For as long as I can remember, I have wanted a Van’s RV. Even as a teenager, back when the only models available were the RV-3, RV-4, and the brand new RV-6, I had purchased the video from Van’s in order to become better acquainted with what it would take to get one of these fascinating airplanes for myself someday. A few years ago, I realized my dream of owning a Van’s airplane of my very own through the simple expedient of purchasing an already-built RV-6. As part of my pre-purchase due diligence, I had contacted a local RV-8 owner who was generous enough to not only take me flying with him, but to ride along with him as he practiced formation flying with a collection of other RV owners. I not only got rides in an RV-8, RV-6, and an RV-4 that day, I also got to experience for the first time the thrill of flying in a formation with other airplanes. While I was irrevocably hooked on the RV experience, I had more than a little trepidation about the formation flying aspect. I decided to adopt a “wait and see” mentality towards that type of advanced flying, planning instead to spend at least a year becoming comfortable with my RV before giving it a try.
By early 2007, I was ready to try my hand at formation flying. When I found out that the Ohio Valley RVators were scheduling a formation flying clinic for May, I signed up. Having ridden along on a series of formation flights already and seen the focus and concentration required, I was under no illusions that this kind of flying was a simple thing to do. In fact, I had the benefit of knowing that it was quite the contrary and that I would have to be diligent in my preparation of both myself and my airplane.
The departure date for the clinic arrived without regard for whether I was ready for it or not, but I felt that I had done all that I could do to prepare myself in advance. That preparation was mostly in the realm of book learning. I figured that I was going to be busy enough simply learning how to maneuver the airplane in close proximity to other airplanes, a situation that I had been diligently trained to avoid throughout all of my previous training, without simultaneously trying to learn and understand the various formations we would be flying in and the collection of signals that the formation lead would be using to direct our flight. My bible for these studies was the venerable “The Art of Formation Flying” written by a group of T-34 pilots and accepted as the definitive source of basic formation flying information.
The first official event of the clinic was in the early evening when we all sat down for pizza and a briefing regarding the events and schedules for the weekend. We went through the roster of attendees, with each person standing up for an introduction. A computer spreadsheet listing each participant in the clinic was projected onto a large screen and it was plain to see that each pilot had been assigned a color, either red, yellow, or green. Red indicated a first-timer like myself, yellow was used for pilots that had at least some previous experience, and green signified a pilot that was considered to be proficient in formation flying. This segmentation was used by the clinic instructors to tailor their efforts to each pilot's individual skill levels.
The rest of the meeting was spent going through the in-flight signals and what we could expect in the morning when we made our first formation flight. I was still somewhat fuzzy on some of the signals, but I was well enough prepared by my pre-study for the class discussion to clear up some of the more subtle questions for me. Between the reading and class discussion I felt that I was well enough prepared that it would all come together for me when we started flying in the morning. The stress of the preceding few days of preparation was catching up with me by the end of the evening session, but even as tired as I was I did not sleep well that night. Visions of echelon turns, pitch-outs, and the sundry other formation concepts that I would be introduced to in the crucible of flight cost me any chance for a restful sleep. By the time 0530 rolled around on the motel room alarm clock, I was more than ready to get going with some actual flying.
Upon arrival at the airport, I did what I could to ensure that my airplane was up to the task by performing a thorough preflight inspection. I had to keep a close eye on the clock, though, as the first briefing was scheduled for 0800 and I wanted to make sure that I was there in plenty of time. The briefings were run with the military precision required of something as complex as formation flying and would start on time whether I was there or not.
The first flight would entail me riding with an experienced formation pilot and watching/learning how the book knowledge worked in actual application. This was a welcome relief to me. Riding along and watching the signals and experiencing the correct responses without having to devote any energy or attention at all to operating the airplane was exactly what I needed for it all to come together in my head. What I found is that all of the various signals in the books can be distilled down to just five or six fundamentals, and just like the various entries to your home airport, you can narrow down the decision tree you will have to follow to quickly and accurately decode a signal to just a few options.
As we headed back to the airport after the introductory ride, I impressed myself by thinking ahead (and make no mistake, formation flying is all about anticipating what’s going to happen next) and predicting what formation change would happen next and what the signal for that change would be. This, more than anything, helped me to get over the fear that I was going to be unable to grasp the concepts in time for the next flight when I would be flying the airplane.
Given that my job on that flight had been to pay attention and learn, I considered the first mission to be a resounding success. I was far more aware of what to expect when it came time for me to fly in just an hour or so, and that was a comfort to me. That said, I was by no means calm about the impending leap from rider to driver. The briefing for my first flight at the controls was at 1000. I understood everything that was briefed, and there's a lot to be said for that. Since this was to be my first flight, we briefed for a normal takeoff rather than a side-by-side formation takeoff. We would take off one at a time at five second intervals. I was also assigned an experienced formation pilot to ride along with me as a mentor who would instruct me in the finer points of safety and maintaining a correct position on the wing of the formation leader.
After the very detailed briefing outlining what we would be doing and when, we headed for the airplanes. Unfortunately, this is where my nerves took over and caused me to make some basic mistakes. For example, we had briefed that the initial check-in on the radio would be on our assigned in-flight frequency, but I dialed in the tower frequency instead. At the end of the runway we lined up with the other planes in the formation to do our run-ups and pre-takeoff checks and my ride-along mentor pointed out that I still had my flaps down. Normally this is something I never forget, but with all of the other things running through my head I was becoming somewhat overwhelmed by it all. A few deep breaths to calm my nerves helped, as did the confident demeanor of my mentor.
