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Anatomy of a Formation Flight

There is nothing more exciting than hearing the roar of a jet engine and seeing multiple jets fly by in formation. If you’ve seen our recent flyovers or caught us at an air show, this will be a familiar sight. What may be less apparent is all the work that goes into planning and successfully executing the formations our pilots make look so effortless! Join us as we walk through each step of planning and executing a formation flight, from before the planes take off to after their wheels touch down.

Formation flying relies on a great deal of trust between pilots, so the first building block in a formation flight is selecting the right pilots. This happens well before any formation is planned. The ideal candidate would be a pilot who is experienced and knowledgeable, has an appropriate number of hours in the aircraft they’ll be flying, and has a proven reputation for conducting flights safely and accurately. From there, they join their fellow pilots in training for formation flight. Waterloo Warbirds uses a formation training manual as the foundational element in our formation training before pilots take to the skies, and we conduct practice flights beforehand with experienced pilots in the passenger seats of our jets. Even the most experienced pilot has to take gradual steps to build up to a formation!   

Before conducting any formation flight, be it a flyover or a training flight, Waterloo Warbirds pilots will first get together to plan the flight on the ground. This starts in a meeting room with the selection of the Formation Lead, agreement on hand signals and radio commands, and discussion of the flight plan. While we will typically have a flight plan in mind or mapped out prior to this meeting, the pilots will map it on a board and discuss more granular details like landmarks and turns. This discussion will help them determine the limitations and characteristics of the flight together as a team. This is on top of the planning that already goes into launching a jet solo! With all pilots briefed on the plan for the flight, they will typically go through the next phase of planning in the hangar, walking through the flight plan in formation and refining the plan. This phase of planning is also typically when the wingmen will determine the visual cues they’ll use from the lead jet to help maintain their position.

In a formation flight, the Formation Lead (flying the lead jet) is responsible for staying on the flight path and maintaining altitude, speed, and heading. The wingmen will always have their eyes on the lead jet — or, in a larger formation, whichever jet they’ve formed up on — and will be focused on maintaining their position in relation to that lead jet. This may mean changing speed, direction, or altitude, but they will take those cues from the movements of the lead jet and execute them while maintaining eye contact with the lead jet. This change in situational awareness is challenging as it differs so greatly from typical flights where each pilot monitors all elements of flight for their own plane. In a formation flight, the wingmen will not take their eyes off the cockpit of the lead jet until they approach the airport on final, which can be up to an hour in some cases! The trust between pilots really comes into play here, as the Formation Lead has to trust their wingmen to maintain position safely, and the wingmen have to trust the Formation Lead to maintain a safe flight profile for them to follow. 

With training completed and a flight on the horizon, our team will connect with the Air Traffic Control tower to brief them on the planned flight. The tower will provide a transponder code to the Formation Lead, and as soon as the planes form up, the formation will be addressed using the lead jet’s callsign “plus two”, or however may planes are following the lead jet in the formation. This adds an additional layer of responsibility to the role of Formation Lead, as they will be communicating with the tower and monitoring the control zone for the entire formation. 

Building the formation for the flight starts on the ground with the takeoff. The jets will typically take off in formation order, and will try to take off in close succession both to help build the formation quickly and to add a bit of excitement for the audience on the ground! Once the jets reach the base of the runway, the Formation Lead will twirl their finger in the air to signal the pilots to spool the jets up to a high power setting while holding the brakes. When it’s time for brakes to be released, they’ll give a clear nod, bringing their chin down to their chest, to signal it is time to take off. These takeoffs are more challenging with multiple dissimilar aircraft, as our pilots have to keep in mind the time it takes each jet to accelerate and the speed they can reach in the air, and then apply those factors to plan when and how to release the brakes and what power setting to use on takeoff. 

Using our recent Canada Day flyover as an example, we had the L29 as the lead jet, the T33 as jet #2, and the MiG as jet #3. The L29 is rapid on acceleration, but its speed is more limited; the T-33 is slower to accelerate but is able to reach higher speeds in the air; and the MiG accelerates very quickly and is able to achieve the highest speeds in the air. When timing that takeoff, our L29 and T33 pilots had to ensure they allowed enough time for their respective jets to accelerate so they were able to take off in quick succession. Our MiG pilot then had to time his acceleration and takeoff to allow enough space for the jet’s rapid acceleration and subsequent speed while also remaining aware of the jet blast of the two jets taking off ahead. 

