Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Art And Science Of Formation Flying

The finer side to flying lead or wing

Civilians learn formation flying for similar reasons—to become well-rounded pilots, to provide support while flying cross-country, for camaraderie and fun, and for aerial photography.

I learned formation flying in the wide-open desert outside of Tucson, where I was based for many years. In 1986, the Red Baron Squadron, the premier formation Stearman team, was also based there, and we became friends. I had just made the U.S. Aerobatic Team. The Squadron suggested I learn to fly formation because, later that summer in Europe for the World Aerobatic Championships, I'd be flying cross-country with nine or 10 airplanes.

Red Baron pilot Steve Thompson took me aside and explained the basics—the takeoff, the "form up," taking turns on the right and left wing so I wouldn't become "handed," power adjustments and why being on the outside of a turn requires more power (larger radius) and on the inside less (smaller radius); how to switch sides by sliding back and under the lead so I could always keep him in sight; and what to do if we lost radio communications or lost sight of each other.

I'll never forget my first formation lesson. I followed Thompson out in my Pitts S-1T, giving him a wide lead, then moved in closer to follow him through some shallow turns to the left and to the right, which put me on the outside and then the inside of the turn, my radius increasing and decreasing. As I got a little braver, I moved in close enough to hear the growl of the big 450 hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine. Then, I slid back, down and over to his other side, moved in a little closer, and the biplane's wings and wires became my whole world. It was intense, dramatic and exhausting!

You learn a lot about airplanes by watching them up close in the air. Control surfaces are never completely still, the airflow twists and turns around the empennage, each type of wing accelerates differently and aerodynamic drag is always chipping away at forward speed. If you love airplanes like I do, you understand why flying close to one is so awesome. You see how they take on life and breathe when in the air.

Since that first lesson, I've used formation flying my entire aerobatic career flying cross-country in air shows, troubleshooting problems for other airplanes and for aerial photography.

Air show pilots love to get their pictures taken, and we're often the subjects of the best aerial photographers in the world. There's a formula for great air-to-air photos, the first ingredient being a good photoship. A-36 and V-Tail Bonanzas, B58 Barons, Skymasters and Saratogas with doors removed, or those approved with special camera windows, are ideal. The B-25, every aerial photographer's favorite, is a little harder to come by. The pilot of the photoship must be smooth, experienced and understand formation flying. They have to know how to fly with dissimilar aircraft, handle radios in busy airspace and position the formation for the best light and angles.


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