Facing Formations

As two owner groups demonstrated at Oshkosh, it takes planning, training and discipline to pull off group flights


Birds of a feather flock together. That old saying applies to birds of aluminum as well; just ask the owner of a cult airplane. Any time they meet, cult plane pilots swap stories and hash out flying or maintenance issues, especially when gathered at a fly-in.

Beginning in 1990, pilots of one of the all-time great cult airplanes – the Bonanza – started flying en mass to the big Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) convention and airshow at Oshkosh, Wis. Eight years later pilots of another popular cult airplane, one whos very name, Mooney, sounds like a cult, emulated the Bonanzas with their own mass fly-in to Oshkosh.

These group arrivals operate with the blessing of the EAA and the Oshkosh Air Traffic Control Tower and they are treated with arranged arrival times and reserved parking areas in the airplane campground. For the cult airplane aficionado, it is the ultimate recipe for aviation fun – fly in with dozens of your favorite airplanes and literally eat and sleep with them.

The Bonanza fly-in started when a group of pilots were brainstorming about how to end up together in the airplane campground. Arriving in formation seemed to be the way to go, so with that, nine airplanes arrived in formation in 1990. The Bonanza group grew quickly in subsequent years and peaked in 1995 when 132 aircraft made the flight to Oshkosh. Since the record flight, the group has been limited to 100 airplanes in the interest of safety. Their motto: Quality before quantity. Around 80 airplanes usually make the trip.

The Mooneys started their mass arrival in 1998 after seeing all the fun the Bonanzas were having. They started ambitiously their first year with just under 50 airplanes and have had nearly 100 (their limit) in subsequent years.

These two groups are identical in the common pride of their airplanes, but they couldnt be further apart in the way they prepare for and conduct their mass fly-ins.

The Bonanza Model
The nucleus of Bonanzas to Oshkosh is a three-plane formation of a leader and two wingmen. The three-airplane elements then create one big in-trail formation enroute to Oshkosh after takeoff from their staging airport at Rockford, Illinois, 110 miles south of Oshkosh.

Each three-plane element takes off in formation, with one element taking off right after another. When an element leader sees the prior element lifting off and light under their wheels, he commences takeoff roll for his element. Once airborne, the element leaders are responsible for structuring the in-trail formation with elements spaced 1,500 feet apart.

Enroute navigation to Oshkosh for the entire formation is the responsibility of the overall formation leader. The element leaders simply achieve spacing and position for their element behind the preceding one and make the few radio communications required. The wingmen do nothing but fly formation on their leader. No navigation and no communication by the wingmen is required or desired.

Once at Oshkosh, the formation recovers on the north-south airshow runways. For landing, the three-plane elements separate. One wingman lands on the taxiway that is used as a runway during the show and the leader and other wingman land in formation on the main runway. They plan to land long, using a flaps-up or minimum flap configuration to ensure a fast landing speed, and then taxi briskly to the end and exit the runway.

This year winds required the formation to land on a single runway, runway 27. The last-minute change required a different landing procedure; the leader and one wingman landed in formation and one wingman dropped back to land in trail of the other wingman.

We didnt allow enough spacing for that, says Bob Siegfried, an element leader and one of the participants in the original 1990 Bonanza flight to Oshkosh, and we ended up with a lot of maneuvering in the last couple of miles.

The big decision we made this year, he says, is not to try that again.Still, according to Siegfried, the group managed to land 62 airplanes in 14 minutes.

To participate in their flight to Oshkosh, the Bonanza group requires all pilots have a minimum of three hours of formation flight practice in the last six months. To get formation qualified, they organize national and regional formation flight training clinics and provide suggestions about books and videotapes for pilots who cant make it to a clinic and want to train on their own. They strongly suggest attendance at a clinic for pilots new to formation flying.

The Mooney Model
The Mooney group expressly states that their procedure is not a formation flight. Instead, their concept is loosely spaced groups of 10 airplanes flying in trail in two lines. Takeoff timing and speed control form the basis of their separation, somewhat like the procedures used by pilots in the Berlin Airlift.

For their Mooney Caravan to Oshkosh, the Mooneys usually stage at Madison, Wis. This year, construction at Madison required the group to meet at Watertown, Wisconsin, 50 miles south of Oshkosh.

Initial spacing within and between the groups is achieved through timed interval takeoffs. When an airplane rolls, another runs up to takeoff power and releases brakes after a set number of seconds elapses.

Enroute to Oshkosh each pilot is expected to fly a precise speed profile but is also responsible for maintaining separation and in-trail spacing with an aircraft ahead. Group integrity depends on each individual pilots flying precision. Navigation for each group is the responsibility of that groups lead aircraft.

Landing is planned on runways 36L and 36R, where the two lines of airplanes spilt and land individually in trail. This year, winds dictated a south landing operation. The Mooney groups Letter of Agreement with Oshkosh ATC tower for a south operation called for them to use a single runway as well, runway 18R. The Caravan procedures required the two lines of airplanes merge into one for landing. It took 40 minutes to recover 80 airplanes. The last Mooneys in the Caravan turned final nearly 10 miles north of the airport.

Throughout the year leading up to the big flight, Caravan organizers urge participating pilots to practice flying at the airspeeds called for in their procedures, but there is no minimum training required to take part in the Mooney Caravan. If you have enough money to own a Mooney and can find the staging airport, youre in.

Concept Vs. Reality
The Bonanza flight usually goes off just about as planned. Flying as a wingman with the Bonanzas this year was John Bosco Bostick a former member of the Air Forces Thunderbirds flight demonstration team. It was his first trip to Oshkosh with the Bonanzas.

