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Formation Flying

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Well-known member
Jan 28, 2002
This past Saturday, a couple of friends and I flew two planes to PDK from Athens. We were discussing flying as a party, as in taking off, flying, and landing as a group, not just one after the other. One of the guys had done it only as a passenger before, so we wanted to know how air traffic controllers prefer this to be done (i.e. what kind of calls, safety precautions, etc.). Any ATC folks out there that have a certain way that you like it to be done? Pilots who have done it before?
Look for earlier threads and do a search on the subject on the web.

#1 Do not attempt with an all-rookie group

#2 Do not do formation take-offs and landings until you have a great number of hours. After that, make sure TO and Land are coordinated in group, with the airport manager (who may not approved) and with tower (who may not approve).

#3 Only one airplane in a formation flight squawks an assigned beacon code. All others have transponders in standby until the formation breaks. Lead aircraft has beacon code and communicates with ATC as in: "Approach, Cessna 345 is a C-172 formation flight of 3 over xxxx request flight following on our route to yyyyy, maintaining 3000 feet." When given a code, only the lead squawks and communicates. ATC expects to see a single beacon reply and two primary targets in close proximity.

#4 Know who is leader and who is wing in all cases.

#5 Communicate with each other on Multi-com (122.75) but keep conversations short and precise. Multi-com is not a CB.

#6 Discuss on the ground in detail before the flight, where you will formate (e.g. the "y" in the interstates and we will depart to the Northeast), who is lead and how you would change lead if this is to occur, comfort distances for each member, formations to be flown, and how you will break ranks out each formation. The last one is important in case someone has a problem - know how each plane will "break" into clear air.

And finally, as most who have formated will tell you - you will close on an airplane ever closer and closer until you feel for yourself what a wingtip vortice or prop wash (even off a small plane) will do to you and then you may just scare the xxxxx out of yourself. Be very careful when bringing two pieces of aluminum close together.

Job Descriptions:

Leader - Lead aircraft - calls formation types to be flown, keeps aircraft extremely stable so that other aircraft can formate on him/her, watches for traffic and terrain, calls turns and breaks.

Wing - one or multiple aircraft. Formates in direction as directed by leader. Watches wing and aileron of leader or next wing and follows directions without question.
Just to backup and reemphasize Tarp's first two points. The fact that the Erik indicated the group has no experience, and that one pilot has "only done this as a passenger" is enough to say stop, right there.

Don't do it.

Formation isn't something you learn by yourself; you get competent instruction, and have the experience to properly use that instruction.

It's certainly possible to do formation with a first timer; but the first timer should be the lead and someone with adequate experience flying in close proximity to other aircraft should form on the newbie.

Everything should be prebriefed in detail, including oral and visual signals. "Outs" should be known and planned. Reread Tarps post closely; it's good advice.
Thanks for the advice. WE actually weren't planning on doing it. We were talking it over with another pilot (The pres. of the club) who has plenty of hours, and he was just wondering for future reference how ATC likes it done, more on the communication with ATC side of things. I respect the plane a lot, and I would not do anything out of the ordinary without prior complete instruction and plenty of practice. Thanks again.
Biggest thing that rookie formation people forget is that the lead should be the only plane where the PIC looks out for traffic. The lead shouldn't be dicking around looking at the formation, he has to have his head out looking for traffic clouds birds etc.

Each wing PIC should only bother themselves with watching the plane that they are forming on.

Formation is intense, but the best formation you fly is the one that you don't see (as PIC).

Also you can only tie for closest formation.
The other guys are dead nuts on, and I just wanted to back them up.

As far as ATC goes, just tell them simply, "Cessna XXX, flight of two". Wing aircraft should simply keep his mouth shut and his ears open. That's all ATC wants. You just do what ever they tell you (act as one aircraft).

My biggest pet peave when I flew in formation, or was in a control room working, were guys that give their whole life story, "Cessna XXX, two cessna 172's, the second cessna is Cessna YYY, its blue and white" so on and so forth....its gets windy. Keep it simple, just like every other radio call.

Think of the 2nd plane like a dog on a leash....its just there for the ride. You (lead) do all the atc work.

Clear as mud?

Good point about the keep it simple rule. My ATC contact said to give him an airplane type that "represents" how the formation will fly (i.e. the formation will only fly 90-95% of the weakest link). So when I said C-172, I could have had a Skyhawk, a Bonanza and a Baron in the posse, but we can only fly like a Skyhawk when in formation.

I towed banners for a long time in ATL and we went 3 ship to every airport in and around ATL, you just call up on the radio flight of 3 and they let you do what you want to do.

But they knew who we were just by our callsighns and they knew that we always landed in formation, but usually they will let you anyway no matter who you are.

But to reinforce the other posts, by no means do you fly formation without some exprerience.


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