Formation Flying Is a Beautiful Thing

As we enter the summer fun flying season, there might be a time when someone suggests you try some spur-of-the-moment formation flying. On a VFR trip, flying within loose sight range of a friend or two can be fun. But any closer than that isn't smart without formal training and practice -- for all the participants. Stick to the 'same direction -- same day' format and leave the overlapping wingtip stuff to those who have the training, and recent experience.

I went along on such a formation fly-over this past weekend. The event was to honor a new veterans memorial in Hopewell, New Jersey, and I was flying with Doug Hulse and Andrew Swart of the Trojan Horsemen T-28 Warbird Demo Team. I met Doug for breakfast at his home airport and flew with him in the back of his T-28 to Trenton-Mercer Airport to meet up with Swart and brief the mission. Swart's passenger on the mission was Wolcott Blair, general manager of Ronson Aviation and -- coincidentally -- a member of my men's-league hockey team. Hulse and Swart, who volunteered their services and expenses for the mission, are highly experienced civilian formation pilots; and that's really the point of this week's tip. If you don't have the training, formation flying is about as dangerous as flying with a spinning propeller just a few feet away from your tail feathers. If you have the training, it's still dangerous -- but you can do it perfectly safely as long as you follow the rules. And it's really cool.

From having flown along on several photo shoots with professionals, I've always understood the importance of formation-specific training and a thorough briefing, but I learned something new this weekend from Swart during the post-flight debrief. "This is a highly perishable skill. You need to stay in practice," he said. All the more reason to retain healthy respect for formation flying.

Before our flight, we talked through all the foreseeable variables. The pilots even asked us backseaters for our opinions and if we had any suggestions. Our ground liaison contact was there for the first part of the briefing and confirmed the expected time of the fly-over, altitude and the frequency we would use to communicate with him on his handheld transceiver. Then the two pilots confirmed all airport and air-to-air frequencies and the expected order in which we would be using them. According to our timing, we'd have ample time to orbit before setting up the fly-over and still be able to nail our arrival time.

The value of the planning quickly became apparent as we taxied out. On our first call to ground control, they told us they had received a phone call. The ceremony was running about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. So we had to modify the plan -- quickly, which included taking off from a different runway to avoid flying too close to the event, too soon. That's when having a thorough and complete understanding of all the details ensured we could improvise without compromising safety or performance. It's one thing to have all the ducks in a row, but it really helps to have a thorough understanding of each duck when they need to be rearranged on the fly.

As the Number 2 ship of the fly-over, Hulse and I were absorbed with keeping our eyes glued to the lead's tail. The result, for me, was I never saw the crowd we were flying over. We kept on station and, at Swart's command, Hulse pulled up into a modified 'missing man' maneuver over the 'target.'

The payoff for a job well done? In my headphones, I heard our ground coordinator say, "Great job. Lots of applause." As he transmitted, I faintly heard clapping and cheers on the frequency over the roar of the big radial engine.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at We'd love to hear from you.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter