Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Formation Flying


The risks and rewards of flying wing


I’ve seen few things in my lifetime as beautiful as looking down on other planes in flight while on the top of a wingover. Multiple airplanes acting as one require a significant amount of discipline, dedication and practice. Even after more than 3,000 hours of flying within 20 feet of other airplanes, I know that this is an extremely risky activity that should never be attempted without considerable ground and flight training.
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formationI’ve seen few things in my lifetime as beautiful as looking down on other planes in flight while on the top of a wingover. Multiple airplanes acting as one require a significant amount of discipline, dedication and practice. Even after more than 3,000 hours of flying within 20 feet of other airplanes, I know that this is an extremely risky activity that should never be attempted without considerable ground and flight training. I carry a Formation and Safety Team (FAST) card as well as the Statement of Aerobatic Competency card that’s required for flying formation aerobatics at air shows in the United States and Canada. I’m also an FAA-designated Aerobatic Competency Evaluator (ACE) for formation aerobatics.

formation
The Collaborators walk through their sequence before flying with the Blue Angels at Fleet Week.
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.” For me, the definition of formation flying is operating aircraft relative to one or more aircraft.

The formation flight briefing is usually done by the lead pilot and includes all aspects of the flight profile such as weather, airport and communications information, potential issues (e.g., dissimilar airplanes), takeoff and join-up procedures, flight route, maneuver profile, landing operations and emergency procedures. Communications are extremely important to safely conducting a formation flight and must be understood by all flight members.

This article is a description of techniques I employ on formation flights—it isn’t a substitute for training. Flying formation is an easy way to die, and engaging in a formation flight without proper dual instruction is unthinkable!

Responsibilities
There are large differences between the responsibilities of the lead pilot (“lead”) and those of the wing pilots (“wing”). Lead must think, communicate and provide a safe and smooth flight profile. Lead must trust wing, be extremely consistent, plan for issues such as formation size and time requirements, and accommodate a large enough power advantage required by wing to stay in position. Good lead pilots will have a very consistent roll rate and pitch change, and will keep the formation in level flight or turning at a 30- to 40-degree bank. The lead pilot should usually be the best pilot in the group.



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