Learning formation flying – hard work, but worth it

About a year after buying an already-built Van’s RV-6 and spending a very hot July earning a tailwheel endorsement, I thought I knew the airplane well enough to attend a formation flying clinic being hosted by the Ohio Valley RVators at the not-too-distant Parkersburg, West Virginia, airport. As interesting as it sounded, the very idea of it caused me quite a bit of stress. Attending the clinic would entail two nights away from home base (which is, of course, two nights longer than I usually stay out, and the issue of inclement weather possibly stranding me somewhere is always a stress event for me) with the even more stressful fact that this would be my first time ever at the controls of an airplane that had been deliberately placed just a handful of feet from another airplane.

It helped that I had done all that I could to prepare myself with the book knowledge that would be required, but I still had my doubts. The book knowledge mostly had to do with the procedures and signals that are critically important in formation flying, the very act of which is difficult enough when everyone is singing from the same hymnal but nigh on impossible if even one participant is winging it, so to speak. The procedures themselves were easy enough to comprehend and retain, but the signals used to direct various formation changes were simply befuddling to me.

RV on ramp
Getting ready to embark on a challenging – and hopefully fun – few days.

The ride down to Parkersburg was an enjoyable 35 minutes or so, which was a real bargain for me when you consider that there were people coming from as far away as Kansas City, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and points Northeast. Parkersburg is a normal airport by West Virginia standards, those standards apparently being “lop the top off a mountain and put down an airport.” This type of airport always presents a visually daunting approach in that it gives the impression that landing just a bit short is going to result in a face-plant against the side of a cliff.

The first official event of the clinic was in the early evening, when we all sat down for pizza and a briefing regarding the events and schedules for the weekend. We went through the roster of attendees, with each person standing up for an introduction. A computer spreadsheet was projected onto a large screen, and it was plain to see that each pilot had been assigned a color ranging from red to yellow to green. When the spotlight fell on the first “red” pilot, we were all informed by the veterans in the group that “red” translated directly to “you scare us.” When my turn came, I couldn’t help pointing out that I thought my assignment to the red group was a fair assessment – I was pretty scared too!

With the tension being at its highest, the 0530 wake-up call was moot, to put it bluntly. Welcome, in fact. Sleep just wasn’t to be found.

The 8:00 briefing started right on time; this clinic was run with military precision. The first flight would entail my riding with an experienced formation pilot and watching/learning how the book knowledge worked in actual application. I had ridden in formation before, but without the benefit of knowing even the little bit that I had been able to learn about what it all means. That, and the fact that I was nearly always busy taking pictures, meant that this would be my first real exposure to the full plethora of details involved in keeping everyone on the same page and heading in the same direction. I was assigned to ride with “Joker” in the back seat of his RV-8.

Riding along
Step one: ride along and watch.

Riding along and watching the signals and experiencing the correct responses without having to devote any energy or attention at all to operating the airplane was exactly what I needed for it all to come together in my head. What I found is that all of the various signals in the books can be distilled down to just five or six fundamentals, and just like the various entries to your home airport, you can narrow down the decision tree you will have to follow to decode a signal to just a few options.

For example, it reduces the complexity quite a bit just to know that the fingertip formation is essentially the default formation, and all formation changes are based on being in fingertip. So if you’re in diamond or route, for example, all you have to watch for is the wing rock that directs you to return to fingertip. There are a few easily understood rules to live by, although I found that they can be difficult to avoid violating.

Given that my job on that flight had been to pay attention and learn, learn, learn, I considered the mission to be a resounding success. I was far more aware of what to expect when it became my turn to fly. That having been said, I was by no means calm about the impending leap from rider to driver. The next flight would reverse the roles: Joker would now be riding in my airplane, and I’d be doing the flying. The briefing was at 10:00, and by that time I felt like I had a pretty good idea as to what was going on.

We also were briefed that rather than the normal formation takeoff which entails two airplanes taking off side-by-side on different sides of the runway, an idea I found to be particularly appalling, we would instead follow lead at five second intervals.

After a very detailed briefing as to what we would be doing and when, we headed for the airplanes. This is where my nerves really took over and caused some basic mistakes. For example, we had briefed that the initial check-in on the radio would be on our assigned in-flight frequency, but I dialed in the tower frequency instead. Joker caught the error and we didn’t miss the check-in, but that was strike one.

