Smile, if You Dare

Formation flying is irresistible to shutterbugs and proud airplane owners, but without proper preparation it can be deadly


In March 1997, our unit was going through recurrent ground school and reassembling from the lunchtime break when the former chief pilot walked in with a pale face and grimly announced to the room, Hey guys, the factory just had an accident. They were taking pictures and collided. They lost both aircraft and everyone on board.

The news hit us in the stomach. We all looked at each other with dismay. The aircraft collided during a photo shoot. Given the beauty of the DC-3s turboprop conversion, I could hardly blame them for wanting to take some airborne promotional pictures.

Witnesses saw the aircraft at approximately 500 feet to 700 feet agl flying close together headed north. The DC-3 was flying straight and level while the A-36 was circling above and below it. On its last pass, the A-36 circled behind the DC-3, then crossed over the top, inadvertently hitting the top.

About 5 seconds after the impact, the DC-3 gently rolled and turned westbound, apparently descending and gaining airspeed. The left wing then came off, followed by the right wing about 2 seconds later.

There was evidence that the DC-3s elevator and rudder controls were severed during impact. All 4 people were killed. The loss devastated many of us in the community of past and present DC-3 pilots and admirers.

Virtually every aviation magazine you see on the news rack has a front cover telephoto picture of the featured aircraft and the smiling pilot. Most pilots would love to have some pictures of themselves flying their favorite aircraft, clearly showing them at the controls.

Sadly, pilots who are casually flying formation with another aircraft with the pilots attempting to take pictures of each other has led to many mid-air collisions and other fatal accidents.

Concentrated Attention
Formation flying has its own requirements and discipline in addition to normal flight procedures. Formation brings in the added responsibility of being aware of the dangers involved in flying in close proximity to other aircraft – and the precautions necessary to minimize the risks.

You and your wingman must be completely familiar with every facet of the task at hand before leaving the ground. This includes signals, check-in procedures and type of formation to be flown.

During the flight, each pilots concentration must be devoted exclusively to the formation and nothing else. The wingmans sole responsibility is to maintain position, and this requires the pilots complete attention and intense concentration.

Deviations need to be kept small. Looking around the sky, checking things in the cockpit or helping with navigation must not be done while in close formation. Even a momentary diversion of attention from the other aircraft in the best of conditions can result in instant disaster.

Several of the accidents show that everyone is smiling and waving for the camera, but apparently someone forgot to fly the aircraft. If youre waving at the camera, who is looking forward and watching for other traffic, or making certain that you are still flying in safe airspace?

This is a big and underestimated risk, especially among neophyte formation pilots who are just trying to get a few good shots.

There are many other risks associated with this type of activity that are considerable. Aircraft flying in formation require a lot more room for maneuvering, and in general a formation of aircraft has reduced maneuverability.

A simple turn requires much more space for two aircraft flying in formation because the leader must be smooth, slow and deliberate with the rate of roll. The quickest way to create chaos in a formation of aircraft is for the leader to perform a quick, unplanned maneuver.

Therefore, the amount of airspace and planning needed for these flights is much larger. Add in the reduced maneuverability and you can see how quickly the risk piles on.

What if you suddenly spot an aircraft rapidly converging on your position? You cant make sudden movements when flying close to your formation partner because it risks a mid-air collision.

Dividing the Tasks
The wingmans job in formation is to remain in position through timely maneuvering. If the wingman is in the wrong position, the lead aircraft can turn into it, which can very quickly result in disaster.

Maintaining the proper separation requires constant small corrections of the throttle and flight controls. During close formation flying, the wingman must keep his complete concentration on the flight leads position.

Flying close to another aircraft requires quicker perceptual skills to notice that a small change has occurred, quicker cognitive skills to determine that a reactive change must be made, and quick control inputs to implement the changes, then react just as quickly in case the change was too small or too great.

Detecting closure rates, cutoff angles, depth perception and relative size can be difficult to do, especially against a featureless sky. That means the wing-man cant look inside his own aircraft at the instruments, to check charts, to change radio frequencies, or to check gauges.

He also has to keep his hands on the throttle and stick, waiting to instantly make a correction to stay in the proper position. The wingman must be prepared for anything to happen.

While the wingman is concentrating solely on the leaders position, the wingman is unable to scan outside for traffic. Hence, two aircraft really become one in terms of scanning ability, increasing the risk of mid-air.

The flight leader of a formation has a lot of extra thinking to do for both aircraft. He must plan the flight maneuvers so that the wingman is in the proper position. The sun becomes a big factor because its terribly difficult for the wingman to see the leader when looking into the sun.

Atmospheric Wild Cards
Back in my active soaring days, I would sometimes find myself in a thermal with several other sailplanes. When a sailplane on the other side of the thermal hits a gust, it can suddenly move by a fair amount.

There were times in those thermals when Id grow uncomfortable with someone in a nearby aircraft and Id leave the thermal just to protect myself and my aircraft.

