Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Art And Science Of Formation Flying

The finer side to flying lead or wing

A photo flight is pre-briefed in detail–radio frequencies, formation positions and emergency contingencies. The wingmen must manage radios, fuel and power settings without looking inside the cockpit. Fuel management is important. For example, you don't want to run out of fuel or forget to switch tanks with someone tight on your wing, although we stagger and stack our formations so that if that happens, the person alongside you isn't in the direct path of a decelerating airplane.

Sometimes, we have a gaggle of five or even six airplanes. On takeoff, the camera ship is always in the lead. It calls the tower with a "flight of four" or a "flight of six." We use section takeoffs, with one airplane on each side of the lead ship and sections of two staggered behind them, all rolling down the runway at the same time. Centerline is inviolable and used to separate the rolling airplanes. In a two-ship, it's always best for the lead to be on the downwind side of the runway for takeoff, but when with a multiple formation, it's not always possible to avoid wake turbulence.

In the air, we start in echelon formation on the camera-window side of the lead plane, then change things up so the photographer can get a variety of shots. In a four-ship, two pilots may move to the opposite side, giving the other two a chance at some two-ship photos. Then three airplanes might slide over, each pilot then taking turns for the opportunity to get some great solo shots, upright, inverted or in knife edge. If you're the closest to the lead plane, you call "smoke on" when you see the photographer start to shoot.

The camera pilot is always positioning the airplanes for best lighting, so you can end up squinting in the sun a lot. The lead knows and trusts you won't take your eyes off them, but if you do, you peel off as briefed and let them know as soon as you have them back in sight.

We take care of each other in this environment, and the newbie usually gets positioned on the outside of the formation. However, in a formation of several airplanes, the pilot on the outside tends to get the toughest job. It's hard to look past airplanes bumping along, up and down, but the key is to focus on the lead plane. The airplane on the outside feels like it's getting cracked at the end of a whip.

Formation flying is extremely useful, but it leaves little room for error. You try to brief and plan for every contingency, but Murphy's Law—anything that can go wrong will go wrong—is always at play.


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