We taxied out in staggered formation (planes alternating between the left and right side of the taxiway) and I noticed the first problem with formation work in a side-by-side like my RV-6: I couldn’t see Lead’s elevators. This was important because when it came time to move back into single file in preparation for our run-ups, Lead would signal us by flapping his elevators up and down, and I wouldn’t be able to see it. Joker could, though, and he gave me a nudge when he saw it. Problem resolved.

Briefing board
The briefing is almost as important as the flying.

We all lined up abreast at the departure end of the runway and did our run-ups, and here came strike two: I still had my flaps down. Normally this is something I never forget, but with all of the other things running through my head I was becoming somewhat overwhelmed. Again, Joker caught my error and reminded me to get the airplane fully and properly configured.

We lined up for takeoff with me on the left side of the wide runway and Lead on the right, and I felt that there was plenty of room even with my only being allotted half of the runway’s 150’ width. That runway was huge! The five second spacing on takeoff didn’t really turn into the reprieve I had expected, though. With full fuel and a runway that’s uphill in both directions (they didn’t lop quite enough off of the middle of the mountain, in my opinion, and the runway has a notable crest in the middle) I just couldn’t keep up with Lead.

I finally dragged Papa into the air and started my turn to the left to join up with Lead.

The way this joining up is supposed to work is that I would position Lead in my canopy such that his vertical stab was lined up on his opposite wing, but I had a couple of problems doing that. First of all, he was so far away by that time that I couldn’t really see enough to ensure that I had the proper line. The second thing is that when I banked to turn more inside of him in order to catch up, he dropped out of my sight below the cockpit side. All in all, it was a terrible rejoin, and I believe at one point I came awfully close to going belly-up to lead, which means you can no longer see him and are now at risk of a collision, which is a pooch-screwing mistake of the highest order.

We eventually caught up and I had my first experience in trying to hold the proper line. In Van’s RV formation flying, there is an imaginary line running through the outside aileron hinge on the wing continuing up and through the propeller spinner. If you have the aileron hinge lined up properly with the spinner, you are correctly positioned in two dimensions: forward/backward and up/down. It’s a lot like being on the correct radial line of a VOR, though, in that you don’t know how close or far away you are. You can be on the correct line 10 feet away, or you can be on the correct line 100 feet away. It doesn’t really matter when it’s just you and another plane because you’re still in position, albeit maybe not as close in or as far out as Lead would want you. If there were more planes in the formation, you would want to keep the same distance as the others.

There is some terminology around this positioning. For example, if you are ahead of the line, you are “acute.” If you are behind the line, you are “sucked.” You also want to be “stacked down,” which means you are below the leader’s altitude by a few feet. The absolute worst place to be is “high and acute,” because that is a dangerous place indeed. It means you are flying right alongside another airplane, quite close, and if he were to turn towards you, you would both have really bad endings to what started out as a promising day.

I was to find myself precisely in that position any number of times, as it turns out.

Hey, they were warned that I was scary!

In formation
Trying to find “the line.”

As I worked at it, we got closer and closer to Lead’s plane, and I struggled more and more to stay on the line. I was high, I was low, I was acute, and I was sucked, pretty much in all possible permutations at one time or another. Keeping the airplane precisely positioned on the line is a lot like balancing a marble on the tip of a pencil: it doesn’t want to be there and it requires constant adjustments to keep it there. These adjustments have to be very precise, quick, smooth, anticipatory, and it pays to remember that a little bit of adjustment goes a long way. I soon found that it was critical to anticipate the adjustments that needed to be made because once the marble starts to fall off of the pencil, it’s far too late to catch it.

These adjustments are made with throttle and rudder, with very, very little joystick input. Well, in theory that is. The idea is to use the rudder to move left and right rather than banking with the ailerons for two reasons: the first is that you don’t want to roll so much that you go belly-up, and the second (and more important) reason is that it makes the formation look sloppy from the ground. Another cardinal rule of formation flying is to assume that someone on the ground is going to take your picture at any given second, and no one wants to be the guy out of position in Granny’s scrapbook.