After returning a thumbs-up to the flight leader to indicate that we were ready to go, I lined up for takeoff on the left side of the 150’ wide runway while the flight leader took position on the right. Five seconds after the leader started his takeoff roll, I released the brakes, fed in the throttle, and we began our takeoff. The idea was that the leader would make a gentle turn to the left after takeoff and we would make a slightly tighter turn inside of him to close the gap between us. It turned out to be one of many things that I would find out over the course of the weekend that had sounded much easier to do than they actually were. In this case it took the active involvement of my mentor to get us correctly joined into the formation, but once we were in position I was able to take over control and start to get a feel for what was required to keep ourselves correctly positioned slightly below and slightly behind the leader.
In RV formation flying, there is an imaginary line running through the outside aileron hinge on the wing up and through the propeller spinner. If you have the aileron hinge lined up properly with the spinner, you are correctly positioned in two dimensions: forward/backward and up/down. Being on the proper line is a lot like being on the correct radial line of a VOR without DME equipment, though, in that you don't know how close or far away you are. You can be on the correct line 10 feet away, or you can be on the correct line 100 feet away. With this being my first effort at being on the correct line, it turned out to be quite enough of a challenge to maintain that position without worrying too much about also being the correct distance from the leader to create a perfect formation.
As in many other aspects of flying, there is a special lingo involved when discussing formation flying. If you are ahead of the line, you are "acute." If you are behind the line, you are "sucked." You also want to be "stacked down," which means you are below the leader. The absolute worst place to be is "high and acute," because this is a dangerous place indeed. It means you are flying right alongside another airplane, quite close, and if he were to turn in your direction you might both end up having really bad days. I found myself in precisely that position a number of times, as it turns out, but he took quick actions to return us to a safer position.
During the first flight, I struggled to stay on the line. I was high, I was low, I was acute, and I was sucked, and sometimes managed to be a couple of those things simultaneously. Keeping the airplane precisely positioned on the line is a lot like balancing a marble on the tip of a pencil: it doesn't want to be there and it requires constant adjustments to keep it there. These adjustments have to be very precise, quick, smooth, anticipatory, and it pays to remember that a little bit of adjustment goes a long way. It is critical to anticipate the adjustments that need to be made because once the marble starts to fall off of the pencil, it's far too late to catch it. This is, of course, why it is not a good idea to try to self-teach yourself the art of formation flying. It takes time and practice to get good at it.
After what seemed like hours of struggling to maintain my correct position but was in actuality only 45 minutes, we headed back to the airfield. As we approached the airport we moved into the echelon formation as expected, and as we headed down the runway I knew to that the signal for a pitch-out would be next. This signal is a wagging finger from the flight lead, followed by a number of fingers indicating the timing of the desired spacing in seconds. In this case it was two fingers. The big event that I would then wait for is the "kiss-off" signal from Lead, upon receipt of which I would smartly move my eyes to "eyes forward," count to two seconds, enter a 60 degree bank to the left, pull in pitch for a 2G turn to the downwind, and immediately pull the power back to idle in order to slow down to 100 mph flap extension speed.
Which is almost exactly what I did, except for one critical omission: I didn't get the power all the way out. Before I knew it, I was caught up to Lead and had to go out wide out of him on downwind to go past him (going through him not being an attractive option, after all), which really, really isn't what a wingman wants to do. As a result of my mistake, I ended up high and fast in the pattern. It was at this point that the year or so that I had spent getting comfortable with the flying traits of an RV came in handy and I was able to correct my speed and altitude to make what turned out to be a pretty good landing.
Every formation flight ends with a debrief. The debrief is an essential element of formation flying, and it is the absolutely perfect time to find someplace to store your ego out of sight for awhile. Formation flying is serious business, and if you’re too thin-skinned or too wrapped up in the ego of it all, formation flying really isn't for you. Brutally honest, constructive criticism and no-holds-barred analysis of your performance is the order of the day, and it is the only way to improve. And no matter who you are, or what you've flown, or how long you've been doing it, there is always something that can be improved. Part of the attraction of formation flying in the first place is similar to the most addictive aspect of golf: it is a beautiful thing to see when done perfectly but a really ugly thing when done poorly, and perfection is impossible to attain. Also like golf, it rewards you when you are successful, and it punishes you when you are not.
In debrief we talked about the few occasions on the flight that I had actually managed to get myself on the proper line, and the far more plentiful times that I hadn't. We talked about my mistake on the pitch-out, we talked about the initial rejoin after the takeoff, and we talked about a bunch of other stuff. Lead, taking into consideration that this was my first hop, told me that it was an impressive performance. I gotta tell ya, that was worth a million bucks to me.
There were two more flights scheduled for the remainder of the day, but I only made one of them. The second flight introduced more advanced topics such as formation takeoffs , trail formation (flying behind the leader in a chase position), and an increased stress on proper communication technique. I was pretty tired after the second flight and didn't consider myself up to making a third flight, so I begged off and pushed the plane back into the hangar.
As I reflected on the day, I realized that despite all of the stress and anxiety I had had a great time. I can’t remember a more emotionally significant and satisfying weekend in my 25+ years of flying. My Private Pilot check ride? Yeah, that was a big day 9 years in the making but I had been confident all along that I could do it. The IFR check ride? Yeah, that was ok, but for some reason it felt like more of a continuing education class than a major accomplishment. I won’t say that a couple of days of formation flying changed my life or anything quite as dramatic as that, but it did open my eyes to how challenging and rewarding that type of flying is and the experience is something that I will never forget. Oh, one more thing: after having tried my hand at it myself, I can safely say that I will never see the large Oshkosh formations the same way again.
It may still be too long at 2,800 words and there are still a few sentences that I can't seem to make flow as well as I'd like. This game is harder than it looks!