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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But before you can do any of this, you have to join up with the formation. This is most efficiently done while lead is in a turn so that the geometry of a shorter path allows wing to catch up and establish position, instead of a throttle-only tail chase. The general mechanics of a join-up turn are as follows: Get inside the arc of lead’s turn; get close to the same altitude as lead (put lead just above the horizon); get on the 45-degree line (for most planes this sight picture has lead’s far wingtip touching the front of the vertical stabilizer); reduce power as you get closer to lead (400 to 800 feet); and slowly slide into position. The description is pretty simple, but in practice it can be very challenging. For me, a well-conducted rejoin is one of the most gratifying moments of any formation flight.

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Some airplanes are fun to fly in formation; some are okay; and some are terrible. The biggest issue is visibility. High-wing planes have very limited visibility, which can turn a small error into a full-blown emergency. High-wing aircraft shouldn’t be used for formation flights. Certain low-wing aircraft also have reduced visibility. The Mooney owners club advises its members not to fly formation in its airplanes because of visibility, and that can be generalized to many popular planes, such as the Bonanza or Pipers. I agree—pilots should develop expert-level skills before flying formation in a limited-visibility airplane. One of the reasons that I love my Globe Swift (with its bubble canopy mod) is that its visibility is excellent.

When Things Go Wrong
If something goes wrong in a rejoin, it can go very wrong! Brief your overshoot procedures, and make sure you’re very experienced in rejoins and overshoots before your instructor gets out of the plane. There are several strategies for pilots of low-wing airplanes who overshoot. If the flight is turning, go under formation to keep it in sight; if the flight is flying straight and level, stay on your side below the flight to maintain sight of formation. Communicate by radio that you’re overshooting, then call in when stable. If you’re unable to keep continuity with the flight, call “out” while maintaining separation, and then request permission to rejoin.

If you can’t see the flight (very scary!), then you’re having a real in-flight emergency because you’re unsure where the other members of the formation are. One way to manage this is to call, “out, no joy,” and indicate where you are (“level at 3,000 feet heading west”). Lead should tell you where the flight is (“lead is at 2,500 feet heading north”). Use altitude for separation until you find the others, and then request to rejoin.

It’s a very good idea not to do anything in a hurry. When people make a big error in formation training, they often want to fix it as quickly as possible, causing them to fly erratically. If you’re lucky enough to survive an “out, no joy” situation, then you probably owe the other flight members a cold beer, as well as an apology. High-wing airplanes are prone to no-joy situations, and I recommend that you never conduct formation flights in them, especially if you don’t have considerable formation experience.

Exiting the formation can be done two ways. When lead breaks off first (as in a break to land), lead signals the break, then splits off away from wing, and wing maintains level flight. After the proper amount of time, wing then breaks and follows lead. When lead has wing break off first, lead must ensure that there’s nothing in wing’s way. It’s smart to make sure lead is correct—when I’m waved off from a formation, I’ll start my exit slowly until I’m able to verify that I’m headed toward unoccupied air.


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