YOU WANT TO FLY FORMATION!?

There are only two requirements for flying formation: desire and self-discipline. You generate the self-discipline if you really have the desire and seriously want to master flying in formation with others. Other pilots experienced in formation flying won’t want to fly formation with you if you don’t have the self-discipline to be trustworthy.

T34's and CJ-6s in Formation

T34’s and CJ-6s in Formation

The FAA rules for flying formation are simple: brief all the pilots flying in the formation what you are going to do, and have everyone agree to the plan (FAR 91.111(b)). The challenge is learning the concepts and principles necessary to do it safely.

There are several organizations of civilian pilots that regularly fly formation, mostly—but not exclusively—in war birds including the T-34 Association (http://www.t-34.com/), the North American Trainer Association (http://www.northamericantrainer.org/), and the Red Star Pilots Association (http://www.flyredstar.org/). They have instruction books and instructors to help you learn. All three groups are signatories to the Formation and Safety Team (FAST), an international organization that certifies civilian pilots to fly formation at air shows in waivered airspace through the standardized training provided by each participating organization (http://www.flyfast.org/).

I recently spent a weekend at a Red Star fly-in and formation-flying clinic where I flew with two pilots new to the discipline. They had good motor skills and aircraft control, but both were overwhelmed by all the new terms and concepts in the manual and in the flight briefings.

There are many standardized terms and procedures to learn before the concepts of formation flying can be taught, understood and retained. Most of these terms and procedures are not intuitive. Even with help from instructors and experienced friends it takes desire and self-discipline to learn the material. The newly revised Red Star manual for wingmen and wingwomen presents the information in a logical and progressive format, but until you see some of the maneuvers demonstrated in flight, the principles and concepts can still be hard to grasp and apply.

Inside a 20-Ship Formation

Inside a 20-Ship Formation

Another training aid is a DVD called Formation Flight: Basic Principles by Dr. Charles Kerber, a Red Star pilot and former flight surgeon in the Marine Corps. The DVD has in-flight footage to help visualize the concepts and maneuvers being discussed. The video references an earlier version of the manual so some of the terms and hand signals may be slightly different; but they will be recognizable and understandable. The DVD is available through Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

However, at some point you have got to get in an airplane and start flying formation.  This is not a time for self-study. Find a formation flying clinic near you, take your airplane and find an instructor. Red Star instructors volunteer their time so your only cost is the flight time and avgas. The instructors are happy to work with you as long as they see the desire and self-discipline to learn the rules and maneuvers and accept the instruction they provide. The instruction will include constructive evaluation, suggestions and encouragement for improvement in a mentoring environment. Now it’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice…and all that takes is desire and self-discipline.

16-Ship Flyby

16-Ship Flyby

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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