How to Fly in Formation Safely

Let’s face it, who hasn’t looked up at the sky in awe and respect as the Thunderbirds, Snowbirds, or Blue Angels performed their intricate maneuvers and said, “How do they do that?” Well, the truth is, these formation flying aerobatic demonstrations do that are the result of long hours of training, unbelievable flight discipline and impeccably prepared high-performance flying machines. But down here in the land of general aviation, we occasionally have good reasons to fly two or more planes in close proximity, and when we do, we should be just as professional. The formula for successful formation flight is not difficult to understand. The training, discipline and effort that goes into flying in the right formation makes it a safe and fun experience.

But make no mistake, you need to get qualified and professional training before flying in formation.

General aviation pilots often fly in formation to take air-to-air photographs, travel cross-country in groups of two or more aircraft, or fly multiple aircraft over barren continents and vast oceans. Regardless of the type of foundation involved, however, a professional approach is required to reduce the risks.

So let’s say three friends decide to fly in formation from their home airport to AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. What should they consider before departure, en route and upon arrival at the world’s largest airshow?

Sniffing or formation flying?

In general aviation, a group is more commonly a group of aircraft, generally flying in the same direction at the same time! The pilots in the group may exercise varying degrees of radio discipline, occasionally get too close to each other, and generally give proper formation flying a bad name. The difference between a formation and a group is the application of training, discipline and communication.

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The FAA rules for formation flying are deceptively simple, and in Part 91.111 it states: “(a) No one shall operate an airplane so close to another airplane as to create a risk of collision. (b) No one shall operate an aircraft in formation flight except by agreement with the pilot-in-command of each aircraft in the formation. (c) No one shall operate an airplane carrying passengers in formation.” So let’s think about how we can avoid chatter and create professional formation flying.

The formation briefing

An old formation joke among jet pilots is, “Kick the tires, light the fires, and find out the frequency of the watches.” However, it’s just that, a joke. In fact, the military formation briefing and debriefing are critical to the success of any formation flight.

During the briefing, the formation leader will determine each participant’s previous training, skills and personal safety limits. Communication frequencies, airspace, weather and en route decision making should all be discussed. For example, how will the flight handle Fisk’s arrival at AirVenture? Or what does the flight do if they get separated during the trip? Who is yelling and what about the ADS-B traffic alerts? All good things to note.

Once the details are settled, the flight should be planned and briefed in detail until all questions are answered and all what-ifs are resolved. This is where the FAA’s “arrangement” comes into play. If, after the briefing, a member of the formation does not feel comfortable enough to proceed, they should politely forgo the flight.

In the end, everyone must be able to rely on the safe execution of the flight. Incidentally, the internet is a good place to start as there are several good formation briefing guides that pilots can download to remind them what should be covered.

Lead or Wing!

Contrary to popular belief, the most difficult position on any jet aerobatic team isn’t the pilot in wing position, flying inches from their leader. Rather, it is the leader who is responsible for planning, briefing and decision-making for the entire flight. The leader of our trip to AirVenture should first and foremost understand that formation is limited to the abilities of the least experienced member of the group. With this in mind, the leader can make the kind of conservative flight decisions and maneuvers that don’t exceed the capabilities of the formation. Pilots flying the wing have very different duties.

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The first rule of wing flying is not to lose sight of the leader or the rest of the formation! No exceptions. This is particularly challenging on many modern glass cockpit aircraft, which encourage significant head-down time and require multiple button presses to do the simplest. If attention is required in the cockpit, expand the formation. Only fly as close as necessary, and if you lose sight of a member of the formation, have a “Lost Visual” strategy ready. This is usually an agreed turn from the other aircraft’s last known position until visual contact can be reestablished. And an important safety tip: Tight wingtip formation is best left to the professionals.

Remember, when you watch the Thunderbird pilots, they all fly planes with see-through canopies, wear parachutes, and sit in ejection seats. If this doesn’t describe the aircraft you’re flying, then plan on flying a much looser formation. And while we’re on that point, note that several high wing aircraft are unsuitable for close formation flying due to the large field of view blocked by the wing.

Anticipate, communicate and be predictable!

The pilots of our intrepid group of Oshkosh-bonded aviators have chosen to fly a loose V formation about 200 to 500 feet apart as they fly north to Wisconsin. Our fearless leader should choose flight speeds, routes, and altitudes that allow the rest of the flight to fly comfortably out of the weather and free of restricted airspace. You should anticipate these demands, communicate them clearly to the rest of the formation, and fly very smoothly and predictably.

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And of course wing pilots should do the same. Numbers two and three should anticipate what the leader will do next, as if they were flying alone, and clearly and concisely communicate their desires or traffic observations to the formation. And, like the leader, fly smoothly and predictably. These three qualities – anticipation, communication and predictability – make for a great journey with very manageable risks. So you’re asking, how can I learn this from the pros?

Quality training is key!

It’s no secret that AirVenture’s big formation flights like Cessnas to Oshkosh and Bonanzas to Oshkosh (B2OSH) require that each participant attend and complete regional formation training before flying to the show. No certificate, no participation. This focus on training ensures the safety of all participants. A good guide to all formation questions is the Formation Pilots Knowledge Guide developed by the Formation and Safety Team (FAST). The FAST concept was developed in the mid-1990s to provide the warbird community with a consistent set of formation standards. It contains a wealth of knowledge about the basics of formation flying.

Risk management in formation flight

Our three loyal fliers made several good decisions to manage the risks. First, everyone agreed to take training from a reputable source in the basic rules of formation flying. Second, they spent the required time planning and briefing the flight so everyone could fly the plan smoothly, predictably, and professionally. Third, they have considered the responsibilities of both lead and wing and are prepared for their assigned role. And as they fly across the Wisconsin pastures toward Oshkosh, maybe someone will look up and say, “These pilots are real pros. How did you do that?”

Want to read more pro tips for private pilots? Read “Making the Most of Your Flight Review” here.

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