is Port Macquarie Flying School since 1958. HDFC is a leader in Recreational Flying Training specialising in professional pilot development. Their enthusiastic team of highly professional and experienced flying instructors draws on experience from many facets of aviation and will ensure that your flying training is conducted thoroughly, professionally and to the highest standards.
The purpose of the HDFC is to provide, on a non-profit basis, facilities and activities for the association of people interested in the promotion and development of aviation. Further, to encourage air-mindedness and interest in aviation in the youth of the Hastings district.
"Our students always emerge more mature, disciplined, confident and responsible after they have gained their Pilot's Certificate. These characteristics stay with them for life and it sets them apart from others, even if they do not fly professionally. This is a wonderful privilege for every young individual," Ray Lind, Chief Flying Instructor and Club Captain since 1990 said.
"Our goal as a flying school is to produce great and respected pilots. We do this by ensuring total aviation safety and disciplined airmanship through accurate and professional flying training and Pilot Proficiency Days. We are second to none among all RA-AUS Flying Schools."
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