Formation Flying: The Voices of Experience

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Debbie Gary

Formation aerobatics has always been my favorite kind of air show flying. My first formation aerobatic team job was leading a two ship team with Jim Holland. I was a new show pilot, his protégée. He knew how to fly formation from his RCAF experience in WWII. But he had not done much formation aerobatics until we started flying together. We had some awkward moments as we each learned our parts. And, since he was the senior pilot, we both thought all our mistakes were mine. So, it was a happy day for me the first time we flew a show with the original Canadian Red Team pilots, Bill Cowan and Don Farion.

We had never done a show with another team and we hoped to look good in front of them. They had two little Pitts S-1s and we had two of the first S-2As. We practiced extra hard. But the harder we practiced, the more Holland fell behind. He was convinced I was screwing up the power settings. It bewildered me because, until then, he had been getting better and better and I hadn’t changed a thing. The day of the show, Holland fell back again. So he was giving me the dickens in our debrief, when Cowan and Farion came over to talk to us. They were experienced military pilots and told Holland he was falling back because he was trying to fly too close. His wings overlapped mine and he was fighting the drag from my wingtip vortices. Hallelujah! I was redeemed.

No matter what kind of planes you are flying, you should always have clearance nose to tail and wing to wing. I knew that intellectually, but it came home to me dramatically on one of our formation cross countries. I was flying on Manx Kelly’s wing in our Carling Team Pitts S-2As when his ferry tank ran dry. It looked like someone had yanked him backwards with a rope. If anyone had been directly behind him, the planes would have collided.

Regular formation training only partially prepares you for flying formation aerobatic maneuvers. There are all kinds of unexpected challenges that come with holding position (or appearing to hold position) during aerobatic maneuvers and in different positions on a team. In addition to flying lead on Jim Holland’s team, I also flew slot on the four Pitts Carling Team and left wing on the Bede 5 Jet Team. Different planes, different positions, different personalities, different problems.

The Canadian Carling Team was a fully sponsored team and we had plenty of time and money dedicated to practice, so we loved mastering challenging maneuvers like the level slow roll, which involved both knife edge and inverted formation. Once we mastered those two elements, it was easy to fly a level show roll. And we were always trying to invent things that were a little more exotic.

Part way through the 1974 season, we added an inside-outside 8. We did the first three quarters of it in our usual box formation, with me under lead’s tail. Then, on the 45 degree down line, before the front three pushed up for the outside half, I had to roll into knife edge, add full power, and drop back into the slot below the front three planes. For visibility and safety, I needed to be upright and positive while they were upside down and negative.

Trying to perfect this maneuver was exasperating. No matter how quickly I shoved the throttle full forward, I still dropped back in knife edge. I knew something about it unnerved me and made me hesitate. But it seemed like forever before I figured out the simple cause of the problem. To stay in formation as I rolled into knife-edge, I had to take my eyes off lead’s tail and put them on the left wingman until I was in my new position. Then I had to switch my eyes back to lead as I rolled level. It took me weeks to figure that out. But when I finally did, suddenly it was fantastic fun.

Compatibility is a big factor on a successful formation team. If you don’t get along, you should never be flying low-level, formation aerobatics together. It is all for one and one for all. There is no place for whiners or superstars on a team. Always be on time. Brief the flight. Fly it as briefed. Then debrief it. Mistakes are inevitable. Own up to everyone and take responsibility for fixing them. Then, practice, practice, practice and never get complacent.

Steve Gustafson

When I started flying, my dad taught me formation. I said, “Where do I fly?” because you’ve got these station keeping things. You’ve got to do this station and that. He said, “Whoa, let’s back off of that. I want you to fly where you are comfortable at first. I don’t want you trying to push it in and to think, I’ve got to keep this nose here. I’ve got to keep this right there. Hey, I don’t want you wandering all over the sky, but I want you comfortable. Over time, you’ll eventually, safely move to where you want to be.” And that is how he taught me. It worked really good. You learn a lot more that way. If they throw you in there, then it overloads your mind, so you can’t process so much information at a time. Well, if you are not comfortable, what’s that? That’s the first basis of learning. If you are not comfortable, you are not learning. So fly where you are comfortable first, and then work in to where you fly those stations.

Formation aerobatics is just a hoot to me, because flying solo is one thing, but then flying eight feet off somebody’s wing, doing loops and barrel rolls and stuff like that, it is a challenge. I’ve been doing it a long time, but it still never gets old.

