Formation Flying 101: A Guide for Jump Pilots
by Chris Schindler
One word summarizes the basis for successfully flying aircraft formations: planning. Whether you’re flying two Cessna 182s or a 12-aircraft formation for a world record, the same rules apply.
Planning. Planning. Planning.
First, determine which aircraft is going to be in the lead and who is going to fly it. If this is your first formation flight, you should fly the lead plane. Your wingman should have several formation loads under his belt. He can coach you if necessary, but make sure to do all the planning on the ground before you fly.
Ground planning should include:
- Altitude for jump run
- Direction of jump run
- Climb and descent patterns
- Rally point (the point at which you’ll abort the formation if all aircraft aren’t together)
- Radio frequencies and communications
- ATC notification of multi-plane formation
- Extra fueling (it will take longer to do a formation load, so make sure you have enough fuel)
- Aircraft positioning
- Lead assignment
- Transfer-of-lead procedure should it become necessary
- Emergency procedures (how to break formation quickly)
- Tight procedures (how tight? when?)
- Power settings, airspeeds and climb-out procedures.
- Countdown calls to jumpers
- Oxygen if required
- Loading areas (with multiple whirling propellers, you want jumpers to know exactly where to go, and you should know exactly how to park to prevent someone from accidentally walking into a prop while heading to another aircraft)
Plan everything and then stick to the plan! Diverting from the plan will create radio chatter, which you want to reduce as much as possible.
The best formation load I’ve ever flown was the final load of the world record 246-way in 1998. We had one aircraft way out of position with five minutes to drop, and there was no radio chatter other than what was necessary to get that one aircraft in. Sometimes on formation loads, pilots will chatter about a lot of unnecessary things. You’ll hear a lot of, “Can you see me?” and “You got me?” This should never happen unless absolutely necessary. All aircraft should take off in a pre-determined order that will allow them to keep sight of the aircraft ahead at all times.
If you are using aircraft with different climb performances, you will need a rally point to get the formation together in the air. What is the number-one way to avoid a collision? Answer: altitude separation. Make sure to maintain at least 500 feet vertical separation until you have positively identified the other aircraft. Be specific with position reports. And it’s crucial to have a climb pattern that will allow all aircraft to easily join in without a lot of radio chatter. Ideally, you should be able to do this without any calls other than your takeoff call and the calls for countdown to drop. If you are flying lead, you should fly a wide box pattern so that the trailing aircraft can cut the corners and catch up as necessary.
When flying lead, you are the base. Without the base, there is no formation. You need to be smooth on the controls, because any little deviation you make will ripple across the formation. You will be the one in charge of radios, since you don’t want the pilots of the trail planes looking down at radio switches instead of keeping a close eye on the other aircraft.
It is also your job to spot the load, as well as to have clear communication with the jumpers on board as the countdown starts. A good method is to give five-minute, two-minute, door open and 3-2-1 climb-out calls. You should simultaneously give the countdown calls to the jumpers on your plane and to the other aircraft via radio. You will need two radios to do this. The others can all have one tuned to company frequency. Keep the radio chatter to a minimum so that others can tell you if they are having a problem. Save the commentary until you’re on the ground with the engines shut down. Be professional.
On jump run, be very, very smooth. Anticipate the pitch-up or pitch-down tendencies associated with climb out. Maintain your flying speed, but do not descend to maintain speed! Using this technique to maintain speed will require too much of a descent to keep the formation tight. Once the first jumper climbs out, he’ll block the wind for the others. So put the power in and hold altitude. It’s better for a jumper to have a little difficulty climbing out than it is to make a radical move while in formation and have a trail aircraft lose sight of you.
Obviously, if you have engine failure, that’s a different situation. In that case, you should initiate the emergency escape procedure and transmit to other pilots that you’re calling off the formation. You might want to use a term other than “abort,” because the other pilots might try to keep the jumpers in their aircraft. Work it out with your group beforehand to have a plan in place.
If you are flying lead with different types of aircraft in trail, you will need to understand the flight characteristics of the other planes during jump run. A Twin Otter in the lead has the ability to slow down tremendously without stalling, while a CASA does not. Plus, a CASA doesn’t have anyone hanging on the outside creating drag. In this case, the trail plane could pass the lead plane. If this situation occurs, there needs to be a radio transmission that a transfer of lead has taken place, and the old lead needs to make sure to pick up the new lead aircraft to avoid drifting into the path of the exiting jumpers.
Flying trail can be pretty easy but also very challenging to do well. It’s easy in that you have only one thing to do—hold position relative to the lead aircraft. However, it will take all of your concentration to keep very still in position relative to the lead. Your job is to never ever let your lead aircraft out of your sight! You may even need to consider the position of the sun in your planning, as the sun in your eyes could cause you to lose sight of the lead plane. If the sun is in your eyes on jump run, you can try to fly so that the lead plane blocks the sun for you. But just be careful not to fly so far out of position that you become a collision hazard.
Be very aware of power adjustments from the lead aircraft. If the lead is not flying smoothly, it’s your job to let the pilot know. Tell him what you need, especially if you have a different type of aircraft than the lead aircraft. If you are new to formation flying, you will certainly want to give yourself a little extra room, but don’t be so far away that you can’t tell whether the lead aircraft is slowing down or speeding up. I find it much easier to fly in formation once I’ve gotten within 100 feet of the other aircraft. When the other aircraft is filling much of my windscreen, I know that I will see the smallest speed or altitude changes. Making small, smooth power adjustments will keep you parked in your slot relative to the lead. On a twin-engine aircraft, using just one engine lever at a time will smooth out the power changes and keep you from chasing the airspeed.
Let ATC know that you have a multi-plane group. If you have more than three aircraft in one formation, you might want to make a phone call to the controlling agency before you take off to let them know that you will have reduced maneuverability when it comes to track calls. Usually they will have no trouble giving you a wider margin, but as a courtesy it’s nice to give them a heads up with a phone call.
Make sure to climb to altitude in formation so that you don’t use up too much airspace. ATC will usually have only one aircraft squawking a code, which means the others will be invisible to radar. This will make the controller’s job more difficult and can create a greater hazard. Give ATC longer calls than you normally would. Unless they are extremely busy, give them a five-minute call so they can check for conflicts early. Prevent as many chances for an abort as you can.
Check that all jumpers have left before descending. Then stay as a group as you descend, similar to the climb. Don’t spread out miles apart. After ATC has cleared you off frequency, you will have time to get separation. Plus, it looks sharp to stay in formation all the way up and down. This will show great discipline.
Is it legal?
Yes, it is legal to fly skydivers in formation even though Part 91.111 Operating Near Other Aircraft seems to say no. There is a FAA interpretation from 1992 that states this is perfectly legal on USPA’s website. Or download directly FormationFlightFAAInterpretation