Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Formation Flying! Part II


The cognitive challenges of flying lead


Formation flying is a dangerous and, for me, compellingly beautiful and engaging experience. It requires a significant amount of discipline, dedication and practice, and should never be attempted without considerable ground and flight training. My experiences and training have made me firmly believe that formation flying is primarily about the proper attitude toward safety, in addition to training and discipline.

In the August 2009 issue of P&P, I discussed some of my techniques for flying wing; in this installment, I’ll focus on the challenges of flying the lead position.

Lead Is A Cognitive Job
As lead, you’re responsible for all aspects of the flight from preflight briefing to managing all in-flight operations and the postflight debrief. This isn’t to say that lead should be an autocratic dictator when it comes to setting goals and objectives for a fight, but once the group has decided on its objectives, it’s time for lead to step up and manage the process going forward.

Lead is responsible for doing the thinking and planning for the formation. In the air, lead is expected to be a smooth and consistent platform for the wingmen to fly off of. Lead should assess the skill levels of the wingmen in the flight, and be able to sense what kind of day each of the wingmen are having to gauge whether they can be helpful, keep the entire formation within their capabilities and safely complete the mission.

It’s generally agreed that lead should be the best pilot in the formation and should definitely have the most formation flight experience. A lead pilot must have excellent wing skills so that he or she can understand and anticipate what the wingmen will need for a successful flight.

Pre-Formation Flight Planning
A formation of airplanes is a complex thing to be responsible for. Not only are there multiple pieces of machinery but also multiple personalities with different capabilities. The lead pilot has to provide a tight enough framework for the flight to operate in so that everybody has a clear plan and can relax and enjoy the flight.

The formation flight briefing is usually conducted by the lead pilot and consists of all aspects of the flight profile such as weather, airport and communications information; pilot positions within the flight; potential issues such as dissimilar airplanes in formation (taxi routes, type of takeoff and join-up procedures); flight route; the maneuver profile; all potential landing operations; and emergency procedures (including lost-sight procedures). Communications are extremely important for safely conducting a formation flight; this must be known and understood by all flight members. If a flight member has formation flying experience, but lacks a thorough knowledge of the standards that are to be used, then the person has no business being in the flight and should remain on the ground until he or she is familiar with all operating procedures.



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