Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Art And Science Of Formation Flying

The finer side to flying lead or wing

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be flying in close formation with another airplane, seeing the tiniest movement of an aileron, the heat curling from the exhaust? When nothing else exists but your relative position to another wingtip? To know your fate is entirely within your hands, and your control, skill and focus are the only things separating you from life or death.

We stand in awe watching the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Airforce Thunderbirds and the Aeroshell Team. Dynamic and static at the same time—four, five or six beautiful airplanes welded together flying diamond patterns and fingertip sections across the sky, they separate into solos before forming up for a rejoin. Like true athletes and performers, the great formation teams make it look easy. And, if you were sitting in the cockpit, you'd know they're closer than they look.

A formation flight takes a leader and a wingman. The leader trusts the wingman will stay in position. The wingman relies on the lead to guide her safely through the air. They cannot and must not get distracted, even for a second. While a team needs skill, training, practice and depth of experience, trust is the foundation of all formation flying.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the 1982 U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds "Diamond Crash." While practicing in the desert as a formation of four T-38 Talon jets, the leader, who had a jammed stabilizer, flew into the ground, taking his entire four-ship team with him. The wingmen, flying off the lead, never broke their concentration. The mutual trust they showed that day makes them quite possibly the best formation team in history.

Not just for demonstration teams, the art and science of formation flying is useful for many reasons. Military pilots learn formation for mutual defense and protection, mission integrity, navigation, target strike and concentration of firepower. Having a wingman in an emergency can be helpful in troubleshooting, visually inspecting another aircraft and providing cover if a plane goes down.

Think of Medal of Honor winner Thomas Hudner and wingman Jesse Brown. In 1950 during the Korean War, Hudner and Brown were flying F4U Corsairs on patrol in North Korea when Brown was hit by enemy fire. In an attempt to save Brown from his burning aircraft, Hudner intentionally landed his airplane on the side of a mountain in below-freezing temperatures to try to help save Brown's life. Flying with another person into combat can give a pilot not only a psychological boost, but a literal one too, as in the famous incident known as "Pardo's Push" where, in Vietnam, Captain Bob Pardo used the tailhook of a damaged combat F-4 Phantom to push it from hostile territory into friendly airspace.


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