Fifteen Feet and Closing

At formation flying school, invading your neighbor’s space becomes an art form.

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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.

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.

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