I guess I first learned about formation flying when my flight instructor, Larry Whitesell, told a story involving—he thought—his buddy, Vince Wynn, who instructed for a school up the road, Cardinal Flight Training. When they’d spy each other in the practice area, they’d often join up for some formation flying. On this occasion, according to Larry, “I saw the Cardinal’s Champ below and in front of me and joined on his right wing. But I lost the big grin on my face when, looking over into the Champ’s rear seat, I saw—instead of Vince—an FAA inspector named Dan Wright giving a private pilot check ride. He was something less than happy, and back on the ground, I dutifully reported to the GADO. Dan raised holy hell, and I was abjectly contrite, assuring him it was the first time and would never happen again. He dropped it.”
It was a different time…
Of course, there are Formations (with the capital letter) and formations, or “gaggles.” And there’s nothing illegal about a gaggle as long as it’s agreed to beforehand by the participants. But, agreed to or not, gaggles of untrained pilots in different aircraft, while fun, can be downright dangerous.
Stick with me for a brief explanation of formal formations of civil aircraft that fly over FAA-waivered events like airshows, sports events, and parades—everything from the Super Bowl to an airshow at your local airport.
The event sponsor applies to the FAA for waivers from the regulations addressing minimum safe altitudes, aerobatic maneuvers, and parachuting over crowds. The pilots who will be flying need to hold current aerobatic competency and/or formation cards issued by organizations sanctioned by the FAA. For example, Formation Flying Inc. (FFI) issues cards to qualified pilots forwaivered formation flights in mostly Van’s Aircraft RVs, plus some Beeches and Mooneys. Remember the 49-ship formation of RVs over the Kansas City Stadium and 50 of them over EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh last year?
There are also civilian warbird organizations (about18 signatories) that adhere to standards developed by FAST (which stands for “Formation and Safety Team”). Like the FFI guys, these groups regularly meet, train, and practice standards addressed in their FAST manual, a large, formidable thing based on military procedures.
Note: Warbird demonstrations are usually scheduled for warm-season events, allowing pilots to unzip the tops of their flight suits and show chest hair.
In my FAA days, I monitored lots of waivered airshows, checking the logbooks and paperwork of participating aircraft and the competency cards of the flyers. I knew most of the pilots and appreciated great air bosses like Norm Crabtree. Those preshow briefings always ended with Harold Johnson’s admonishment: “Just don’t do nuthin’ dumb.”
Note: always check NOTAMs before flying into an event which may (or may not) be in waivered airspace. If the airshow part operates under a waiver, times are published, and you’ll be toast if you blunder in (since Ino longer monitor airshows for the FAA).
Legend credits the first funeral flyover to a gaggle of World War I British pilots who flew the mission over the funeral of their deadly foe, “The Red Baron,” German ace Manfred von Richthofen, saluting a respected and noble adversary.
The U.S. military adopted the tradition in 1938, when 50 aircraft—with one blank file—flew over the funeral of General Oscar Westover and, by the end of World War II, the missing man formation always included the now-famous pull-up maneuver.
Almost everybody’s familiar with funeral gaggles flown over the burial of a pilot friend or a well-known aviator. They require no waiver and are common with groups aviating together to fly-in breakfasts and gatherings like Oshkosh as well as those burials or memorials. And they include highly trained formations of RV-8s and warbirds or loose gaggles of Cubs, Champs, Cessna 172s, Beech Barons, Piper Cherokees, and (OK) Cessna 180s.
I’ve done a few—the first inadvertently. A good friend, Jim McMahon, died and I went to the funeral mass, but had an FAA assignment north of Cincinnati. So I left early enough to preflight and fire up my Cessna 180. As I flew north of the city over Gate of Heaven Cemetery, there was a cortege of cars stopped at a gravesite. I was certain it was Jim’s and looked carefully for the gaggle of his buddies who had planned a flyover. I circled a couple of times over the gravesite as people looked up, waggled my wings, and chandelled up in a departure to the north. The gaggle had gone to the wrong cemetery.
I was still an FAA inspector (not working or maybe on suspension for something or other) when a local warbird group of two AT-6s and a T-28 needed a fourth airplane for an unwaivered Memorial Day flyover. Desperate, they asked me to fly the “slot” position in their four-ship formation, flying an SNJ. I had no formation training, but I was pretty good with the “J,” and the “tailend Charley” position took no great skill (which is why they put me back there). Still rather white-knuckled, I worked to stay precisely where I should be, and everything was going swimmingly until, over the event site, the lead airplane turned on his smoke. I was instantly IFR and just hung on, careful not to deviate from heading and altitude. I don’t think it was supposed to work that way.
When the FAA used to issue aerobatic competency cards, I was dispatched to watch a demonstration flown by my buddy, Bill Bruns. Sending me to evaluate the skill of a guy like Billy was pretty ludicrous, but I flew my Cubto an airport out east, and after the demonstration, we headed back to Lunken Airport (KLUK) where Bill and I would have lunch. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I was flying blissfully along when something appeared on my right side. It was Billy, flying on my wing, upside down!
And then I agreed to play air boss for a gaggle of Cubs, 172s, Champs, Barons, and WACOs flying over the funeral of a beloved friend, Bill Hogan, at Hamilton, Ohio. When somebody at the cemetery gave me the word via cell phone, I directed the airplanes on a prearranged frequency (those with radios) to launch and keep the airplane ahead in sight. Yeah, I was still with the FAA…
Come to think of it, maybe there’s something to a letter that came to FLYING:
“How is FLYING Magazine not embarrassed by the articles written by Martha Lunken…[who] continues to demonstrate that FAA inspectors are at best loose cannons, and at worst, totally irresponsible pilots and agents of the government.”
This article was originally published in the April 2023, Issue 936 of FLYING.