Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Formation Flying! Part II

The cognitive challenges of flying lead

Denis Arbeau, Bill’s first formation mentor, flies lead for Bill in their Globe Swifts.
Flying Technique
The lead pilot needs to employ flying technique to be a predictable and consistent platform for the rest of the formation to fly off of. One basic concept is to fly formation on the earth’s horizon and make all of the same continuous and small corrections to be stable and smooth. If you’re looking at a point on the horizon, you’ll be able to use all flight controls to immediately return to your flight path whether turbulence bumps you up and down, or yaws you left and right. If you fix these flight path deviations right away, then your wingmen won’t have to decide if you’re starting a turn or if, maybe, you’re just going to fly one wing down for a while.

Wingmen have needs that lead has to accommodate. A power advantage needs to be available for wingmen to make corrections and fly on the outside of turns. A slow and smooth roll into and out of turns is important in order for wingmen to look good and stay safe. It’s almost impossible to roll too slowly, especially when you have more than two planes together. When the air is bumpy, it’s sometimes helpful to keep bumping or nudging the stick to continue a smooth roll rate.

Postflight Debrief
Lead usually runs the postflight debrief, where the focus is on reviewing and discussing issues on the flight so that everybody continues to develop skills and to enhance safety. It’s important to remember that everybody will make mistakes on the flight and that the issues discussed aren’t personal. To that end, all flight members should be sure to check their egos at the door. Debrief should thoroughly address all significant flight issues while maintaining a respectful atmosphere and some amount of tact. As discussed earlier, this is an important opportunity for all flight members to learn to problem-solve in the same way.

Resources & Training
The FAST website ( is an excellent resource for things like briefing cards and training material for formation flight standards. If you want to become a great lead pilot, you’ll need to spend a lot of time flying wing and perfecting those skills. Then, spend a million hours or so on the ground thinking about what kind of issues can pop up with a team, and what are the best ways those issues can be resolved. A great lead is a smooth and consistent pilot who’s knowledgeable, decisive and clear and has a fair amount of tact.

Important Formation Flying Terms

The FAA defines formation flying requirements in FAR section 91.111: “Operating near other aircraft. (a) No person may operate an aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision hazard. (b) No person may operate an aircraft in formation flight except by arrangement with the pilot in command of each aircraft in the formation. (c) No person may operate an aircraft, carrying passengers for hire, in formation flight.” The following terms are also important for a complete understanding of formation flying:

Acute: To be in position too far forward of the 45-degree line off of lead.
Bearing: The horizontal angle off of lead as flown by #2 (sucked or acute bearings).
Call Sign: The code word or words used to designate a flight. In the case of “Star Flight,” the flight members would be designated “Star Flight 1” or “Star Flight 2.”
Division/Flight: Four aircraft, consisting of two sections or elements, each with its own leader, but under the command of the lead element’s flight lead, who’s designated “flight lead.”
No Joy: This phrase means that you do not have whatever it is you’re looking for in sight.
Parade: Tight formation that’s used for presentation to a crowd.
Power Advantage: The amount of throttle or power available (above lead’s power setting) in which to make station-keeping corrections and position adjustments.
Section/Element: A flight of two aircraft.
Sucked: To fall behind the 45-degree line off of lead.
Tally Ho: This phrase means that you’ve sighted whatever it is you were looking for.

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