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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The Real Risks
If you lack significant training in formation flight operations, then stay on the ground. The right way to get formation training is to go through the FAST organization ( They use military techniques, and their communications standards come from the T-34 formation manual. FAST has many signatory organizations, including Sport Class Air Racing, Swift, Red Star Pilots and various warbird clubs. There are also flight schools such as the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety (, where I teach, that provide formation training.

Due to their limited visibility, it’s very risky to fly formation in high-wing aircraft.
I feel a responsibility to warn aviators about photo flights because they represent the biggest risk. By definition, a photo flight is a formation flight, but many pilots don’t even consider this. As a result, pilots with zero formation experience will still fly a photo mission. This leads to an unorganized process where briefs are often poor and not followed. In the air, pilots will attempt things beyond their skill level, because of photographer requests or because the camera pointed at them minimizes their situational awareness. Other complications include dissimilar aircraft with very different flight characteristics and a constantly changing formation, with aircraft moving in and out of formation to be on- or off-stage. Don’t be tempted by the photos on these pages—everyone involved has extensive formation training. Make sure you get the same.

In an upcoming issue, look for “Formation Flying, Part II,” where we’ll focus on the complexities and mental challenges of flying the lead position.

Bill Stein has logged thousands of hours of aerobatics and formation flight. He has flown a Pitts Special, Globe Swift, Red Baron Stearman and Zivko Edge 540. He performs solo in his Edge ( and as part of a four-ship formation team, the Collaborators.


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