ILAFFFT - I LEARNED ABOUT FORMATION FLYING FROM THAT
After several instances when improvised and even planned formation flying escapades went wrong, Pilot’s Editor needs no convincing that proper training is a very good idea.
First, there was the air-to-air photography session with an old family friend. A highly experienced pilot flying his own Taylorcraft alongside our Cub, he still allowed his aeroplane first to lunge towards ours and then disappear out of sight under our tail (at which point we decided to knock it off!) Lesson One: just because someone is a skilled pilot it doesn’t mean they are necessarily a skilled formation pilot.
Then there was the instructor and examiner who said he’d flown in formation before and reckoned positioning his microlight alongside the Cub for pictures would be straightforward enough. He led our departure and sped to the rendezvous point at such velocity that he rapidly became a tiny dot on the horizon. This was followed by that dot rapidly growing in size as he attempted to join up, kamikaze style from a reciprocal heading, shooting past at a combined speed of 120 knots or so. When he did finally join in echelon ‘as close as he felt comfortable with’, he remained a couple of hundred yards distant, well beyond the useful range of the longest lens. Lesson Two: just because someone says they have ‘flown formation’ is no guarantee that they can actually do it.
Even after you have been trained and think you know how to make a formation work safely it can go wrong. After a briefing during which it was made clear to — and seemed to be understood by — the PPL/ATCO lead pilot that he would be responsible for navigation and primary lookout, treating the formation as one large aircraft, announcing any change in
direction and making gentle, deliberate manoeuvres, we set off for an air-to-air photo shoot. All went well and we had the subject aircraft tucked in nice and close for the pictures when our man, panicking at what he thought was our proximity to controlled airspace (it was actually several miles distant) forgot all protocol — forgot even that another aircraft was alongside — and broke hard towards us. The silly sod would have killed the owner and me had I not slammed the stick forward and ducked under our errant leader as he skimmed over us with barely a few feet to spare. Lesson Three: even the ‘easy’ role of leading a formation requires intelligence — and, better still, intelligence and training.
Finally, there was the time that despite having both been trained to fly formation safely and having done it for many years, I became complacent and very nearly made one of the oldest formation flying mistakes in the book. Picture a calm summer evening: I am returning to the home airstrip and looking to my right when a mate’s homebuilt Pietenpol swims into sight and settles in formation on my starboard side. For while we bob along in close proximity and then I decide I will break away to port, heading for home. As I apply left stick and rudder, I glance left and there’s another aircraft in echelon. With a wobble I modify the break into a gentle climb and turn overhead my unexpected wingman — another friend who’d been following the first and simply joined up unseen the other side. Two lessons here: first, to self, always look before manoeuvring and second — to everyone out there — formating on other aircraft without prior agreement is never a good idea, even if they are being flown by pilots you know. — Philip Whiteman