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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Photo by Chad Slattery
Wing’s responsibilities are to maintain position and separation from lead and other lower-numbered members of the flight, and to alert other flight members of problems and emergencies. The act of maintaining position relative to lead’s airplane is called “station keeping”; to do this well, you must use lead as your horizon and as the only reference that you use for flying. One skill that requires extensive dual instruction is the ability to see closure toward lead. Remember, you can only tie the record for flying close to lead!

Flying Wing
When I was with the Red Baron Squadron (and now with the Collaborators Formation Team), we used a technique called “three-axis control”: Use ailerons to match wing bank with lead, elevator to match fuselage pitch, and rudder to move laterally in and out from lead. The throttle is used to move forward and backward relative to lead. This allows us to maintain a stable position and eases the load of the outer wingmen in formations larger than two-ships.

formationWhen flying wing, it’s essential to know exactly where your perfect position is relative to lead. It’s best to use triangulation with at least two sets of points for your sight picture: one set for the bearing (or 45-degree) line and another for lateral spacing. For example, when I’m flying my Globe Swift with friends to visualize my sight picture, I “connect” the lead Swift’s innermost aileron hinge with the front of lead’s cowl. This serves as our bearing line. I “touch” lead’s tailwheel to the outer edge of the aileron on lead’s far wing to get my target position. If we’re on our bearing line and there’s space between the tailwheel and the aileron, I know I’m too far forward (and too close) to lead; if lead’s tailwheel touches the wing inside of the far wingtip, I need to move forward (and also in). One of these should cover vertical alignment.

Wing makes constant small corrections using all flight controls to keep the wings matched in bank and the fuselage matched in pitch, and to stay in the same relative position. The throttle, stick and rudder are almost always moving during station keeping. One trick: After making a power change, take half of it away as soon as you see it start to have an effect. This helps to smooth out the cycles of forward/back from lead.

When you’re just starting to train, you’ll work hard to open up your vision to “see” the entire lead airplane. This comes with experience, and if you’re not able to do this, you should continue training before you fly solo as wing. Wing pilots must always keep sight of and maintain separation from lower-numbered flight members. If you’re #2, you must keep sight of and maintain separation from lead. If you’re #3, you must keep sight of and maintain separation from both lead and #2.

Once you can fly straight and level with airplanes matched, you need to be able to fly turns in formation. When lead turns toward wing, wing reduces power, descends slightly and banks to match lead. After everything is stable in the turn, wing returns to the process of making constant corrections with all flight controls. When lead begins to level out, wing will likely need to add some power while keeping the wing bank matched. When lead stops the rollout, wing will slightly reduce power because the small climb back to lead’s altitude is achieved. The converse is true for turns away from wing: Wing will need to add power and climb slightly while banking to match lead.


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