To those unfamiliar with formation flying, flight within a wingspan’s distance of another airplane looks eerily similar to an imminent collision. And collisions in airplanes generally don’t end well. But, in some cases, formation flying actually presents a lower risk than flying alone. And besides that, it is some of the most fun and rewarding flying a pilot will ever experience. Like all flying, formation flight was invented by birds. During a bird migration, these long-distance travelers generally form an organized pattern; I assume they do so for support and to protect each other from potential enemies, just as military pilots who fly in formation do. In studies of what motivates people to keep flying once they get their private pilot certificates, one of the biggest factors is a sense of community. There is no question that the bonds between pilots who participate in formation flying are very strong. It’s a great source of motivation for continuous improvement, and it’s an enjoyable way to hone your skills.
Formation flying comprises two or more airplanes flying close together in an organized manner. One pilot is designated as the lead, and the others are called wingmen. In larger formation groups, pilots are organized into groups of three or four airplanes called elements, with one lead pilot for each element. Under 14 CFR 91.111, which discusses flight near other airplanes, the FAA requires prior arrangement by the pilots in command for any formation flight. What this means is that the pilots must discuss a plan before they climb into their cockpits — a process called a briefing — where aspects of the flight, such as the mission, area, weather, altitude, maneuvers and more, should be discussed. While the briefing can be either short or long and detailed, there is only one solid rule: Don’t hit the other airplane or airplanes in the formation!
There is no such thing as an endorsement or rating for this type of organized flight. But pilots who plan to overfly waivered airspace in formation need to take a check ride and get signed off by a representative of the Formation and Safety Team (FAST) or Formation Flying Incorporated (FFI), both of which are accredited by the FAA to issue waivers required for pilots who fly in formation flyovers or fly-bys during airshows.
My indoctrination to formal formation flying happened last spring in Bend, Oregon, where I received training from David Robinson and Sean VanHatten, of Elite Pilot Services. Robinson had asked me to participate in the Pylon Racing Seminar, which prepares pilots for the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. My response was an enthusiastic “Heck, yeah!” The training I received from EPS had an extreme goal, as chronicled in my article “The Art of Air Racing” from the September 2017 issue of Flying, and the successful achievement of a Reno race license got me absolutely hooked on formation flying.
PRS was one of the best weeks of flying I have experienced. The professionalism, the structure of the training and the camaraderie were awe-inspiring. I wanted more.
My friend and fellow Mooney owner Jolie Lucas, who heads up two Mooney groups (Mooney Girls and the Mooney Ambassadors), flew to Oshkosh last year as part of a group called the Mooney Caravan. This has become my next goal in my quest for continuous formation-flying improvement.
For the past 20 years, Mooney Caravan pilots have gathered to fly into EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in a mass formation flight. Last year, 53 Mooneys participated in the Caravan. The pilots group up in Madison, Wisconsin, and form three-ship elements that depart in one big group on their way to the general aviation mecca. Aside from the incredible community feeling such a group flight provides, an organized mass arrival actually reduces the risks of flying into Oshkosh.
My approach into AirVenture last year was an “interesting” one, interesting meaning both good and bad. I started listening in on the arrival frequency about 50 miles out from Ripon, the first point on the FISK VFR arrival. The controller sounded like a machine gun spitting out instructions to a great variety of airplane types.
Therein lies the problem. The number of airplanes flying the procedure is just one of numerous risks. The pilots are flying dissimilar airplanes. It’s not unusual to see something like a Cirrus SR22 right behind a Piper Cub. Not all pilots are good at maintaining the suggested altitudes and approach speeds, and lack of currency can be an issue. Also, airplanes arrive from all directions at Ripon. My head was on a swivel as I approached. The ADS-B traffic display on my panel and iPad, which were lit up like a Christmas tree, didn’t help.
On the other hand, during mass arrivals all of the airplanes are similar, making it easier for the pilots to maintain the same altitudes and speeds. The proficiency level of the group is known, unlike a random group of pilots who might not have flown more than a couple of times in the past year. Everybody in the formation has been thoroughly briefed on the procedures, so they know what to expect and what to do. It’s unknown whether random pilots flying the FISK VFR arrival either read or understood the procedure.
Best of all, the tower controllers are alerted of the mass arrival beforehand, the airspace is cleared and the entire flight is cleared to land. If everything goes as planned, 12 airplanes land each minute, said the Mooney Caravan’s president, Larry “Joker” Brennan, so the last of the 53 airplanes that were part of the Mooney Caravan was likely on the ground less than five minutes after the first. Efficient? You bet.
Participation in the Mooney Caravan requires qualification through attendance at a formation clinic. I signed up for the one nearest me, the Gunfighters Formation Clinic in Yuma, Arizona, in early February. This was the sixth annual event put on by the Mooney Caravan group and the Red Star Pilots Association, one of 17 signatory organizations around the world for FAST.
Since I had already gone through PRS, I expected the Yuma clinic to be a breeze. I browsed through the instruction manual and it seemed much the same as the one for PRS. But there were some subtle differences that made me embarrass myself several times.
