Fifteen Feet and Closing
At formation flying school, invading your neighbor's space becomes an art form.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 3 of 6)
Because FAST is a warbird organization, its cards apply only to warbird-type airplanes with a low wing and a bubble canopy. More than half the pilots at Ricks’ clinic are in civilian aircraft. Thirty-nine of them fly Bonanzas.
Until recently, a Bonanza was the most unlikely formation-flying airplane imaginable. It is the Volvo of the flying world, a roomy, stable, fast, cross-country single-engine airplane. But in 1990, Bonanza pilot Wayne Collins started an annual event called Bonanzas to Oshkosh, a mass flight to the Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Wisconsin. Now Bonanza pilots all over the country want to become formation pilots. They could get a card from Formation Flying Inc. in Round Rock, Texas. But FFI doesn’t teach, it only gives exams, so the Bonanza pilots come to Ricks.
Because Ricks has put on a lot of these clinics and has heard pilots grumble, he gives them fair warning. “Don’t take the critiques personally,” he says. “Don’t put your feelings up on your shoulder. The pilots who are flying with you are ex-military or professional, fly-for-hire pilots, so you are going to hear from them, especially if you do some dumb things.”
After Ricks’ briefings, Kim Pruyne addresses the newcomers. A retired Air Force pilot who flew big transports and hurricane hunters, Pruyne drills them on formation discipline, terminology, procedures, and hand signals. He covers the formation flying manual in detail, reviewing terms like “station keeping” (holding position), “sucked” (too far back), “acute” (too far forward), “gimme some” ( a call from the wingman to the leader to reduce power), “pitch-outs” (breaking away from the pack), and “kiss-off” (split up to land), as well as formations like fingertip (four aircraft arrayed like the fingertips of one hand), echelon (all wingmen on one side of a lead aircraft), trail (one after the other), and diamond (see photo, p. 26).
Formation flying evolved during World War I as a means of mutual protection for aircraft venturing out to reconnoiter. A lone scout, concentrating its attention on ground forces and unaware of threats from the air, would be vulnerable to attack. But with another along to watch for fighters, chances of survival rose. Soon the principle of safety in numbers led to gaggles of defending fighters gathered around a leader for the protection of one or more scout aircraft performing reconnaissance or adjusting artillery fire. Between the wars, a more ceremonial kind of formation, the aerial parade or air tattoo, entertained crowds at celebrations.
Although the civilians at formation flying school aren’t looking for enemies, they must fly with a military-like strictness. “Formation discipline means you do what you said you were going to do,” says Pruyne, business-like in his flightsuit. “Don’t get a harebrained idea while you are in the sky. You can change things, but the idea is to talk about what you are going to do. Formation discipline says you do what the leader says, not what you want to do. One of the things most leaders tell you to do is to shut up, mostly.” This is one of the fundamental tenets of professional formation flying: Shut up and fly. Neither explain nor complain. Make no excuses.
There is one more drill. Pilots must walk through their upcoming flight, responding to the leader’s waves, hand pumps, elbow bends, and pointed fingers as if they were all airborne. The students line up, four to a group, and try not to feel silly as they walk around the ramp in flightsuits and shorts. When they can perform an imaginary flight impeccably on the ground without turning the wrong way or crashing into each other, they are ready to fly.
Now formations take off. While they are gone, the wind picks up—across the runway. Most of the formations make a pass down the runway when they return, crossing the threshold at several hundred feet, with one, two, or three airplanes in right echelon formation off the leader’s wing. Mid-field, lead gives the kiss-off signal, racks his airplane into a tight left turn, and peels off toward the downwind leg of the runway entry pattern. The others follow suit and land well spaced out.