Formation over Alps
7 min read

Jean-Louis used to fly the Concorde at Mach 2, but he’s willing to fly his Jodel at Piper Cub speed, say around 85 mph. The barometer is healthy, there’s no wind, and it’s high summer.

Formation over Alps

The rocks below glide by as though in deep slow motion.

In the Rockies, when the snow was deep and the mountain empty of tourists we used to say: “Just another [expletive] day in Paradise.” Another season, another life.

Today, in formation, we climb out of Annecy and make for the Alps through the Col des Aravis.

This kind of flying is like a jam session, a music of angles and relative positions. You know your buddy knows… It’s a kind of magic made possible by experience and trust. The rocks below glide by as though in deep slow motion.

Outside air is at 4 degrees C. On a standard day, it should well below freezing. Should be. The glaciers shrink visibly each year. How fragile this beauty…

Under our cloth-covered wings, climbers traverse the glaciers, and spider-climb the legendary routes. We cannot hear the rockslides, but the local papers tell hard stories in which gravity always wins.

Wary of downdrafts over ridge lines, we nose up toward Mont Blanc.

Mont Blanc

We nose up toward Mont Blanc.

When James Salter, who flew 100 combat missions as an F-86 fighter pilot in Korea, writes about mountains in Solo Faces he is, in a way, also writing about people who fly: “The rock is like the surface of the sea, constant yet never the same. Two climbers going over the identical route will each manage in a different way. Their reach is not the same, their confidence, their desire.”

Tourist flashbulbs at the Aiguille du Midi, followed by an ear-popping descent toward Sallanches and the reconnaissance pass over St. Roch Mayeres, a steep grass grass strip into a rock face. We land in trail in the freshly mown hay.

Just another day in paradise.



That big, round engine is like a symphony for pilots.

There was a time when William Charney flew his Super Sabre through flak at 450 knots 50 feet off the jungle floor. Today, we discuss moseying around at 90 miles an hour at 12,000 feet.

Winds are forecast as light and variable, with scattered high clouds around Mont Blanc in the afternoon. An airshow buddy texts me: “I’ll be overhead between 15:15 and 15:22 LT.”  Bill agrees to wait for my buddy’s pass in his fast jet, but will warm his engine ahead of time. Days are shorter now – so we need a takeoff time that allows Bill to land in Italy before dusk.

15H17: at high angle of attack, too slow for a wing wag, but long enough for everyone to get a good look, the Mirage 2000 rattles the hangar doors at Annecy and heads south. Merci, Babou!

“Red One… radio check…” Bill pre-oils then fires up the 450 hp Pratt & Whitney. To pilots it’s a symphony. His fingers count off the consecutive coming alive of the nine cylinders. About ten minutes later, I prime and start the CAP 10’s flat-four Lycoming. Its small, dry cough sounds almost silly in comparison.


Formation flight is a contract in trust.

We make a quick pass over the place where Chuck Yeager slept, after being shot down, while escaping occupied France. It is also the place he then “beat up” with Bud Anderson in their P-51s, on their final mission at the end of World War II. Anderson is a neighbor of Bill’s, who figures he’ll get a kick out of seeing it again.

“HE formation, cleared for takeoff 22. Report over the lake.”

Off my right wing, Bill nods. The round growl of his Pratt shakes my small two-seat aerobatic ship. Climbing out, I slide back, and cross under Bill to form up on his right wing.

Avoiding a swarm of paragliders above Talloires, we make for the Col des Aravis. Coming out of a turn to clear a cloudbank, Mont Blanc pops up at 12 o’clock.

Formation flight is a contract in trust. Sharing the sky with William Charney is like praying with the Pope, skiing with Toni Sailer or playing guitar with Segovia; I’d skied with Sailer…

View out window

Hard to beat this view.

Chamonix is below. With the Bossons glacier on our right, we head for the entrance of the Mer de Glace. Though leaned out, my 180 hp Lycoming is getting breathless. “Red One, how about a left 360?” Bill gives thumbs up. I cheat by cutting inside the turn and get back in tight.

On 130.00, the Common Advisory mountain frequency, a helicopter announces his descent to the valley Des Bois LZ. “Red One… helo twelve o’clock low, right to left…” Thumbs up from Bill. Ex-Air Force pilots don’t clutter up the frequency with unnecessary chatter.

The outside temperature should be well below 0 degrees C, but it’s not. Beneath us the season’s last climbers traverse on routes whose names are legendary to all mountaineers. We cannot hear the rockslides, but the local news regularly ups the death toll of unwary, or unlucky, climbers.

“Hotel-Echo formation… CAP and Staggerwing, from the Mer de Glace to the Goûter climbing from ten-five to twelve…”

Staggerwing formation

In formation with a Staggerwing near Mont Blanc? Another day in Paradise.

Alert to turbulence on the lee side, we nose up toward the western ridges below Mont Blanc. Bill will need to turn east and find his way toward Aosta. Then, he’ll negotiate his way around Milan’s restrictive airspace, overfly Bergamo and Brescia, toward a grass strip south of Lake Garda. Pampered in a friend’s private hangar, the “Red Rockette” (named after his eldest daughter who danced in the famous Radio City Music Hall troupe) is to spend another winter there before resuming its round-the-world solo flight. The timing and route from New Zealand to Nevada are not linear.

A few days earlier, we’d clambered into an old Piper Cub and climbed, squinting, toward the rising sun. Twenty minutes later, the Alps of France, Switzerland, and Italy could be seen in a single glance. We breezed over half a dozen high glaciers cut by blue-black crevasses, and we did this without words; such places need no vocabulary.

Past the pale north face of the Dru, we’d circled the Charmoz and the Aiguille la République, wing-wagged “Kon’nichiwa” to the ever-present Japanese tourists at the Aiguille du Midi, and banked north to drop 7,000 feet and land, between the cows, at St. Roch Mayeres, where go arounds are not an option.

Beech over lake

The big red biplane is a vision of a time when nothing was automatic.

Now, we skirt the west side of Mont Blanc, looking for a hole down into Italy. Seemingly motionless against the white undercast, the big red biplane is a vision of a time when nothing was automatic or taken for granted.

We find the opening just past the ridge fatal to two Geneva-bound Air India liners – a Super Constellation named Malabar Princess in 1950, and a Boeing 707 in 1968.

“Blue skies, Red One… Fly safe.”

I break right, back toward France which, from this altitude, looks untroubled.

The Staggerwing drops toward the rice paddies of the River Po.

“You too, my friend,” Bill radios. “Ciao.”

There was an understanding between them, the kind that has its roots at the very source of life. There were days they would always remember: immense, heart-breaking effort and at the top, what rapture, they had shaken each other’s hand with glowing faces, their very being confirmed.

Solo Faces – James Salter

Adam Shaw
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