The extraordinary leaders are few and far between. It is such a joy to fly with them. When Alan [Henley] led [the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team], he had a way of seeing things way ahead of time. If there was multiple traffic, he would just maneuver us ever so smoothly without us even noticing and he would always have us in the best spot. Mark [Henley] is that way, too. Mark leads our team now. But when he was right wing and I was left, we were always high fiving each other because we were so lucky to be flying wing.

The other part of team flying is that, everybody has to get along. I’ve seen so many teams that were good pilots that could not get along. All that negative attitude. I don’t want to hang around anybody like that. Alan and I started this team 28 years ago. I’m the only original member on the team now. Everybody else has come on with me. But one of the first things I tell them is, number one, you have got to be good to our sponsors. You’ve got to fly good. But if you have a bad attitude, I don’t care how good a pilot you are, I’m not going to fly with you. And when we get through flying, we go out and have dinner together. Camaraderie together. And believe it or not, that is part of our debrief, too. But we get along good. Don’t get me wrong, every once in a while we might have a little squabble or some heated thing. But I always tell everybody, it’s almost like being married. As long as, at the end of the day, we all go out to eat together.

It does make a difference when we fly a good show. When we fly a bad show, we kind of kick ourselves a little bit. We don’t really fly many bad ones anymore, not many. Everybody has come along. We all get along really well. Everything is hunky dory.  So far, so good.

In formation flying, the number one rule, I would tell anybody, and you think about this: never lose sight, never lose sight, never lose sight. Three times. Every formation accident that has happened was because they lost sight. The Red Barons lost sight. [Red Baron Stearman Squadron mid-air collision in April, 1998.] Daniel [Heligoin] and Montaine [Mallet of the French Connection] did that maneuver [that resulted in their mid-air collision in May, 2000]. They had been doing that routine for 27 years, or whatever it was, and then they had to change it. I’ve found that when people have been doing a certain routine for a long time, it’s best not to change it. If you do, you’d better practice it until it is tattooed in their brain.

Never lose sight. If you’ll watch our act, there is not one time that we lose sight of each other. Not once, not a turn, not anything. The only time is when we down bomb-burst and we are going away from each other.

Blue Sky. I don’t know what other teams’ lost wingman [procedure] is, but ours is blue sky and climb like hell, max climb and blue sky. There ain’t nobody can out climb me if I am max climbing. That is the way we do.

No, just never lose sight and good communication. We always do a walk through. I don’t care how many times we’ve flown the routine, each location is a little bit different. The boxes are different. The box in Peachtree City is different. St. Louis is different. Oshkosh is different. So we always do walk-throughs and we always film our shows and we always debrief. So anybody that is planning on doing formation and teams and stuff, make sure you do those things. You will see something in that film that you didn’t see in the air. Oops! I need to do this or that.

We do a twilight show and twilight is one thing, but sometimes we get pushed into a little darker situation. What happens then is that you have to be careful of your sight picture.

During the day, you have a certain sight picture that you are comfortable with and you like that sight picture, and that is what you are always striving for. Well, as it gets darker, you still want the sight picture that is in your mind. All the sudden you realize, “Holy Crap! I am flying close. I am flying too close,” and the reason is that you are wanting to see that plane that you are flying on, just like in the day. You might think, “I’m not going to,” but your mind is going to be telling you, “I need that sight picture that I am used to.” And you’ll inch in and — all the sudden — you will find yourself flying three feet closer than in the day. So be careful and wary of that.

So, what we actually do, if it is getting darker than we think it is going to be, Bryan [Regan] and I will tell each other, “Hey, it is going to be darker. Get your sight pictures clean and the same old golden rule: If it doesn’t feel right, lean towards safety. Go the other way, go toward safety. Don’t push a bad situation and hope the outcome comes out the way you want it to.”

I find learning does not stop at the airport. Listen to people who have been there and done that. Listen to their stories. That is where I learned a bunch of mine. If you have a close call or something like that, share it. It saves lives. Don’t hold onto it.  I don’t want somebody to know I did that. Uh uh. Share it. “This happened to me.” Guess what? Everybody perks up, Oh shit, I’m going to watch for that. I ain’t going to let that happen.

It is like crop dusting. I have been crop dusting forever. We have a pass program and it is all about that. Most of the two hours we spend in there is all about, “Hey, watch for this. I was going into the sun…” It was all those different things that you learn from. Share your stories, the good ones and the bad ones. Somebody might live.

Bob Bishop

I was hired by Red Baron to go back and look at their accident [in Kissimmee, Florida in April, 1998], to see what was the cause of that accident, to see if we could eliminate the thing from happening again. And to see if we could put the team back together again.

