By Ken VeArd
Today I had the opportunity to fly right seat with the Mooney Caravan doing some practice formation flying with 2 Mooneys. In the past I have done some light formation flying, but these guys take it to a whole new level.
About the Flight
I woke up at 9am Saturday morning to see a text message on my phone from my friend Paul Steen saying, “Get to the airport by 10am, we are going formation flying.” Like any good pilot, I didn’t ask questions, I just hurried to the airport.
Today’s mission was to fly a two ship formation flight with two Mooneys. Paul flies a M20C and our partner in the sky, Mark, flies a M20E. Both Paul and Mark are members of the Mooney Caravan, a group that is dedicated to formation flying with the single goal of flying a mass arrival of Mooneys to EAA Oshkosh Airventure each year.
During the year, members of the Caravan meetup to practice and train with their formation flying skills.
Today was one of those days.
Before every formation flight, the pilots always meet on the ground to go over a detailed plan during their flight. They do not leave anything to chance. They even have pre-printed briefing forms they use to ensure they don’t miss anything. Everything from the number of airplanes, tail numbers, frequencies used, fuel on board and planned maneuvers are discussed and written down.
Today’s flight was to start at San Marcos, TX (KHYI) on Runway 08. Our plane was going to takeoff in the lead with Mark right behind us in echelon formation. The team talked about the the techniques they would use during takeoff, when to raise the landing gear and the airspeeds they would fly. They assigned who was responsible for radio communication with the tower and what frequencies they would use to communicate air to air. They even had 2 backup frequencies in case the chosen one was too busy to use.
They planned out each maneuver they would perform and discussed when and how they would change who was flying lead and who was flying wingman. They goal was to get time in both slots. It was decided that lead changes would be performed by doing a break and rejoin. This is when the leader calls for the #2 plane to break. The #2 plane would turn away from the formation in a 45 degree bank and turn 180 degrees from the direction of flight. 5 seconds later the lead plane would also make the same 180 degree turn putting them about 1/4 to 1/2 mile behind in trail. The new lead plane would then start a standard rate turn allowing the new wing plane to cut the corner and catch the leader. The wingman would then be able to slide right into position.
We climbed into the airplanes and got a clearance to taxi as a flight of 2. When it was time to take the runway, the lead plane rolled on to the runway on the left side with the wingman taxing into position on the right side of the runway. Using hand signals the lead plane began the roll down the runway and rotated at the specified airspeed. As soon as the lead airplane raised his gear, the wingman did the same. The wingman look as if it was glued to our wing. What ever moves we made, it followed.
Once clear of the Class Delta airspace and level at 3,500 feet, the lead plane called for an OPs check. When flying in tight formation the wing man only looks at the lead plane. There is no time to look at gauges or instruments. After take off the lead will call for an Ops check where the wingman will move away to a safe distance and the pilot will look at his gauges to ensure the engine is running smooth. Both planes then report back in with hours of fuel and the code word “Green” for everything is good. Then the wingman moves back into position.
When flying wing, the only job you have is to look at the lead airplane and ensure the sight picture is correct. You don’t care what airspeed you are flying at or what attitude you are at. If the airplane in front of you is flying, so are you. The lead plane pays attention to navigation, airspeeds and looking for traffic. Flying formation requires trust.
Welded Wing Turns
The main kind of turns we performed were welded wing turns. Imagine if the two airplanes were welded together. When the lead plane banks to the right and lowers the right wing, the wing man on the right would lower down and turn with the lead. This requires the wingman to cut power to avoid speeding past the lead airplane as they drop down. Also when the wingman is on the inside of the turn they need to fly slower because they have less distance to cover.
When the lead turns left (and the wing is on the right), the opposite occurs. The wingman adds power and climbs and stays on the outside of the turn. The wingman always keeps the leader in the same place inside his cockpit window.
The other kind of turns you can do is called an Echelon Turn. This is where both airplanes stay on level and simply turn. Although this kind of turn seems to be more simple, in practice it can be harder to perform. For one, you can only perform this turn in one direction. The lead airplane can only turn AWAY from the wingman. If the lead was to turn towards the wingman, when the wingman was in a bank, the wing would block the view of the lead airplane creating a dangerous situation.
The cross under is a maneuver where the wingman looses a little altitude crosses under the lead airplane and rejoins on the other side of the lead. The entire process takes about 30 seconds. The wingman is in no hurry to change sides and always ensures they have adequate separation from the lead aircraft.
Flying wing is a very exhausting activity. You are constantly changing power settings and maneuvering around. Your flight controls spend very little time idle. After about 10-15 minutes in wing you are ready for to take a break. This is when a lead change is useful. Using the briefed procedure above a lead change requires a series of planned turns. Then all of the maneuvers are repeated with the aircrafts in different positions.
Today’s mission included an element landing. This is where we stayed in tight formation all the way through landing and roll out. If flying wing required a lot of trust in your lead aircraft, landing as a wingman requires a lot of trust and a lot of insanity. During landing, the wingman will never look at the runway. They just look at the aircraft in front of them. When they lower their landing gear, you lower your landing gear. When they raise their nose to flare, you raise your nose to flare. When they touch down, you touch down. And you really hope that they land on their side of the runway so that you do not land in the grass.
In our case, Paul was happy to have me as his safety pilot. I was able to glance ahead and confirm that he was going to be touching down on asphalt and not grass.
Learning to Fly Formation
Formation flying is not a task anyone should take lightly. Please seek out professional training for formation flying before trying it. For every procedure there is for doing something right in a formation, there are many procedures to learn for handling it when something goes wrong. Until you know all of those and have practiced them, keep a good safe distance between you and any other aircraft.
This experience has taught me that I am very interested in learning to fly formation correctly. I will be joining some of the local groups and receiving training from them.