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 4 of 6)
The Bonanzas, however, follow a different procedure. Since they are training for their en masse arrival at Oshkosh, they must learn to land in formation. The first Bonanza formation that returns today is landing in “vic,” a V-shaped formation, with the wingmen on either side of lead. Perhaps they don’t see that the wind has picked up across the runway.
An airplane wing generates turbulent air, which normally streams behind its wingtips like horizontal tornadoes. When pilots fly close formation they learn to steer clear of these corkscrews. When the wind blows down the runway they flow straight back behind each airplane. But today the wind blows these vortices across the runway, from the Bonanza leader toward Elliott Schiffman on the left. The lead aircraft lands smoothly, and the right wingman is settling down. But Schiffman is caught in their vortices. His airplane begins to roll to the right, toward the other airplane. He fights for control, then finally realizes he has to slam the airplane onto the runway to stop the roll. He does—and blows a tire.
“It flipped my wing,” Schiffman says later of the turbulent air. He is an orthopedic surgeon and apparently is used to thinking calmly under pressure. “I had full left rudder, full left aileron, and I was helpless, drifting to the right toward the plane on my right. It was like skidding on ice. All of a sudden you are along for the ride. You try, but the forces are more than you can control.”
In 1973, I learned the same hard lesson, landing in formation at the Du Page County airshow in Illinois and dinging a wing. I flew formation aerobatics for four years and learned never to let my guard down near the ground or when close to another airplane. Even when your attention is riveted on the airplane in front of you, things happen fast.
During the week I’m in Mississippi, I fly with a number of pilots: Guy Moman Jr. in his Yak-52, Ritchie Jones in his flying club’s Bonanza, Bill Billups in the Glasair III he built, Steve Leonard in his SIAI-Marchetti, Terry Calloway and Stu Goldberg in their Bonanzas, and John Murphy in his L-39. Even though I have thousands of hours of formation flying experience, I am just like the other students, intoxicated by the magic of sailing through the air so close we can see one another’s grins.
Back on the ground, I stroll through the hangar to listen to debriefs. The cheery nervousness of the morning has given way to serious discussions. Everyone makes mistakes, and they are analyzed, in excruciating detail, so everyone can learn from them. There are long faces and disgruntled looks from men who are surprised to learn how many mistakes they could make on a one-hour flight. Flying that one considers crisp and precise is labeled by another rough and impossible to follow. The training is tough—and hard on the ego.
The lead pilot must lift off the runway gently so the other pilots can follow him. He must roll into his turn smoothly or his wingmen are caught off guard. Safety pilots debrief their charges. “What speed did you use on liftoff?” one of them asks. The pilot mumbles something. “Well, keep it on the runway longer next time and lift off smoothly. Lead has got to think about the guys behind him. Look at both your wingmen before you roll into a turn. Make sure they are looking at you.”
Rejoins are one of the hardest and sometimes most breathtaking maneuvers formation pilots learn. It takes experience to gauge how fast you are overtaking the lead airplane and even more experience to slide into position without overshooting. Wingmen, afraid of moving toward lead too fast, creep too slowly. Bolder beginners overshoot and have to make their airplanes slide under the leader. Most aircraft have no air brakes, so moving toward another airplane for a rejoin, then stopping exactly where you want to be, takes lots of practice—and lots of mistakes.