Behind the Scenes of our Formation Training Clinic

Waterloo Warbirds held a formation training clinic from August 6th-8th in the skies over Waterloo Region. With 4 jets and 6 Harvards from 2 provinces, pilots and ground crew came together to learn, practice, and standardize formations between 3 participating organizations and 2 private pilots. 

Plans for the clinic had been in the works for over a year. Once it was determined that the clinic could be run safely, respectful of COVID-19 health and safety practices, the group was able to come together. Ironically, the decrease in air shows and fly ins caused by the pandemic was one of the factors that allowed such a large group to get together during peak flying season over 3 beautiful blue-sky days! 

Beyond pilot training and recertification, the goal of the clinic was to help standardize formation practices between organizations. Participants used the standards outlined in the Formation And Safety Team (FAST) national program, which was developed to standardize and increase the safety of formation flying within the warbird community. Among other guidelines for formation requirements, pilot qualifications, currency, and other measures, FAST prescribes a set of hand signals that allow pilots from different backgrounds to communicate effectively with one another between aircraft. Having this common set of signals allows pilots to fly in formation efficiently and effectively, with the confidence that they will be able to understand one another immediately, without having to define new sets of hand signals and communication measures for each new formation flight.

“Learning all the hand signals for formation changes in the air was one of the most interesting things I learned,” said Peter Stewart, Vampire and Harvard pilot at Waterloo Warbirds. “Standardizing those is really important so everyone is on the same page and knows what everyone else is doing in the formation. Having a better understanding of those common signals is going to be really helpful for future flights!”

Once we determined we would be able to safely host the formation training clinic, our Director of Flight Operations reached out to a number of local aviation groups as well as private owners who had expressed interest in participating or were able to offer instruction. The clinic included participants from Waterloo Warbirds, the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association (CHAA), and Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team (CHAT), as well as Danny Richer, a private pilot who joined us with his BAC Strikemaster. Dan Fortin, of Fighter Jet Montreal, also joined us as an instructor, bringing formation aerobatic experience to the clinic along with jet-type experience in an L-29. The group held a good mix of experienced formation pilots and pilots who wanted to learn more, as well as pilots who were renewing their formation certifications. This mix provided ample opportunities to pair up teams of pilots so all were able to achieve their goals over the course of the clinic.

“There are so many pilots in the area who are talented at flying formation, and it was really rewarding to get them all together,” said Derek Hammond, President and pilot at Waterloo Warbirds. “The instructor pilots were all very knowledgeable and helped us all either improve or refresh our skills, and develop a strong foundation to build on.”

With so many talented pilots in one place, all participants wanted to ensure we were able to maximize our time to learn and to fly. Each day started off with a group ground training session where participants would discuss the plan for the day and pair up based on aircraft type and their personal goals for training. Our lead instructors, Dan Fortin and Dave Hewitt, worked with each participant to determine their level of comfort with formation flying and the training plan to help them develop. Each pair would then work together to build a training plan with ground and in-flight sessions based on their skill and level of comfort. 

“Teaching depends on what stage each pilot is at, what kind of flying they’ve done before, and how much instruction they’ve had,” said Percy Contractor, Harvard pilot with CHAA. “We start with the basics and a ground school session, and then build up from there.”

For in-air training, we started with 2-ship formations on the first flight of the first day, and then gradually built up to 3- and 4-ship formations as the clinic progressed for participants whose comfort and skill level allowed it. During each flight, an experienced formation coach would ride in the back seat with a less experienced pilot, providing coaching on techniques based on what was briefed during ground training. Once the coach was comfortable with the pilot’s understanding of the new procedures and the safety margins of the flight, we would then build upon those skills to refine the formation or introduce additional elements that increase the complexity of the flight.

“It was an incredibly productive three days,” said Liam Pearson, Harvard pilot for Waterloo Warbirds. “It’s amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish in 72 hours.”

The camaraderie between the participants stood out to all attendees as one of the highlights of the clinic. “It’s fun to fly with old and new friends,” said Peter Stewart. “When you get people together with similar planes and similar interests, who are all committed to learning new things and improving, it’s a lot of fun and delivers very rewarding results.”

Dan Fortin agreed that developing strong relationships is important to the success of a clinic like this. “The pilots are different at every clinic, but the relationship is similar,” he said. “It’s an incredibly bonding experience to conduct high-performance flights like this with such unique vintage aircraft.”

Teamwork on the ground also helped contribute to a successful clinic, as the number of planes coming in and out throughout each day required close coordination. “The days were long,” said Al Clark, Crew Chief for Waterloo Warbirds, “but they were very rewarding. With such busy days, I rely on my elite crew mates to support the activities going on. We have to make sure we’ve got the appropriate safety gear and training in place to support such a diverse range of aircraft operating at once. It was also great to work with the ground crew teams from CHAA and CHAT and leverage the professionalism of all teams to make every day a success.”

The clinic provided learning experiences for all pilots, including those experienced in formation flying. For Percy Contractor, flying in and instructing from the L-29 Delfin was a new and rewarding experience. “This was my first time teaching in a jet formation,” said Contractor. “There are certainly similarities between teaching formation in a Harvard and a jet, but the power and responsiveness in a jet really stands out. It was very gratifying professionally and enjoyable overall.” 

For Richard Cooper, MiG-15 and L-29 pilot with Waterloo Warbirds, the more nuanced ways of maneuvering the aircraft in formation really stood out. “One of the most surprising things I learned was the benefits of moving the aircraft with the rudder in a formation setting. Typically, you use aileron in flight and mainly use the rudder when taxiing, but using rudder in flight allows you to move the aircraft without changing attitude or profile. It’s a whole new way of flying but really beneficial because you can avoid a lot of the things that change when you start banking.  The way you move when you’re flying that way is slick as glass - it’s unbelievable. Now that I have that foundation and baseline knowledge, I’m excited to keep building on that.”

“The foundational knowledge we got over the three days is really valuable,” agreed Ray Thwaites, T-33 pilot for Waterloo Warbirds. “Formation flying requires so much concentration and knowledge to do it correctly. It’s critical to have someone teach you the fundamentals so you’re set up to practice and build upon those. When you’re flying formation, it’s like flying an IFR approach for an hour - if you’re not doing something, you’re missing something, and you need to understand all the micro-adjustments you need to make to keep the formation tight and smooth. Even as pilots, it’s hard to understand the challenges of formation flying until you do it. Getting to be immersed in it for three days with such experienced instructors helped us learn more about the nuances of formation work and appreciate just how neat and challenging it can be.”

For everyone on the ground, seeing the formations develop over the course of the clinic was an experience like no other. “It was thrilling to watch each group come back over the airfield and do breaks,” said Doug Sheppard, Ramp Safety Officer at Waterloo Warbirds. “You really got to see the formations progress over the course of the clinic every time the planes flew over.”

Building on the strong foundation developed during the clinic is now the goal of each pilot. Every flight together allows them to refine their skills more and more, resulting in more exhilarating flights each time. You’ll see the results of this close training the next time you see a formation in the skies above!

If you're interested in reading more about our Formation Training Clinic, our friends at Skies Magazine shared an article on their website: