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Volume 40, Number 6November/December 1989

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Jordan's Royal Falcons

Written and photographed by Bill Lyons

Millions of enthusiastic fans have enjoyed their performances since 1978. With their superb airmanship, their willingness to stake their lives on precise control of a few hundred kilograms of Dacron, wood and steel and, watchers say, with their personal friendliness and charm, the Royal Falcons - Jordan's unique aerobatics team - have captured the attention of audiences worldwide.

Jordan's King Hussein, himself an accomplished pilot, suggested the team's formation 13 years ago and has been the Falcons' keenest supporter ever since. Two pilots, David Rahm and Steve Wolfe, began both to perform and to recruit and train additional pilots in 1976.

Their first severe setback came almost immediately: In 1977 Rahm, a Canadian, was killed during a local performance attended by the king, in an accident that called the safety of the whole project into question. Nevertheless, the Falcons persevered, and two years after the team's inception William Farid, Jalal Kattab and Hani Zu'mot - all Jordanians trained in commercial aviation by the Royal Jordanian Air Academy (See Aramco World, January-February 1978) - set out for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for six weeks of intensive training in advanced aerobatics and formation flying. By September 1978, though each had less than 400 hours of flight time, their performance had reached air show standards, and the Royal Falcons took flight. Over the next decade, they were to gain international recognition at some of the most prestigious aerobatics events in the world.

But local fame came first. The three-man team, flying two Pitts Special S-2A biplanes expressly designed for aerobatic flying, made its domestic debut in October 1978 on the occasion of the Middle East Civil Aviation Conference in Amman. Soon after, the Royal Falcons made their first appearance outside Jordan with two successful displays in Doha, Qatar.

Sponsored by the national airline, Royal Jordanian, the Royal Falcons soon became both the country's and the airline's "ambassadors of goodwill." The team is the only one of its kind sponsored by an airline, and the only full-time civilian aerobatics team in the Middle East. Until 1983, it was the only one in the world.

Acquiring a third Pitts biplane in 1979, the team practiced a three-ship sequence for its first tour outside the Middle East, and performed its maneuvers before at least 1.5 million spectators at the two most prestigious air shows in the world. They made their debut at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget before King Hussein himself, then went on to open a tour of Britain with the 1979 International Air Tattoo, held at the Royal Air Force's Greenham Common base. Both the Tattoo and the Paris Air shows are held biennially, with the participation of civilian as well as military teams at the French event, and almost exclusively military performers at the International Air Tattoo. The Royal Falcons' tiny red Pitts appeared alongside such air-show giants as the RAF's Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France and Italy's Frecce Tricolori.

The following year, the team went on another British tour, this time presenting 25 displays over a period of four months. By then, invitations to perform in various parts of the world were flowing steadily in, and in 1981 the Royal Falcons once again appeared at both the Paris Air Show and the International Air Tattoo. A1982 North American visit, however, was the Falcons' tour deforce. Their first stop was in Afton, Wyoming, where they took delivery of three brand new Pitts Special S-2S aircraft - single-seat biplanes slightly more powerful than their earlier models - and became the first performance flyers to present formation displays in this plane.

The Falcons' American debut was at Detroit's Willow Run Air Show, and officials there said the Falcons "turned the show upside down." They greeted fans, signed autographs and allowed dozens of children to inspect their planes. The Falcons recall one spectator saying, "I never thought Arabs could fly like that!"

They went on to perform in more than 20 cities in the United States and Canada in the course of the next five months. Besides their aerobatic displays, they flew 145 hours, or 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) cross-country. Equipped with only basic navigational instruments, the Pitts Specials fly in formation behind their twin-engine support aircraft, a Britten-Norman Islander that carries spare parts, luggage and the Falcons' maintenance team - one engineer for each aircraft - from one display location to another.

Not counting television audiences, approximately two million American and Canadian spectators watched the Falcons fly during their first North American tour, including close to 100,000 spectators at the Dayton International Air Show in Ohio, America's number-one aviation event.

The next year, the Royal Falcons performed again at the International Air Tattoo and at the annual air display at the RAF base at Church Fenton, and in 1983 they recruited a young Jordanian Air Force pilot, Majed al-Kayed. One year later, Mufeed Hassouneh and Muhammad Ghbour, also from the Air Force, joined al-Kayed to form a second Royal Falcons team which was, for the first time, made up entirely of non-civilians. Paul Warsaw, who had met the original members during their training in Florida in 1978 and had led and trained the team since, now made way for Jalal Kattab to become director of operations and training. Kattab, the longest-standing member of the Falcons, has held all three positions on the team as well as several administrative jobs.

