Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Formation Flying! Part II

The cognitive challenges of flying lead

A good ground briefing includes all of the previously mentioned items and a review of all the pertinent standards that apply to the specific flight. Plane & Pilot and Pilot Journal photo flights, particularly when flying some of the new light jets that are entering the market, can be an extreme example of briefing dissimilar planes in formation. Flying a jet at the very low end of its operating speed range, with seemingly almost no drag, off of a Bonanza is a challenging experience that deserves considerable discussion about join-ups, each maneuver in the flight profile and especially outs. We review all commands and procedures to try to ensure that no surprises raise their ugly heads during the flight.

To me, one of the best safety planning strategies is to perform a ground briefing and discuss as many potential issues as possible before taking off so that everybody you’re flying with develops a similar problem-solving approach. If members of a team share similar approaches to solving problems, then they’ll become predictable in their reactions to situations. If a team member hasn’t done this kind of foundation work, then he or she might seem erratic when “stuff” happens. I believe that members of the Collaborators—the aerobatic formation team that I’m a part of—have spent about twice as much time on the ground (talking about potential problems that we could encounter) as we’ve spent flying.

Lead Runs The Formation
From the moment the team gets to the airplanes, the formation flight has started and lead runs the operation. Lead’s first challenge after startup is to taxi the team to the run-up areas. To do this, you must have a very good idea of how large the formation is (so that everybody can fit into your selected run-up area) and how fast it can safely move on the ground.

Once in the air, lead is the one giving commands. Lead needs to be clear and decisive; if lead isn’t, then the wingmen will become confused and frustrated, and start to ponder what should be going on instead of what they need to do to play their parts. As John Bowman, lead pilot for the Red Baron Stearman Squadron that I was a part of, always said: “A thinking wingman is a liability.” A personal example of not being completely clear happened on a recent four-ship flight of Globe Swifts that I was leading. Even after giving the signal to my wingmen to follow my break from an echelon formation at four-second intervals, my departure from the flight was so gentle that the wingmen didn’t know if I was leaving or initiating a turn. I confused the flight and they started to follow me into the turn.

There has been a lot of focus on cockpit resource management (CRM), and there’s an analogous component that I call formation resource management (FRM). Lead doesn’t have to do all of the tasks associated with the flight; he or she can assign wingmen to do things like calling Flight Watch to get the en route weather or looking at the sectional chart to identify alternate airports in case the weather closes in. Lead can also consider reducing the number of tasks that happen concurrently. Anybody who has ever had lead cross under an element while calling for a frequency change and starting to roll out of a turn will know what I mean. It’s much safer and more comfortable to anticipate the need for all of those things in advance, and to plan to execute them one at a time.

In the same way that it’s wise to consider all of the “what ifs” as you fly solo, it’s also prudent to prepare for any in-flight issues that can occur with multiple airplanes in the formation. The possibility of a mechanical issue is not only greater, but so is the loss of situational awareness from one of the pilots in the group. If a minor mechanical issue (like lost communications) occurs, your standard procedures should allow you to communicate and complete the flight in an orderly fashion. If an emergency or major mechanical problem happens, then you need to do whatever you can to help the flight member having the emergency (e.g., helping to select a reasonable landing or bail-out location, flying cover to aid in communications, or identifying obstacles and hazards). It’s something that should be covered in brief, and one wingman to help the crippled airplane is probably better than a crowd (because of the maneuvering space needed for the crisis). Situational awareness problems can range from wingmen on the wrong frequency to outs, out-no-joys and lost wingmen. I’ve seen instances where a wingman starts to fool around on a cloudy day cross-country and can’t reacquire the rest of the flight. You have to identify a way to ensure separation, most likely by altitude, and then work with the wingman to rejoin the flight.

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