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Having flown some formation in my youth, I was familiar with the addictive nature of this kind of flying.
Back then I was a mixture of self-trained (read: SCARY and NOT RECOMMENDED) and loosely instructed. My “training” was from a grizzled Vietnam-era F-4 jock. He was in a Pitts and I was in a 2/3rd scale composite P-51D, not exactly a good setup for proper formation work. The differences in wing loading and drag really made you work at it.
I remember one flight on the way home from an air show back East. We dropped down low and in extended trail, my airplane loosely following the Pitts over the uninhabited hills of southern Missouri – amazing – is the only world to describe that memory.
Sadly, life after the Mustang gig was void of any real formation work, that was circa 1994.
Fast forward to 2011 and I just completed my RV-8. One of the reasons I chose that airplane was its reputation as a formation platform. Great handling qualities, high thrust-to-weight ratio, and nearly unobstructed visibility make it a formation weapon of choice for many weekend warriors – I use that term unabashedly, have you seen how my airplane is painted?
Enter my good friend and fellow RV builder Rick. He spent several years in the Air Force teaching formation and he would get me back into the groove, so to speak. It’s pretty convenient that our hangars face each other at KCMH.
So I would be reintroduced to a love that I haven’t experienced in almost 20 years, and like any such sacred reunion, it was awkward, heated, and exhilarating, all at the same time. The good news was it felt like I was 23 again, struggling to dance with my partner, but loving every minute of it.
Rick and I work for the same employer, where I out rank him, but in our RVs he’s the boss. This respect and trust is vital in an arena where two or more airplanes are operating mere feet apart. Formation is deadly series business and not for the faint of heart. Rick will blast the hell out of me in the debrief if I do something stupid. Coming off a :60 minute formation hop with little to no straight-and-level will make you feel like you have blood coming out of your eyes from focusing so intently on lead. It’s exhausting and elating all at the same time.
There’s also is something a bit ethereal about flying your airplane from break release to the point at which we break up the flight over the runway on initial, solely off the relative position of another aircraft; you have no idea where you are or what your airplane is doing (luckily I have audio warnings for oil pressure and other vitals) you are literally doing whatever it takes to stay welded into position.
Terms like: rejoin, echelon, initial, line abreast, route, and smash have wholly new and immensely important meanings in the world of formation.
There are also radio procedures, hand signals, and even control surface movements, that use the airplane itself to communicate, like porpoising the nose, or fishtailing the rudder – all unique to formation flying.
Hands down, formation is the most intense and rewarding kind of flying I have ever done. It is also the most humbling. There is no perfect formation flight, there is always something to debrief after we are out of the cockpits.
It requires precision in all axis measured in feet through all kinds of manuevers even aerobatics, as demonstrated by professional teams like the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds, the Aeroshell T-6s, and Team AeroDynamix, to name a few.
Because perfection is illusive, formation seems to be the drug of choice for many sporting aviators that what the ever-present challenge and thrill that comes with it.
There are a handful of schools and clinics that teach formation so it you want a taste, best to seek out someone in your area that does it and get their counsel.
Of course no matter what you choose to challenge yourself, be it a well executed landing; a perfectly round loop; or a masterful instrument approach; you will find your bliss. I’ve loving the fact that I have become reacquainted with mine.
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