Once the jets are in the air, the pilots will come together in the formation as soon as possible, forming up on the lead one at a time. It’s important at this stage for the wingmen to keep their eyes on the lead jet, as allowing a gap to emerge here makes it harder to catch and ultimately form up on that lead jet. Each pilot forms up by closing in gradually on the visual reference they determined during their run through on the ground. This is a process that requires a great deal of finesse, with the pilot making power adjustments using the throttle and speed brakes in gradual increments until they are stabilized in the desired position – and remember, they’re doing all this without taking their eyes off that lead jet! 

Once in formation, the pilots are making constant micro-adjustments to maintain the desired position in relation to the lead jet. This is a unique sensation for a seasoned pilot, as they don’t have the typical awareness of how fast they’re going or how high up they are during flight – that is all the responsibility of the Formation Lead to manage.

Once the planned formation has been achieved, it then becomes time to maneuver in it. Typically, formation flights will follow a path that is not entirely straight, so pilots are required to maintain that formation while turning and following a set flight plan. While the Formation Lead works to follow the flight plan, the wingmen shift their attention to the geometry of turning in formation. 

To help illustrate the movements that keep jets in formation while moving as a unit, picture a triangle with jets at three points moving along a curved path. The top point of the triangle (the lead jet) will always remain on the path, but the triangle will need to tilt to maintain a consistent plane in the turn, similar to how jets’ wings tilt while banking. In order for the three points of the triangle to remain consistent, the jet to the right of the lead has to climb to a higher altitude than the lead and accelerate to maintain its position, while the jet to the left has to maintain a lower altitude than the lead and decelerate, as they have less distance to travel within the turn.  

This all has to be coordinated exactly based on the movement of the lead jet to ensure each jet has space to move into as it turns. The challenges of flying in a dissimilar formation become apparent again here, as the amount of acceleration and deceleration needed from each jet varies to compensate for the performance characteristics of its formation partners. 

One of our favourite things to do at the end of a successful flyover is a low pass and break over the airport before coming in to land. During our communication with the tower before takeoff, we would have discussed this plan, but prior to entering the pattern, the Formation Lead will reconfirm our intent. Upon approval, they will guide the formation into position for a pass and a break. During our recent Canada Day flight, our jets moved into an Echelon Right formation for this pass, with jets #2 and #3 both following the lead on the right-hand side, and jet #3 now forming up on jet #2. This formation allows each aircraft to break left, and also results in a degree of relaxed spacing from the previous formation.  

Once the jets are on approach to the runway, the pilots will divide their attention between the runway and the lead jet for the first time, as they are now operating at different altitudes. As the jets fly down the runway, they break off at two second intervals and turn into the downwind to prepare for landing. The break signals the end of the formation, so each pilot transitions to managing all aspects of flight for their own aircraft once again; however, they are still communicating and maneuvering as a unit to coordinate landing.

As the jets prepare to land following the formation flight, the pilots will be communicating with one another on the radio, along with the tower, to determine one other’s position. They will configure for landing in coordination with one another so each jet turns in for its final approach in quick succession to its formation partners. Typically, landings will be configured so the lead jet lands first and to one side of the runway, jet #2 lands second and to the other side of the runway, jet #3 lands last to the same side of the runway as the lead, and so on. As with takeoff, these landings are coordinated closely beforehand so each pilot knows what to expect from the others, and so each landing can be carried out safely and effectively. The lead jet and jet #2 will typically land together and exit the runway to ensure the following jets are able to land with the full runway available in case of emergency. In a formation with more than two jets, our pilots will typically exit the runway and hold until the remaining jets have landed, then taxi back together as the final formation movement of the day. 

The final step of any formation flight is a debrief between the pilots. Each flight is a learning opportunity that allows us to identify areas for improvement or items that should be replicated every time. This can include anything from communication protocols to timing for forming up. With formation flying, no consideration is too small to be worth improving! It is an ongoing learning experience that offers increasingly exciting and complex flights as its reward. 

Each formation flight is a team effort and reflects the support and hard work of a number of parties on the ground. As with any private, volunteer organization, we are challenged by the limited formation training we are able to do, as any training is covered personally by our pilots. Our ability to conduct formation flights reflects the dedication and commitment of our great team of pilots, both on the ground and in the air. We’re lucky to be supported by a great team of volunteers who help keep the jets in flying condition, who come out to help launch the jets for each formation flight, and who document the flights to share with our community. We’re also very grateful for the role our local Air Traffic Controllers play in helping us conduct these special flights, and the work of the operations and maintenance staff at the Region of Waterloo International Airport who keep the airport in great shape for every flight. 

Above all, our team considers ourselves very lucky to have been able to conduct a number of formation flights over the years, and to share those flights with our local community and our community of aviation enthusiasts. One of our pilots put it best in describing our recent flyover: “As much work as it was, it was without a doubt one of the best days we’ve had!”