Like general aviation pilots, most of my flying activity could be described as the “plain vanilla” variety: Personal transportation flying from airport A to airport B, instructional activity in the local area, and practice to maintain proficiency and currency. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes get a hankering to try a more exotic flavor of flying. As a huge fan of “aluminum overcast” warbird formations, I decided I wanted a taste of flying in formation.
Last autumn, my quest took me to a school out west where a pair of former military instructor pilots patiently tutored a fellow fledgling formation flyer and me in the finer points of getting up close and personal without making a very loud noise. Let me get this part out of the way first: I loved every second and have budgeted carefully so I can go back and learn more. Rest assured that personal risk management keeps me in “do-not-try-this-at-home” mode until I can train enough to be truly proficient. Still, it turns out that many of the basic formation flying principles can apply to even the most humdrum home ‘drome flying.
Briefings Aren’t Necessarily Brief. No formation flight starts without a thorough preflight briefing. This session covers weather and all the standard items mentioned in Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) section 91.103 for a preflight briefing, but that’s only the beginning. For formation flight, the preflight briefing includes a detailed description of who, what, where, when, and how. For example:
- Who is flying lead, and who is flying wing?
- What maneuvers are to be flown? In what sequence? What speeds are to be used? What are the emergency procedures?
- Where is the operating area?
- When do we expect to complete each maneuver and each sequence?
- How do we signal intentions (e.g., radio, hand signals, both?)
Not all these questions apply to the typical general aviation flight of one aircraft, but you can certainly step up the quality of your preflight preparation by collecting the “all available information” required in 14 CFR section 91.103 and then conducting a more extensive formation-style briefing:
- Who is PIC? (This is very important when two pilots are on board.)
- What is the mission? What procedures apply in case of an emergency?
- Where is the operating area and what airspace issues exist?
- When do we expect to arrive?
- How will we navigate, communicate, and (if appropriate) share flying duties?
This list is just a starting point. One way to construct your own detailed briefing is to borrow from visualization techniques used by aerobatic pilots and sports champions. Close your eyes and imagine your way through every step of the flight you’re about to make. By mentally flying the entire profile before you launch the actual airplane, you are more likely to find, brief, and eliminate potential “gotcha” lapses and mistakes before they have a chance to get you.
Keep your Priorities Straight. My formation flying partner and I quickly learned that keeping priorities straight is the key to staying alive while maneuvering moving metal in close proximity. Priority number one is controlling the altitude, or “stepdown,” relative to the lead aircraft. Priority number two is to establish and maintain the correct lateral position along an imaginary 45-degree bearing line off the lead aircraft. Priority number three is to control the rate of closure when joining or maneuvering in the formation. I quickly came to think of it as the “A-B-C” rule, and found myself muttering those three magic words almost constantly when it was my turn to fly the wing position.
In the kind of flying that most of us do, the three priorities – in order of importance – are aviate, navigate, communicate. My first flight instructor chanted those words until it became second nature to think, and operate, in the aviate, navigate, communicate sequence.
In my instructional flying, I’ve seen what can happen when pilots get these key priorities out of order. Recently, I watched a pilot on a practice instrument approach carefully reset the heading bug and make a radio call before initiating the turn onto the final approach course. The few seconds he spent on navigation and communication at the expense of aviation-flying the airplane-required a lot more time and effort to get back on course. In any kind of flying, first fix the things that can hurt you the most. Everything else can wait.
Precision Is Not an Option. It’s pretty obvious that precision counts for a lot in formation flying. Another oft-muttered mantra during my training sessions was “small corrections only.” That was especially challenging in the Extra 300L, a high-performance aerobatic airplane that enthusiastically responds to the slightest touch on the stick. Having another aircraft just ahead (when I flew wing) or just behind (when I flew lead), however, was a constant and powerful motivator to fly as precisely as possible. For those who, like me initially, think that flying lead is easier-think again! The precision required to provide a stable platform for my wingman was no less than that required for the close-echelon wing position. In fact, it was even harder, because flying the lead position also meant taking responsibility for navigation, communication, and keeping the formation clear of terrain and other traffic.
Precision counts in normal general aviation flying, too, and becomes second nature for pilots who regularly file and fly under instrument flight rules (IFR). There is sometimes a tendency, though, to settle for less when flying under visual flight rules (VFR). Instead, make it a game, or a challenge, to fly as precisely as you can on every flight. You’ll be grateful-and safer-for having precision as a second-nature skill.
Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way. Years ago, a car company executive became famous for saying, “In this business, you lead, follow, or get out of the way!” That came to mind frequently during my formation flight training. The lead pilot’s job is to provide a stable platform and do all the thinking, planning, navigating, and communicating. The wing pilot’s job is to follow the lead and fly as precisely as possible. Both pilots have an obligation to get out of harm’s way if visual contact with the other formation element is lost. I learned that lesson firsthand: After a turn into the bright southwestern sunshine (thanks a lot, Lead!), I completely lost sight of the lead aircraft. And, I got out of the way.
Respect for roles and positions matters in everyday flying too, perhaps nowhere more than in the airport traffic pattern. On a busy weekend day, knowing how to fit into the pattern, adjust speed and spacing to follow aircraft ahead of you, and when/how to get out of the way and start over are all important skills. Of course, we should all know and follow right-of-way guidance as outlined in the rules and the Aeronautical Information Manual, but it’s always better to get out of the way than to be “dead” right.
Trust, but Verify. Aviation is built on trust. Formation flying is impossible without it. The lead must trust the wing pilot to maintain proper position. The wing pilot has to trust the lead to keep the formation clear of terrain, traffic, obstacles, and all other dangers. For me, the trust part was toughest when I was flying in the lead position. After an aviation lifetime of staying as far away from other airplanes as possible, it was an act of sheer will to turn deliberately in the direction of my wingman. I had to trust him to be watching me and following my every move as precisely as possible.
Trust with verification is also an important skill or, more accurately, a mindset to develop in general aviation flying-especially if you are IFR in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Pilots have to trust controllers and controllers have to trust pilots. Unlike formation flying, where the wing has to put complete trust in the lead pilot, general aviation pilots must never allow anyone else (especially someone on the ground) to do all the thinking. If a heading sounds wrong, or a vector doesn’t make sense, speak up. Everyone will be better off if you season the trust with verification.
Think Ahead. I loved flying the wing position during my formation flight training. It was challenging and it was fun, but it was also easier, because “all” I had to do was watch closely and mimic every move made by the lead pilot. Piece o’ cake. It was a lot harder when I had the lead, because I had a lot more responsibility. It’s an aviation cliché that you should never let the airplane go anywhere your brain hasn’t already reached, but that’s especially true in formation flying, where the lead has to think, act, and plan for more than one airplane.
As the above cliché suggests, the requirement to think ahead is by no means unique to formation flying. In any kind of flying, but especially IFR operations, my instructor was a strong advocate of the “next two things” mentality. He taught me to think ahead by requiring me to state, at any given time, the next two things I would have to do on the flight.
Train the Way You Fly, Fly the Way You Train. That phrase, which is the essence of scenario-based training, deftly summarizes the reason we should all put these principles into practice every time we fly. If we train for precision, we’ll fly with precision and we will all be the kind of safe and solid aviation citizens I hope we all aspire to be. (FAA Aviation News – SeptOct 2009)