Formation flying is commonly employed during military maneuvers and at air show performances. In either case, though, there are some basic rules that pilots should follow to insure the safety and the integrity of the flight mission, beginning with the rules of formation discipline.
Formation discipline insures the safety and control of formation flights. The flight leader insures formation discipline by having total knowledge and control of the actions and responsibilities of each flight member, which he accomplishes by briefing the flight team on the formations to be flown and each flight member’s responsibilities within the formation. After briefing on formations and responsibilities, the wingmen stick to the flight plan unless the flight leader changes plans.
The flight leader remains in control both in the air and on the ground, insuring that the correct responsibilities are clearly communicated prior to take off and communicating airborne flight plan changes when necessary, but the wingmen have critical responsibilities as well. Prior to takeoff, they assist the flight leader in establishing the terms of the mission. Once in the air, they maintain safe formation, perform visual clearing duties and often execute back-up navigation tasks.
Once formation discipline is established, in flight communication between flight members becomes essential to the mission’s success. Whether communicating by radio or hand signal, every communication must be understood by all of the flight members. When communicating by radio, it’s important to clear communications as clear, brief and necessary as possible. The first part of the communication should always be the “call sign.” This alerts pilots that a message is coming and to which pilot it will be directed. Upon receipt of a message, the intended recipient should immediately indicate that the message is understood. The flight leader will issue operation checks, but pilots should remain aware of their fuel state, life support equipment, engine operation, etc. at all times.
One of the key reasons for maintaining excellent flight communication is in case of in-flight lead changes are required. A transfer of flight lead responsibilities from one pilot to another, in-flight lead changes can be made by radio or visual signal, but visual contact with the pilot receiving the new responsibilities should be established before the delegation of responsibilities occurs. The pilot assuming lead responsibilities should be no deeper in the formation than the fingertip position prior to the exchange of lead responsibilities.
The specific rules mentioned above are essential to maintaining proper flight formation and safety within the formation. But there are also some general rules for safe formation flying that should be observed, such as avoiding conditions that could easily lead to unusual attitudes, including severe thunderstorms and extreme low visibility situations. And most important of all, pilots performing formation flying should possess aerobatic aircraft and emergency recovery training to help them react decisively in high-pressure situations.
Whether conducted in a military context or an air show context, formation flying can be exhilarating and fun, to say the least, but it only becomes safe when pilots follow the proper formation flying protocols and possess the proper training.