“Mooney Flight of Four, departing Runway 25, Suffolk.”
With a slow nod, “Lead” advances his throttle, and begins his takeoff from the left side of the runway. A one-potato, two-potato count to five, and “Two,” on the right side of the runway, eyes fixed on Lead’s wing root, follows suit.
Exactly five seconds later, “Three” takes off behind Lead, and “Four,” on the right, follows Two, gear up, climbing to exactly 1,000 feet at exactly 100 knots.
It’s as if the four airplanes are tied together with invisible strings — and not very long strings, at that.
An elegant bank to the left, and all four airplanes head as one to the designated practice area.
As the formation levels off, there’s a tail waggle from Lead, and the wingmen are “kicked out” to “route formation,” with more space between them.
For the first time since taxiing, the pilots can take their eyes off the airplane in front of them to check their instruments, confirm their fuel supply, and make any adjustments necessary.
At Lead’s prompt, the wingmen check in, and then he rocks his wings, summoning the planes back to fingertip formation. Two tucks in close, just behind Lead’s left wing. Three and Four snuggle behind Lead’s right wing. The formation then looks like a hand held up, with Lead at the middle fingertip, and the other airplanes taking up index, ring, and little finger positions. Done properly, it feels just about that close, too.
Except for brief instructions, acknowledged in turn by “Two, Three, Four,” it’s a quiet ride. Each pilot is concentrating on executing a perfect lazy-eight, in perfect fingertip position, a perfect transition to a diamond formation, or a perfect right echelon, “keeping it tight.”
Though the Mooneys are capable of flying much faster, these formations are cruising at 120 knots, and a hands-on hour’s flight is a workout.
The Mooney pilots, following military tradition, are known to each other by their call signs ceremoniously assigned to a newbie by veteran formation pilots. These are usually sly references to some less-than-stellar occurrence or characteristic.
They’ve met at Suffolk Executive Airport (KSFQ) in Virginia to practice their routines for a couple of Mooney formation demonstration flights, one at Suffolk’s September Festival of Flight, and one over Panama City Beach in early October, at the annual Mooney Summit safety seminar.
At the Suffolk demonstration, the pilots will impress those watching on the ground with their skill and grace. They hope to challenge dozens of their fellow Mooniacs looking skyward from Panama City Beach to join them in achieving a higher level of precision and professionalism.
The initial step for the newly converted might be to attend a weekend basic formation flying clinic offered by experienced formation pilots around the country, learning the rudiments of formation flying.
The first rule the initiates learn is “Do not hit Lead.” After that, it’s easy.
Stay in perfect symmetry at the assigned position. Don’t “get sucked” or fall behind. Don’t drift up to see the top of the wing of the plane in front of you. And if you’re not Lead, the only talking you do on the radio is to inform Lead if you notice he is on fire.
On the weekend prior to EAA AirVenture, the world’s biggest fly-in, pilots of Bonanzas, Mooneys, Cessnas, Piper Cubs, Cherokees, RVs and other aircraft types gather at airports a short distance away from Oshkosh with their respective groups for a weekend review, some merriment, and preparation to fly in a nice neat formation to KOSH.
The participants agree that the group camaraderie is only the icing on the aeronautical cake. The real rationale for the mass arrivals is that they’re much less frightening than the infamous Fisk Arrival procedure, of which many veteran pilots swear, “Never again!”
Having accomplished the much tidier and faster Oshkosh mass arrival, the type groups will park together in the North 40, debrief, party, pitch tents, assign irreverent call signs to the newbies, eat barbecue, drink beer, and make plans for next year’s events.
The typical mass arrival, from dozens to a hundred or more airplanes, usually landing three at a time on parallel runways, 15 seconds apart, is straightforward, but exhilarating. And of course, the lucky participants score matching T-shirts and hats.
If that introduction to formation flying was fun, the next step, according to Mooney pilot and flight instructor Lee (Sox) Fox, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, is to learn more exacting and challenging formation routines, offered at weekend advanced clinics around the country.
Some groups have become very close-knit, practice frequently, wear spiffy flight suits adorned with their group’s logos, and fly all the way to the pre-AirVenture meet-up from as far away as Florida, Canada, Texas, Arizona, and California — in formation, yet.
Every formation flight starts with a briefing. Lead for the Suffolk show, Linda (Slim) Torrens, a retired Air Force Colonel, has checked weather, winds, flight conditions, and coordinated with ATC.
The briefing begins with a roll-call, with each participating pilot crisply calling out his position in turn. Alpha Lead. Two. Three. Four. Bravo Lead. Two. Three. Four. And so on.
Slim reads out current weather, frequencies, order of maneuvers, signals, type of approach, and landing sequence.
Every detail is planned, briefed, and written down on a special briefing card, from start-up, taxi, run-up, and takeoff (no flaps, climb at 100 knots, 5 seconds between aircraft, 15 seconds between elements,) gear up, fly the maneuvers, then join up for an overhead break to a single-file landing, (100 knots to 70 knots), gear down, land on the right (hot) side of the runway, move promptly to the left (cold) side, follow Lead smartly to the runway exit, taxi to parking, turn in wingtip to wingtip unison and shutdown. Any questions?
The formation pilots and passengers reconvene after the flight, because it’s not over until a thorough debriefing is completed, with every participant in turn expected to chime in with compliments and critiques.
Sox, a retired airline captain and check pilot, adds, “All members of the formation are expected to provide brutally honest self-assessments of their performance, making confessions, not excuses, for any shortcomings, so that all may learn from each other’s mistakes. There is no room for pilot egos in a formation.”
“We need to look sharp, act sharp, take it to the next level,” summarizes Slim, whose Mooney is obviously the next best ride to the ones she used to fly for the Air Force.
Why Learn Formation Flying?
Why invest the time and expense in learning to fly in pretty formation?
Besides the real skills enhancement, that is?
“Because it’s fun!” says Bucko (Sandman) Strehlow. “We’re not doing this to save the country. It’s not required. It’s fun. But it’s disciplined fun. We don’t want anybody to be uncomfortable, so if there’s something unsafe, anybody can call it off. You’re still PIC. But part of formation flying is agreeing to follow Lead until it is unsafe. It’s not up to you to argue. There’s much hilarity, but when we’re in the air, we are about a public display of good judgment.”
The pilots who fly in official airshow demonstrations hold Class II medical certificates and have demonstrated experience and proficiency in a number of precision maneuvers. There are a lot of hoops to jump through to earn their coveted Formation Cards, but, as Sandman says, “I’m willing to jump through them, because I really like doing it.”
Sandman, who is based in San Antonio, has a dozen qualified formation pilots in his Texas wing. He has logged 135 hours of formation flying in the last 12 months and put on five demonstrations.
“I guess you could call me a ‘formaholic,’” he says. “I just love to fly and this gives me a reason.”
Googling your brand of aircraft and Oshkosh will yield plenty of inspiring YouTube videos of the mass arrivals.