It’s a trust exercise in which each pilot has a critical job to do—and all must rely on others to perform their specialized tasks. When it all comes together, formation flying is a dynamic, memorable, and satisfying team sport that can build new skills and lasting friendships.
Although formation flying can be accomplished in just about any type of aircraft, a few important characteristics make some airplanes particularly well suited for it.
“A low wing, bubble canopy, tandem seating, and a control stick is ideal,” says Mike Filucci, a veteran formation instructor, former U.S. Air Force pilot, and a leader in the Red Star Pilots Association, a civilian formation flight training group.
“Tandem seating is best because a pilot gets the same sight picture out the right or left side and never has to look cross-cockpit during formation rejoins,” he said. “A stick helps pilots avoid over-controlling. The pilot can simply drop their hand down on the stick and rest their forearm on their thigh to steady their hand. That helps keep them from ‘churning butter,’ or making constant, abrupt, control inputs with their stick hand.”
Former U.S. military aircraft such as T–34s, T–28s, and T–6s were designed for formation training, and many still serve that purpose with civilian owners long after their military retirements. Imported Yak 52s, CJ–6s, Marchetti SF.260s, and TB–30 Epsilons do the same.
The civilian Varga Kachina has many of the desired attributes, although relatively few were produced. Among experimental/amateur-built models, owners of Van’s Aircraft RV series do a tremendous amount of formation flying and flight training. Tandem RV–4s and RV–8s are particularly well-suited, although many of them lack full dual controls.
Side-by-side RV–6s, RV–7s, and RV–14s are frequent formation fliers, although their pilots must deal with the disadvantages of looking across the cockpit. Side-by-side isn’t optimal, but the Canadian Snowbirds military demonstration team long ago proved it can be done in the CT–114 Tutor jets with grace and elegance.
Another drawback of side-by-side seating—for righties, anyway—is that in many aircraft, the left-seat pilot flies with their left hand on the control stick and their right hand on the throttle. Some pilots find that arrangement so awkward that they prefer to fly solo from the right seat. In side-by-side RVs, students and instructors also must make do with a single throttle lever.
On the subject of throttles, a Vernier control that twists in and out is unacceptable to most formation training organizations. Flying the wing position requires almost constant, and sometimes very coarse, throttle movements—and a Vernier-type control simply isn’t up to the task.
Somewhat surprisingly, the light-sport Van’s RV–12 can be a fine formation trainer despite its relatively small 100-horsepower engine and light wing loading. AOPA operates two RV–12s and encourages formation training in them for staff pilots who participate in aerial photo and video missions, which incorporate many of the same procedures and techniques used in formation flying.
“The RV–12 is highly responsive, it’s easy to control precisely, it’s got great visibility, and sticks,” said Filucci, who has trained several new formation pilots in these Rotax-powered airplanes. “We limit our formation training flights to calm-wind days because of the light wing loading, but the RV–12s have produced excellent results, and their mechanical simplicity and low operating costs are real advantages. New pilots aren’t distracted by having to manage multiple systems. And the fact that they’re inexpensive to operate means they’re likely to fly more often.”
“Tandem seating is best because a pilot gets the same sight picture out the right or left side and never has to look cross-cockpit during formation rejoins.” —Mike FilucciA constant-speed propeller is particularly desirable in a formation trainer because it allows quick acceleration and deceleration, and pilots can accurately position their aircraft with relatively small power changes.
“A constant-speed prop, and particularly a multi-blade prop, allows instantaneous adjustments that allow pilots to fine-tune their speed and positioning,” Filucci said. “It’s way easier to fly good formation with a constant-speed prop than a fixed-pitch.”
Typically, the lead pilot in a formation will set a relatively low, cruising propeller rpm while the wing pilots run at high rpm for quicker responses to power changes. The propeller acts as an air brake when it goes to fine pitch at low power, and it digs in an provides instant thrust when the engine goes to high power.
Erick Webb, a private pilot and AOPA social media marketer, got about a dozen hours of formation training in an RV–12 before taking part in photo flights flying a Grumman Tiger, Cessna 170, and Cirrus SR20.
“The RV–12 spoiled me in terms of visibility and aircraft responsiveness,” Webb said. “It was a perfect platform for learning the fundamentals. It’s a great all-around training aircraft and felt simple and intuitive.”
Getting over the deeply ingrained habit of seeing and avoiding other airplanes in flight was a struggle at first, Webb said, and the intense concentration necessary to get his airplane into the right position and stay there was exhausting. But soon formation flying seemed to feel less taxing.
Webb had the luxury of training with two identical aircraft, but photo flights almost always take place in dissimilar airplanes.
Getting over the deeply ingrained habit of seeing and avoiding other airplanes in flight was a struggle at first, Webb said, and the intense concentration necessary to get his airplane into the right position and stay there was exhausting.“I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it was to find the proper bearing line on the different photo ships,” he said. “With an RV–12, you just line up the outboard aileron hinge with the spinner—but that wasn’t possible with photo ships ranging from a J–3 Cub to a V-tail Bonanza, and there are huge performance differences.”
The subject airplanes Webb flew were far different, too.
“The Cessna 170 is sluggish in roll, and the high wing makes visibility more limited,” he said. “I had to lean forward to avoid looking through the curved, distorted part of the windscreen. Using a yoke wasn’t nearly as intuitive as a stick.”
Gradually, Webb’s control inputs became smaller and subtler and his anticipation got better.
“Making hundreds of tiny adjustments on all controls based solely on how two points on an aircraft are aligning requires intense focus and concentration,” he said. “But I’ve noticed that my adjustments have gotten smaller and smoother—and that’s improved the rest of my flying.”
Richard McSpadden, senior vice president for the AOPA Air Safety Institute and a former lead pilot for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, said Navions and Beechcraft Bonanzas are among his favorite GA airplanes to fly in formation because of their visibility, control harmony, power, and broad speed ranges. Some of the same characteristics that make airplanes like Cessna 172s sturdy and forgiving primary trainers work against them in formation flying.
“The 172’s high wing and door posts limit visibility,” McSpadden said, “and the sluggish engine and control response makes formation flying in them tough.”
As to the question of why to fly formation at all, McSpadden said there are many reasons; some obvious, like developing new aviation skills, and others hidden, such as giving and receiving honest criticisms.
“Formation flying improves your ability to engage with other pilots in a meaningful and productive way,” he said. “Formation teaches you how to work with peers constructively.”
Formation flying also requires self-discipline and clear communication.
“Formation demands discipline and teaches the danger of assumptions,” he said. “There can be no assumptions in a formation flight. Each pilot must understand clearly, exactly what’s happening in the flight at all times.
Regardless of the type of airplane pilots use to acquire formation skills, those fundamentals are transferable to other aircraft. The biggest difference is the mental shift that takes place when going from flying individually and making every decision alone to taking part in the shared pursuit of formation flight.
“Similar to IFR training, formation improves precision,” McSpadden said. The secret to precision is endless minute applications of power and flight controls. And it’s a lot of fun to be part of a flight operating and thinking as one.”