Although many readers of aviation magazines such as AOPA Pilot probably have a vague idea at this point what it takes to get a picture like the one below, chances are that as a new student the concept is fairly foreign. But it’s good to know because there are lessons in it that pertain to everyone.
Here’s how it works: Prior to the flight, the photographer, platform airplane pilot (we’ll call it lead), and subject airplane pilot brief what’s going to happen. They talk about frequencies, aircraft speed, plan for the shoot, and safety and emergency procedures. Therein lies the first lesson. Even if you’re not flying formation, it’s a good idea to mentally go over what’s going to happen on your flight, and review your planning before you get in the airplane. Many people also brief similar to this just before take off. Items may include expected speeds, when to abort the takeoff, and so on.
During the formation flight, the lead pilot does all the navigating, see and avoid, and radio communications. In other words, he flies a “normal” flight. The subject pilot simply locks on to the lead airplane and does exactly what it does. Flying the subject airplane is like living in an alternate universe. There’s no sense of time or space. All the pilot knows is what he can see of the lead 10, 20, or 50 feet in front of him.
But the real lesson here is what happens with the lead pilot. In flight training, we’re taught to maintain altitude and be precise, regardless of how smooth the flying is. At least that’s what most instructors teach. But formation flying is different. A good lead pilot can maintain altitude, yes, but more important, he can fly smoothly and predictably. Last week we did a shoot where I was lead pilot. We flew steep turns over a single spot for maybe ten minutes, just going around and around. Thankfully I wasn’t taking my private pilot checkride during the flight because I would have failed miserably. I gained and lost altitude throughout. But my flying was generally smooth, and there are times when this is much more important.
Here’s an example. If you’re on a VFR flight with a passenger who’s scared, sick, or anxious, riding the bumps up and down is paramount to making sure you stay within 10 feet of your altitude. Trust me on this one.
While over the photographer’s preferred background, he or she will direct the lead pilot via the lead aircraft’s intercom, telling him to fly over a certain spot, go up or down, and so on. This can be a busy time, and it’s a perfect example of making sure you have your aviation priorities straight. That’s because you’re often in a 45-degree steep turn while also trying to talk to the photographer and the subject airplane, but also trying to navigate, maintain altitude, look for traffic, and watch for obstacles. Knowing that you need to fly first and foremost, and putting that into practice, is important. It’s also a great reminder of how to handle a complex situation when not flying formation.
My dismal steep turn performance last week also brought up a few lessons. One, skills atrophy if not practiced. I’ve done hundreds of steep turns in my flying career, but the only one that matters is the current one, and I blew it. Also, you’re never too far along in your flying to stop learning. I try and catalog one thing I learn on each flight. Thankfully for me, that isn’t hard.
–Ian J. Twombly