I think our flight went very well, considering we changed everything at the last minute and landed on (runway) 27, Bostick says. The Bonanza group is fairly disciplined and responsible and I am willing to fly with them again.

Not so with the Mooney group. Their flight has been plagued since the beginning by airplanes passing one another or not staying in trail, almost from the point of takeoff, despite admonishments in the exquisitely detailed Caravan briefing materials not to overtake a preceding aircraft and to keep the aircraft ahead in sight.

Chris May, a pilot new to Mooney ownership but a multi-year veteran of the famous Ripon arrival to the Oshkosh airport, thought the Caravan would be a neat way to arrive at the show this year while avoiding the warts of the normal arrival procedure.

The leaders and organizers of the Mooney Caravan truly did an exceptional job of organization planning and pre-flight briefing, May says. But what occurred [during the flight] was far from the plan.

While climbing out still on runway heading, I was passed by someone going at least 20 knots over the designated climb speed, May says. To keep the plane in front of me in sight, I had to maintain designated cruise speed plus 10 knots. Not too bad right up to the point that I was passed by three planes going at least 30 knots over the designated speed with 200 feet of horizontal separation.

May has flown into Oshkosh five times and Sun-n-Fun twice. In all of those times I never felt I was in anywhere near as much danger as I was in the Caravan, he says.

The best way I know how to describe it is to have 79 first-grade kids in a bus and pull into an amusement park on a field trip, open the bus door and tell everyone to walk in line to the gates.

The Mooney Caravan concept of loosely spaced groups of airplanes also gives formation-flying experts heartburn. Despite Caravan organizers insistence that their procedure is not a formation flight, retired Marine Corps aviator Cecil Turner says, If an airplane is required to keep a certain position relative to another and visually maintain separation from that aircraft, then they are formation flying, especially if another aircraft is responsible for navigation of both for 50 miles.

Turner taught formation flying in the military and says that single ship in-trail is the hardest way to fly formation. You have few visual cues for closure besides the airplane in the windshield getting bigger or smaller.

Having individual pilots flying in-trail also greatly exacerbates the accordion effect when speed changes or poor station-keeping ripples through the formation. Anyone who has driven in stop-and-go traffic has experienced the accordion effect.

The Bonanza group avoids most of these pitfalls, especially enroute, because two-thirds of their pilots are doing nothing but keeping station on their leader from a position that is easier to maintain. Only one third of their pilots have the difficult job of in-trail station keeping. Turner says that in-trail station keeping behind an element of three aircraft is easier because the closure reference cue is a lot bigger.

En-route navigation for the Bonanzas is also more straightforward. Its done by only one aircraft, the overall formation lead aircraft. The Mooney Caravan depends on the navigation skills of eight or 10 group leaders to precisely fly the procedure ground track. This year the Caravan actually had one group of aircraft pass a preceding group because of the offending group leaders inability to fly the briefed route, according to the leader of the group that was passed.

Lesson to be Learned
A lesson can be learned from analyzing the different tacks these two groups take to achieve the same goal – moving a significant number of airplanes from one airport to another.

Most safety experts agree that for skilled performance of any flying task, regardless of how long or how detailed the briefing, there is no substitute for training and practice. I see this on a regular basis in my position as a turbojet aircraft simulator instructor. Before I enter the simulator with students, I use a time-tested syllabus to brief highly experienced and skilled pilots for two hours about what theyre going to do in the simulator in the next four hours.

Most times, not until they have some hands-on practice and refining instruction from me, do these professional pilots perform the briefed maneuvers at end-level proficiency. Often, these maneuvers are identical to ones theyve performed countless times in other airplanes.

The Bonanza group seems to recognize the need for training and practice. They require training to get qualified to participate in their flight and once trained, they also insist that their pilots have recent practice. And that goes for everyone.

Despite years of experience of flying tactical aircraft in formation, ex-Thunderbird pilot Bostick got his three hours of practice, just as everybody else. I could have probably just gone with the group and winged it so to speak, he says. Instead, he joined another Bonanza owner for some practice.

We went out and did all the basic work and the formation takeoffs and landings. I feel strongly in the required training and no one, regardless of experience or hours, should ever attempt to fly in formation, especially takeoffs and landings, without some formal training.

At Bonanza gatherings throughout the year, pilots anticipating their participation in B2OSH will get together and practice the requisite skills. Despite their stringent requirements, the Bonanzas dont seem to lack for eager participants.

The Mooneys want to keep their flight simple to appeal to pilots of all experience and ratings – an admirable goal. However, the take-all-comers registration policy, the lack of any sort of basic minimum training requirement and a tough-to-execute flight profile all lead to exactly the kind of problems theyre trying to avoid on the Ripon arrival.

Instead of flying 15 miles on the Ripon arrival with a few airplanes whose pilots cant seem to follow instructions or maintain speed and altitude to save their lives, pilots in the Mooney Caravan are given the Ripon experience for 50 miles by members of their own group who lack the proficiency, training or experience to skillfully fly the flight profile. But at least the errant airplanes all have the same gloriously distinct tail.

Several people with whom I communicated about the mass Bonanza and Mooney Oshkosh arrivals, including the leader of this years Bonanza group, noted that the Mooneys have never lost a plane.

But simply avoiding disaster is not the appropriate yardstick with which to measure success.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Follow What Leader?”
Click here to view “Cathouse Gang Writes Requirements for Grumman Pilot Formations.”
Click here to view “Formation Flight on the Edge.”

-by Bill Kight

Bill Kight is a Mooney owner and simulator instructor for a large carrier.


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