Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Art And Science Of Formation Flying

The finer side to flying lead or wing

As any good wingman knows, sometimes you have to take the lead. A few years ago, I was leading a flight of warbirds that included a B-17 out of Falcon Field, in Mesa, Ariz. I was flying a T6/G and had a friend in the back seat. As we taxied into position on the runway, I moved the stick and rudder around for one last control check, and just before I brought the power up for takeoff, I realized I couldn't get the stick back all the way. It so happened that without telling me, my backseater had swiveled the seat around, a feature of some T-6's, so he could better watch the other airplanes on takeoff. Positioned sideways, the seat restricted the elevator controls. If I had taken off, it would've been a very bad day for all of us.

I have a few war stories, and I've done a few dumb things myself. It's easy to make mistakes when you're inexperienced and don't know what you don't know, but being experienced and over-confident is an even more insidious danger.

The deeper and sometimes darker side of formation flying is that it takes less than a split second to look away and slide into another airplane. Closure rates are amazingly fast.

Flying low level in formation as a wingman for the first time is intense because you see the ground rushing up, but you know you can't look at it like you would when flying solo. You can ignore your intuition and misplace your trust in an inexperienced lead pilot who's unpredictable. There are many traps to fall into. It's the smart and maybe lucky ones who have good mentors when they start out.

Formation flying is very interesting, and there might be nothing else like it. When you're a child, the trust you have in your parents is implicit. When you're an adult, where else do we place such trust in another person? In formation flying, you surrender to that truth, but you're also an active participant. It's a little like being in love, but without the nagging doubts that your lover might leave—as long as you stay on the wing.

This collusion and agreement of mass and metal, mind and heart that drives a flight of airplanes is simply awesome. Next time you're at an air show or see a beautiful air-to-air photograph, think of the execution and the synergy, how close to the edge, how tight the tolerances are and enjoy a better appreciation of it.


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