There was a maneuver when all of them would go and do a spread diamond formation into a looping maneuver. They would all roll the same direction, then come back into a formation during the dive back to the ground. The problem is that Randy [Drake] on the outside, he rolled the same way that everybody else did. That means that he lost sight of the lead airplane. This is the airplane he had to reform on. And he hated that maneuver. They practiced that maneuver 197 times. They kept really good records. One thing about the Red Barons, they did really good documentation, a lot of video. Randy hated that maneuver and he kept saying, “I hate this maneuver.”

Well, that should be a red flag if somebody hates a maneuver. The reason was that he was losing sight of the lead. If he didn’t fly it quite right and wound up on the high side, everybody was below his wing. He could hardly see anybody. He had to get down and he didn’t have [visual] acquisition with anyone yet. And the problem was that all of those airplanes were identical, including the lead airplane. And I am quite convinced that what he did in this particular maneuver was that he acquired an airplane he thought was the lead airplane. Well, it was Bryan Regan on the other wing. So he was closing on Bryan thinking that was the lead airplane and landed the plane right on top of Sonny [Lovelace] and damn near getting John Bowman in the front airplane. Just missed taking three of them out.

That is a maneuver with a flaw in its design and that became a part of the corporate culture of our talk at Red Baron. If you see it on other teams, somebody is going to get hurt.

Daniel [Heligoin] and Montaine [Mallet]: design flawed maneuver, because on the way up, Daniel was supposed to do a half roll. Then they were supposed to do a split away from each other. Here is the problem. They had practiced this and they had, again, a corporate culture where the leader always called the maneuvers and/or the pulls, or whatever. That is not correct. It should be the person who has to take the cut or maintain the clearance that makes the call.

I taught this to the Red Barons at the time. They were, “Oh, the leader is supposed to make the calls.” I said, “No, no, no.” They did a maneuver where they used to come around with two airplanes right down the show line, turn heavy 90 degrees going away from the crowd, then one airplane would slip behind. Then they would do the twizzle roll or the split always going away from the crowd so it was safe. The problem is that they had the lead airplane on that always calling the split.

He doesn’t know if the airplane is clear or not. And he shouldn’t be pulling until the guy who knows he has to clear is clear. In the case of this, Daniel had to know, when he did that roll going up, he was slightly skewed toward her. Their wings were overlapped. I know he knew that, but she called the pull and pulled. And there it was. That is a design flawed maneuver.

In the case of the Red Baron thing, I saw that, I don’t know how many hundreds of times, trying to analyze exactly what happened. Then all the sudden I realized, “Oh my God,” the light bulb went on.

And when I first saw Daniel and Montaine, I knew exactly what happened. They had this idea that the leader has got to call the maneuver. They call the maneuver to set the maneuver up and to pull into it, but if there is some point during the maneuver where there is a clearance required by a wingman, the wingman calls the break. Simple, but deadly, if you don’t know that.

Bill Stein

There are still pretty minimal procedures for most of the teams. I think there should be a discussion about normal formation team procedures and responsibilities and a bullet point of, “What are the trade-offs?” It can be, “Oh, we can’t afford to practice, so we are going to do this.” Or, “We practice so much so that we know that nothing bad is going to happen, so we don’t have to worry about that.” And that is ten times scarier than somebody who doesn’t practice, but does walk-throughs three nights a week.

But I think there should be something about that. When most people get their card, it’s in a two ship and all you’ve got to do is not crash and you get your card, pretty much.

What you have to do is to demonstrate your sequence and it has to include a loop or a barrel roll, a wingover. There has to be, if the ACE wishes, a demonstration of an out and there has to be a demonstration of a rejoin. So, a rejoin does need to happen, but it is just one. And a rejoin in the sequence would be a good thing, because that is where you really see what somebody is going to do.

I have worked with guys to get them cards, their formation training. I’ve done it a lot. It comes time for the ACE evaluation and we get Jim Maroney to come do it. And I’m the second ACE because I’m not allowed to be the first ACE, because I did the training. And so I am watching Jim watch these guys fly while they are doing the flight portion and Jim didn’t like the rejoin. So they get done and say, “Would you like to see something else?” Jim says, “I’d like to see another rejoin.”

And I thought, “That is awesome.” And that is the first time that I have done a two ACE formation thing. But when he asked for that, I was totally impressed.

So, there are other people that see rejoins as the key.  I tell them, “Here’s how you know you are a formation guy. You fly the most bad ass sequence that anyone has ever flown and when you come back, what you say to your pals is, “Yeah, did you see my rejoin?” And they say, “Really.” I say, “When you say that, if you really seriously endeavor to be good at this, you are going to say it someday. That is the day you are a real formation guy.”

So, there you go. If you are proud of your rejoins, you are a for real formation person.

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Deb Gary
Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.