My first experience with station keeping demonstrated that I had a tendency to ride too high rather than use the correct sight line to keep me stacked down where I belonged, to over-control on both the stick and throttle, and to barely use the rudder at all. I also was not anticipating the constant small changes required to stay locked in position quickly enough, if I managed to anticipate them at all. I could go on and on about this, but the fundamental issue was that I was still very much in react mode when it came to staying where I belonged. Much to my chagrin, my normal light touch on the stick had mysteriously been transformed to a white-knuckle death grip.

I imagine some of this is to be expected the first few times, and I do think I got better at it as I gained experience, but I had a hard time with it on that first flight. I can’t say that I was disappointed when we received the RTB (return to base) call from Lead after what had to be simultaneously the shortest and longest half hour I had ever spent in an airplane.

As we approached the airport, we moved into the echelon formation as expected, and as we headed down the length of the runway at pattern altitude I knew to expect the signal for the pitch-out at any second. That signal is a wagging extended index finger, followed by a number of fingers indicating the timing of the desired spacing. In this case it was two fingers, so I knew to make a slow count of one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand before making my turn to the base leg behind Lead.

The big event was triggered by the “kiss-off” signal from Lead, upon receipt of which I smartly moved my eyes to “eyes forward,” counted off the two seconds, entered a 60 degree bank to the left, pulled in pitch for a 2G turn to follow Lead, and immediately pulled the power back to idle in order to slow down to my 100 mph flap extension speed.

Pitch out
The moment of truth: the pitch-out.

Well, that’s what I was supposed to do. It didn’t quite work out that way: I didn’t get the power all of the way out. Before I knew it, I was caught up to Lead and had to go wider out on downwind to go past him (going through him not being an attractive option, after all), which really, really isn’t what #2 wants to do.

Beyond that, I was now high and fast in the pattern. This might be a good time to mention that the ghost I feared the most in the days and weeks leading up to this moment was that I would blow the landing with a knowledgeable RV pilot aboard, and boy-howdy did I find myself following the recipe for exactly that. As it turns out, though, the actual landing wasn’t so bad. Granted, that’s not much to hang your hat on in comparison to the botched pitch-out and the litany of other sins, but it was something.

The next step was the debrief. The debrief is an essential element of formation flying, and it is the absolutely perfect time to find someplace to store your ego offline for awhile. Formation flying is serious business, and if you’re too thin-skinned or too wrapped up in the ego of it all, formation flying really isn’t for you. Honest, constructive criticism and no-holds-barred analysis of your performance is the order of the day, and it is the only way to improve. And no matter who you are, or what you’ve flown, or how long you’ve been doing it, there is always something that can be improved.

Part of the attraction of formation flying in the first place is similar to what gets people addicted to golf: it is a beautiful thing to see when done perfectly but a really ugly thing when done poorly, and perfection is impossible to attain. Also like golf, it rewards you when you are successful, and it punishes you when you are not. As far as my performance goes, the phrase “even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then” is applicable. After all, I did manage to find the line now and then. But, just as in golf, success is fleeting. You’re only as good as your last shot. And while this squirrel did a nut now and then, he had a heck of a time keeping it.

RVs in formation
It’s a beautiful thing when it works out.

In debrief we went through the few times that I had found the proper line, and the many times that I hadn’t. We talked about my debacle of a pitch-out, we talked about the slow rejoin after I bogged down during the takeoff, and we talked about a bunch of other stuff. The nice thing is that Joker made a point of mentioning that he had not once been forced take control of the airplane, not to absolve himself of any blame, but to tell everyone that I was the blind squirrel that had occasionally found the nut. Credit where due, I guess, even if there wasn’t much of it.

Throughout the remainder of the weekend my flying improved as I became more relaxed while flying within 10 ft. of the airplane next to me. I started visualizing “the line” in a three-dimensional aspect, which is critical to good station keeping. I never quite got to the point of being able to maintain a good fore/aft position on the line, partially because I have a less responsive fixed-pitch prop (the constant-speed props are far quicker to respond to power changes), but mostly because three flights weren’t nearly enough to get a good feel for it.

As enjoyable as the experience was, I was somewhat relieved when it was done. That kind of flying requires a level of concentration that I simply don’t have the stamina for. That is, of course, why the guys that do this type of flying regularly spend a great deal of time practicing it.

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