Putting a formation aerobatic team together is easier said than done! Getting a couple of guys or gals together to operate as a slick, safe unit comes with its challenges.
Each pilot has his or her strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences for where they’d like to fly in the formation. And then there are the personalities!
Getting on is paramount! You’re going to be spending a lot of time together in the air and on the ground, so you want to enjoy each other’s company.
Leading a formation is a huge responsibility; the bigger the formation, the bigger the responsibility.
Qualities of a leader
As a leader you’re responsible for the pilots and their aircraft while they’re in the formation. You are their eyes and ears as long as they’re attached to you. The formation operates as if it were a single aircraft, with the leader as Captain.
There needs to be great depth in a formation aerobatic team leaders skills set! He or she needs to be an accomplished aerobatic pilot, both as a soloist and a formation pilot, have good situational awareness and “silky smooth” hands.
There’s a reason the leaders of the bigger military formations fly in various positions in the team before they’re given the lead. By the time a pilot leads a formation like the Red Arrows, for example, he has flown on the wing in a couple of positions in the formation. This gives him a good understanding of what’s going on with his wingmen in the formation when he takes the lead one day.
Experience + skill = excellence
Over the years I’ve seen a couple of teams launched where a bunch of guys with the same or similar aircraft types get together. Inevitably, some of the pilots can fly formation, and others can’t. What typically happens is that the guy who can’t fly formation is thrown into the lead position with little or no understanding of formation dynamics, while those with formation experience “muscle it out” on the wing!
In my opinion, put the pilot with the smoothest hands, most formation time, and the greatest depth of experience in the lead. Then spend a bit of time, money and instruction getting your guys up and running on the wing. This will set you up for success and excellence.
The wingman experience
Flying on the wing is a blast. There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting five feet away from your leader. The best wingmen are cat quick and silky smooth and are blessed with “a pair”!
Flying on the wing requires aggression, focus, discipline and trust. In a formation, the wingmen live in a five-foot world! All their efforts and concentration are focused on flying their position and references relative to the leader.
Once the formation has joined up and is operating as a unit, a wingman’s sole purpose is to keep his position. This requires a huge amount of trust on the part of the wingmen. They cannot take their eyes off the leader for a second. At the speeds and distances one flies at, a momentary lapse in concentration, or taking your eyes off the leader could, or almost certainly will result in a collision.
Trust doesn’t develop instantly. It’s built up over time, but can be destroyed in a heartbeat! The leader is the foundation of the team and, without a strong foundation you have a weak team.
He sets the tone for the team and creates the culture. A wingman wants to know that the leader will keep him safe and won’t fly him into the ground or an obstacle. When there is trust, the wingman can focus entirely on his job.
On the flip side of that, a leader needs to be able to focus entirely on his job without worrying about one of his wingmen taking him out. With that trust in place, he can focus on positioning, presentation and flying smoothly.
Trust is hard won and easily lost
Lost the trust of your team members and you’ll have a long, hard battle to earn it back – and it’s a battle you may lose. It takes a long time building a cohesive aerobatic team. Once you’ve got your people, keep them.
As you build your team, pilots will come and go. Some will have a highly developed skills set and an abundance of talent, but may not fit into the team culture you’ve developed or are developing.
Eventually you will find the right guys or gals that tick all the boxes as far skills, trust, team ethos and friendship goes. When this happens, there is nothing sweeter than performing a low-level formation aerobatic display in which everyone is “firing on all six”, and you’re all operating as one!