During the flights I made, we were either in three- or four-ship formations, doing standard maneuvers such as basic station keeping (following the lead’s moves), cross-unders (moving from one side of the lead to the other), pitch-outs and rejoins (breaking up the formation and forming back up), and in-trail work (following behind the lead with timed spacing). When I first started flying formation, I had a death grip on the power lever and stick, and it required my full attention. It’s still a challenge, but my flying is a lot more relaxed now.
However, flying formation in the Mooney is different from in the Lancair Legacy that I trained in. At PRS,
I would line up the wingtip with the spinner during station keeping, but in the Mooney, the outboard flap hinge is used as the aiming point to be in line with the spinner. I thought I had the right visual, but it turns out that I was using the center flap hinge, putting me in a sucked position (behind the desired reference line). Fortunately, during one of my flights, my terrific lead pilot Phil Verghese, aka “Buzz,” noticed my error. Through a quick inflight discussion, we figured out that I was using the wrong reference points.
At PRS, we didn’t use hand signals. Communications were done almost exclusively by radio, occasionally supplemented by a kiss-off for the pitch-out, or airplane controls such as a tail-wag or a wing-rock for more or less spacing. But at the Gunfighters clinic, there were several hand and aircraft control signals that confused me. I had read about them in the handbook, but I had not committed them to memory. As a result, I executed the wrong maneuver a couple of times.
Another mistake happened when I was flying as number three. Somehow I mixed up the prop control with the throttle and pulled it to reduce power. I wondered why I shot right by the formation until I glanced down and noticed my mistake. I never lost sight of the other airplanes, so I slid back and rejoined. But, yeah … a good formation pilot should instinctively know where all of the switches and levers are.
Another blunder happened when I was flying as wingman in the number three slot. During PRS, all airplanes lined up on the same side of the lead during a rejoin, but at Gunfighters, number two lines up on the inside of the turn during the rejoin while the number three slides past two and lead, and forms up on the outside of the turn — the standard for most formation flights. I did a perfect rejoin after our first pitch-out, but stopped alongside number two, prompting the lead pilot to query my intention. To add to the embarrassment, the lead was one of the most experienced pilots at the clinic, T-6 Reno racer Michael Pfleger.
Formation flying is definitely a skill that must be maintained, and good skills are only established through regular practice. Fortunately, the Yuma clinic introduced me to a wonderful group of formation Mooney pilots whom I can play with locally, including Joker and Buzz. So now I can enjoy some of the great benefits of this activity more often. Here are some of my favorites:
Precision — If I don’t pay 100 percent attention to the task at hand and fly as precisely as I can, there is a great risk for a collision. The quest for the perfect spot and flying smoothly in that spot is constant.
Camaraderie — Good, structured formation flying with like-minded people creates strong bonds. The importance of strict adherence to procedures, concise and precise communication, and respect for the other pilots contribute to the strengthening of friendships.
Teamwork — Participants must work as a team, trust each other completely and be able to communicate about any problems or abnormalities that arise in a clear and concise manner. Part of the fun is giving and receiving critique during the debriefing. There is no room for ego in formation flying.
Challenge — It is rare for anyone to have a perfect formation flight. From basic maneuvers, three-ship formation, wingman certification, lead certification, formation instructor and finally FAST or FFI signator, there is always room for improvement or a new skill to learn.
Currency — Formation flying is so much fun, and it’s a great excuse to go flying. If you have a good group of pilots to fly with, you are likely to go flying more often.
If you have a desire to fly formation but own a Cessna 172 and don’t think you can do it in your airplane, guess again. While a tandem-seat airplane is ideal for formation flying because it has great lateral visibility, you can fly formation in any airplane as long as you have good stick-and-rudder skills and know your airplane well.
Mass formation arrivals to AirVenture are organized not only by the Mooney Caravan group but also by other type-groups, such as the B2Osh (Bonanzas), C2A (Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association), AirVenture Cessnas 2 Oshkosh and others. If a mass formation flight into Oshkosh is not for you, you can still hook up with these type-specific groups to learn the skill. Surprisingly, the group clinics are not expensive. The cost for all of the training, including lunch and dinner, at the Gunfighters clinic was only $150.
The key to good formation flying is training. To be a competent formation pilot it is critical to get instruction from fellow pilots who really know the skill. In addition to the group clinics, there are many advanced training facilities around the country, listed on the International Aerobatics Club’s website’s Aerobatic Flight Schools page, that offer formation flight training.
Aside from the type-specific AirVenture mass-formation groups, the Red Star Pilots Association is another great place to search out training courses. Members offer formation clinics regularly in many locations around the country. While the organization has been focused on airplanes that originate in former communist bloc countries, such as Nanchangs and Yaks, most clinics are open to pilots of other airplane models. The clinic in Yuma, which was organized with the Mooney Caravan, included T-6s, Cirruses, Yaks and a Piper in addition to about a dozen Mooneys.