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Follow your Lead, and then perhaps later you will lead.

Planning, Precision, Performance: how formation training can help us all be more proficient pilots.

I used to think that formation flight was dangerous for the average pilot. When asked by Mooney Caravan formation pilots why I didn’t partake I would say something like, “I don’t want to fly so close to someone I don’t know.” In July of 2016, I attended my first formation clinic held in Chino California. Later that month I flew right seat in the Mooney Caravan arrival into Oshkosh/AirVenture. Before those experiences, I suppose I had a certain amount of naïveté that allowed me to hold the belief that non-military G.A pilots would not be safe to fly formation. Boy was I wrong, on so many levels.

I have just returned from the sixth annual Gunfighters Formation Clinic at Yuma International Airport/MCAS. The three-day multifaceted event had something for everyone and gave us an opportunity to improve formation skills, demonstrate proficiency for mass arrivals to AirVenture/Oshkosh and socialize with the other, now hopelessly addicted, formation pilots.

For the second year, the Gunfighters Formation Clinic included training opportunities with the Red Star Pilots Association.  The Red Star Pilots Association is a federal 501(c) (3) non-profit whose mission is to promote and preserve the safe operation, display and enjoyment of all aircraft — jet to prop, aerobatic, sport, war bird and utility — especially those originating in the current and former communist block nations. They are a signatory with national Formation and Safety Team [F.A.S.T.] This allows them to train, qualify, and manage civilian formation pilots in the United States and Canada for the safe conduct of formation flight displays in the US and Canadian air show industry. Several of our attendees were awarded their wingman or lead cards at the training.

Our FBO Host was Million Air FBO.  James “Curly” Combs the General Manager of Million Air gave us an incredible experience.  The facilities and staff were top notch. The food from their Jet-a-Way Café was down-home and delicious. Yuma International Airport is a large airport facility that shares runways with the Marine Corps Air Station. I assumed that perhaps the FBO might reflect a larger more corporate feeling. My assumption couldn’t have been further from the actuality. Once arriving I immediately felt like part of the family.

Any aviation volunteer knows that there is a lot that goes into the planning and execution of a formation clinic, or for that matter, any  flying event.  The behind the scenes work that starts several months prior to the event is extensive.  Safely and effectively mixing a full range of formation pilots, IP’s and safety pilots is a daunting task that requires a dedicated Air Boss with a substantial  background.  Airspace planning, ingress/egress routes, altitudes, sector frequencies, and publications take a great deal of thought and effort.  Not to mention training materials, and standardization of instruction/mentoring. Kudos to organizer Chuck Crinnian, Air Boss Larry Brennan and all the others.

Just over forty airplanes came in for the weekend. The Thursday night ground school covered numerous topics including:

  • Ground Operations
  • Element Takeoff
  • Interval Takeoff
  • 2 Ship Formation Procedures
  • Fingertip Position
  • Fingertip Maneuvering
  • Route Position
  • Turns in Route
  • Cross Under
  • Echelon
  • Close Trail
  • Formation Recoveries
  • Element Approach and Landing
  • VFR Traffic Pattern Recoveries
  • Overhead Pattern
  • Taxi and Shutdown
  • Formation Maneuver and Rejoins
  • Four Ship Formation Procedures

Then our challenge was to actually fly those procedures on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We began each exercise with an extensive brief. For me, this led to an increase sense of security knowing there was a procedure in place. I was paired with a seasoned CFI or Mentor pilot both days. The weather and landscape were beautiful in Yuma. Unfortunately, while flying formation I had my eyes glued to Lead and couldn’t see the majesty. The second day I got to fly Lead in a two-ship formation. I got a better look at the scenery that day.

All missions ended with detailed debrief covering negative and positive elements of the flight. Psychologically, the flying is challenging not only because of the proximity of other aircraft, but of the new nomenclature to be learned and maneuvers. I always find it interesting to be a “learner.” As a professional psychotherapist, aviation writer, and presenter, I am most comfortable leading and being an expert. Being a newbie was an exercise in patience with myself as I learned and grace when I made a mistake.

As is often typical with training of any sort, my abilities the second day were better than the first. The formation flying itself was very mentally and physically challenging. Taking off and landing in elements is a thrilling experience. I pushed myself to fly as precisely as possible and to increase my comfort level flying close to Lead. My level of focus was so intense that I found myself fatigued at the end of the day. Both nights we had a chance to share dinner as a group and to establish bonds of camaraderie.

Overall, the training experience was excellent. With focus, perseverance and encouragement the skills were all within my reach. I feel strongly that my formation training has made me a safer and more precise pilot. I would encourage all pilots to investigate formation training in their regions. I also left Yuma feeling like I had made some life-long friendships. I look forward to attending at least one more clinic before Oshkosh, then on to the mass arrival. We also learned the two most important rules in formation flight. #1 Don’t hit Lead, and #2 Refer to #1.

For more information on formation training and arrivals to OSH17:

Mooney Caravan: http://www.mooneycaravan.com/

Bonanzas to Oshkosh: https://www.b2osh.org/Web/B2OSH/Pages/Training/TrainingRegional.asp

Cessnas to Oshkosh: http://www.cessnas2oshkosh.com/920home.aspx

Cherokees to Oshkosh http://www.cherokees2osh.com/index.asp

Formation Flying Inc.: http://www.ffi.aero/

 

 

Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

1 Comment

  1. What a great article! Wow, I really agree with all that you said. Thank you.

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