Likewise, disturbances such as atmospheric turbulence can also result in instant collisions.

Close formation flying exposes aircraft to prop wash, wake turbulence and aerodynamic interference from adjoining aircraft. The Top Gun movie scene of Maverick getting into the jet wash of another fighter is not a Hollywood fabrication. Its real and can have adverse consequences.

Propwash and jet wash are both disruptive and turbulent airflow. For turbine engines, its unhealthy and can cause compressor stalls. Glider pilots are required to show proficiency in transitioning through the propwash during an aerotow.

Flying through the propwash is somewhat turbulent and really makes a lot of noise in the sailplane, in addition to creating some required control movements to react to the propwash. The induced turbulence can also risk over-stressing the aircraft.

An additional feature of close formation flying is that the induced airflows from each aircraft will affect the airflow of nearby aircraft, particularly near the wing tips. By moving close to another aircrafts wings, you can actually cause a not-so-subtle banking motion.

To stay in position requires timely corrections on the flight controls. Over-controlling is easy and can result in an instant mid-air collision.

If you want to try a form of formation flying sometime just to see how subtle changes in bank angles can really affect your position with respect to the lead aircraft, try taking a glider lesson.

I once had a buddy who was a T-37 flight instructor in the Air Force say, How hard can it be to fly formation when youre attached by a rope? I smiled and invited him out to the gliderport over the weekend. It took him all of two seconds to get so completely out of position that I had to take control of the aircraft for safety reasons.

Smooth, subtle and timely control inputs was the key to staying in the proper position. Just a few degrees of bank could quickly slide the trailing glider from one side of the towplane to the other.

The aerotow portion of learning to soar is one of the most difficult learning curves for a licensed fixed-wing pilot, until he learns the subtle control inputs and the necessity to anticipate and make very small control inputs in a timely manner.

Now imagine the multitude of extra problems introduced into formation flying when the two aircraft arent hooked together by a tow rope.

Military maintenance technicians spend endless hours to ensure that the aircraft perform to the same levels as close as possible. In the civilian world, that just doesnt happen. The net result is that two aircraft in formation will have different engine powers, different abilities to accelerate and slow down, different structural loading capabilities and different airspeed envelopes.

Speaking of aircraft envelopes, all maneuvering should avoid the limits of the aircraft envelopes because the wingman will have to exercise greater airspeed and g limits to maintain position than the leader.

Blind Spots
Back when I was flying T-37s and T-38s, I enjoyed wonderful visibility through the bubble canopies. The wings on the T-38 are mounted far behind the cockpit and the pilot has a nearly unobstructed view of the sky all around.

In a J-3 Cub or a Pitts, most of the sky is obscured. You have hopefully learned about the blind spots in your aircraft. When flying in close proximity to another aircraft, this problem increases exponentially. High-wing designs cut out over 50 percent of the view of the sky and make turning maneuvers much more difficult.

Military pilots spend several years of intense training to become proficient in formation flying. Their procedures are clear, the standard operation procedures are practiced on the ground and in the air, the standard operating procedures are briefed thoroughly before the flight, the emergency procedures are well-documented and also briefed between the pilots during a very extensive pre-flight briefing.

Radio signals and frequencies are worked out, lost communication procedures are briefed, and crews consider the event of a wingman getting lost in VMC and IMC conditions and how separation will be maintained.

Other emergencies such as electrical failure are considered and briefed so that each pilot knows what he is supposed to do in the event that his aircraft, or his wingmans aircraft, has a failure. All of this is done for even a simple VFR flight. The preparation for a routine training mission would easily consume several hours to brief these items.

The military manuals specify how close the aircraft will fly, what visual references will help align the aircraft in proper position, and the crews brief the types of formation they will use at various points in the flight. The possibility of any surprises are kept to a minimum.

Preflight Briefing
Regulations prohibit formation flight unless prearranged by the pilots-in-command ahead of time. The only safe way to start a formation flight is with a very thorough and extensive preflight briefing.

Most of the accidents involving formation flying have involved scant if any preflight briefing.

You should brief the type of maneuvers to be used in flight, the planned airspeeds and relative positions, and the minimum fuel for the aircraft during various points of the flight.

If photography is involved, the danger increases tremendously because of the natural inclination to get absorbed in the picture-taking rather than keeping the aircraft separated.

The military spends years teaching a pilot how to fly in formation. The training is intense and rigorous. The most effective way to prevent a needless accident in aviation means avoiding unnecessary risk.

When you consider the risk of formation flight versus the benefit of having a nice photo on your wall, pull out that pilot license from your wallet and think, what is that license worth to me?

The smiling picture of you flying your airplane might look nice, but is it worth paying the terrible price it may exact?

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Dotting Is and Crossing Ts – Some Preflight Questions.”
Click here to view “How Do I Strike Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.”

-by Pat Veillette

Pat Veillette is a former naval aviator who has never done any formation photo shoots hell admit to.


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