The Royal Falcons resumed their international career in 1985 with performances at the Air Tattoo in Britain, at two air shows in France, four in West Germany, two in Belgium and one in Switzerland. Those were followed by performances at the Indonesia Air Show in 1986 and finally, for the fifth consecutive time, at the International Air Tattoo, held at RAF Fairford in 1987.

For all that the Royal Falcons fly relatively slow propeller-driven biplanes rather than blazing jet aircraft, newspapers hailed the team as "spectacular," "dazzling," and "a Middle Eastern jewel." In Britain, the Falcons met with explicit admiration from the usually restrained audiences, and Jalal Kattab recalls the compliment of the leader of the RAF Red Arrows, rated the best military aerobatic team in the world: "Boys, you are doing one hell of a job!" And in the United States, Kattab says, the then president of the Experimental Aircraft Association watched the Falcons perform and then told his son - a member of America's famous Christen Eagles team - "Go train!"

A relatively small team, the Royal Falcons design their display sequences to avoid time-consuming rejoining maneuvers in order to provide the audience with constant action; in a larger team, one element can perform "fill-in" maneuvers to compensate for the time lapse. They take great care to plan their performances in a sequence that ensures that exit from one maneuver will leave the pilots with the altitude and airspeed they need to begin the next. The Pitts Special S-2S is a light and highly maneuverable biplane, powered by a 260 horsepower Lycoming engine with a redline speed of 327 kilometers an hour (203 mph). Unlike jet teams, the Falcons must therefore fly in their maximum power range most of the time, leaving them only a very small margin of power in reserve to correct mistakes in timing. Even more than for their jet-powered colleagues, proper positioning throughout the entire sequence of maneuvers is essential..

Among the team's most thrilling maneuvers are the hammerhead turn and the knife-edge pass. The hammerhead, also known as the stall turn, requires the pilot to point the nose of the aircraft vertically upward until it reaches zero speed. Within three to five seconds, the pilot must use the rudder to throw the plane sideways before it slides back into a spin. In the knife-edge pass, the planes approach each other head on at a closure rate of 560 kilometers an hour (350 mph) until they are about 16 meters (50 feet) apart. At this point they roll 90 degrees, continuing on head-on courses, and pass each other canopy to canopy with 150 to 300 centimeters (5 to 10 feet) of clearance. To further complicate the maneuver, it is carried out so that the actual pass takes place directly in front of the crowd or reviewing stand. Also in the Falcons' extensive repertoire are snap rolls, loop splits, mirror rolls and Cuban eights.

Their most spectacular maneuver, however, is the formation slow roll, which demands perfect coordination between leader and wingmen. As the name suggests, it is a roll of the entire three-plane formation, and not of the three planes separately. After picking up speed in a V-formation, the lead pilot gradually reduces speed and initiates a roll. The lead aircraft rolls around its own axis, and counteracts excessive drag on the aircraft by reducing speed to maintain its position, but the right and left wingers must roll around the leader, and they have to increase their speed accordingly. Maximum coordination of flight controls and throttle must be maintained for the wingmen to keep their proper positions. The Christen Eagles were so impressed by the formation slow roll during a performance in Wisconsin that they requested the Royal Falcons to accompany them to Fond du Lac - where the Eagles were invited to participate in the American Aerobatic Championships - to demonstrate the maneuver.

The Royal Falcons success is built on skill, mutual trust and teamwork. According to former Director Paul Warsaw, precise coordination and nerve are musts. New-member applicants undergo a written exam, a basic plane-handling test and an oral examination. Only if the applicant is acceptable to the existing team members may he begin an eight-month training program. In keeping with the concept of the Falcons as representatives of their country, pilot and maintenance applicants must be Jordanian citizens. After three years of flying for the Falcons, members have the option of moving to a first officer's position with Royal Jordanian Airlines, a rank normally only obtained after five to seven years of service.

The team usually spends the spring and summer months on international air show tours. Before each tour, the Pitts aircraft are dismantled and airlifted from Jordan to an appropriate display location for assembly and test flights. The light structure of the aircraft - a steel-tube fuselage and wooden wings covered with Dacron fabric - allows two people to dismantle one in four to six hours. Back in Jordan, the team prepares for autumn and winter performances at home and throughout the Middle East, and new recruits are hired and trained. "Falcon Flight" home base at Amman International Airport is equipped to handle every aspect of aircraft maintenance.

Aerobatics enthusiasts the world over recognize the red-and-white biplanes of Jordan's Royal Falcons, and recognize also the team's consummate skill and dedication. For their part, the team members recognize the importance of their dual roles as both cool-headed performers and dashing ambassadors of their country. To judge by the awe on upturned faces when they perform, the Royal Falcons have succeeded in leaving an indelible impression on their audiences.

Bill Lyons is a free-lance photojournalist based in Amman, Jordan.

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the November/December 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1989 images.