Formation flight has intrigued me for as long as I can remember.
Seeing the Blue Angels for the first time as a child, I remember thinking not just about how cool they looked, but how disciplined and precise the pilots must be, and how well they worked together as a team. It was the ultimate combination of airmanship and trust.
On each subsequent flight, I became more fascinated by the pilot’s subtle control inputs, laser focus, and ability to manipulate the aircraft to perfectly mimic the lead.
Recently, I accepted a new position at work and one of the requirements of my new role is media coordination, which involves photo missions. This meant that I would need to seek formation flight training, along with a colleague from work.
After some research, I chose a four-day formation flying course that best aligned with my goals, scheduled the training, and soon received my study materials from the course instructors.
I studied the art of formation flying and the nuances between the Air Force and Navy methodologies. I reviewed the course syllabus and tried to learn as much as possible before the start of the training.
I thought I would have an advantage having seen formation flights from the cockpit, but when I started to read the syllabus I was overwhelmed with the details and wondered if I was up for the challenge. There was more involved than just flying planes close together and getting good photos. Starting with the pre-flight briefing, everything was to be done in unison from walking to the airplane, to the preflight, to the turning on of the lights and starting the engines.
Despite my concerns, I was eager to start the course and get up in the air. I had been told by a pilot friend who is very experienced with formation flying that I had the aptitude for formation flight — he thought I would be good at it and I believed him.
The first classroom session felt long and overly detailed. We learned hand and aircraft signals, a variety of terms like “strangle your parrot,” and the procedure for stepping to the plane as a team to preflight and start in unison.
The flight briefing was to be conducted precisely, with specific marker colors depicting certain aspects of the flight on the whiteboard — red was never to be used for the lead aircraft! I was getting impatient and just wanted to be in the air.
For our first flight, we were “Cirrus 2” and the instructor demonstrated the takeoff and re-join procedure. Once we joined on the lead’s right wing, my instructor demonstrated all of the procedures we learned that morning, then let me try each maneuver once before taking the controls back.
As the flight progressed, my frustration grew — the entire flight followed a pattern of watching the instructor fly, trying a maneuver once, failing to execute the maneuver properly on the first try, then having the instructor take the controls back. I am the type of student who learns by doing, but I rarely “get-it” on the first try.
I tried to stay upbeat, reminding myself that this first flight was meant to be an instructor-led demo, but when we landed and debriefed, my colleague was surprised I had done little flying as he had done most of the flying of his aircraft. The only reason I could think of that the instructor did not let me fly was that I must have been really terrible.
That evening, I called my formation pilot friend for some advice. He responded with an appropriate mix of compassion and understanding, then told me to suck it up and get after it! He had flown with me to Alaska and back. He knew I had the chops to be a safe and competent formation pilot. It was up to me to make it happen.
I awoke the next morning with a renewed sense of determination and when I arrived at the first briefing, I had a candid conversation with my instructor asking if I could do more flying than watching.
“Please be patient with me,” I pleaded. “I may not get it on the first try, but I will progress quickly if you give me a chance.”
When we landed at the end of the day, my instructor told me that he felt I had had improved “1,000%” over the previous day.
The course included 13 flight hours and at least as much ground school. On day one, I felt like there was no possible way I would satisfactorily complete the course within the four-day window, but on the morning of the final day I felt confident in both my and my colleague’s abilities. The weather was perfect for our flight home, which was much more relaxed than any of our training sorties.
“Hey, how’s that apple?” I looked back at my colleague who was flying off my wing, and realized that the cabin of my aircraft was no longer my own — he could see everything I was doing. I quickly scribbled a short and off-color reply on a piece of paper and held it to the window. As we approached our destination, ATC notified us of traffic that would be crossing overhead. When the pilot reported us in sight, I asked how we looked? “Nice and tight!”
Since my initial formation training, I have flown with other Cirrus and with the Cirrus Vision SF50 Jet for photo missions. The fun has definitely eclipsed the frustration. The satisfaction of being able to put the plane exactly where I want it is very rewarding, and the resulting photos are spectacular.
Each flight gives me more appreciation for the coordination involved with the formation flight showcasing five Airbus A350s last September.
Though I will never be a Blue Angel, I still feel like a badass when I’m flying off another aircraft’s wing, especially knowing that the other pilot trusts me to be there.