Just Andy

Life is the greatest challenge of all

Formation Flying

This is a 3 part article so is fairly lengthy...... I would advise making a cuppa before starting to read it 

There are several photographs at the bottom of the report that make good viewing 


The day started early, me joining the rush hour traffic from the south coast to pick David Williams up from his South London palace.
Having been introduced to his pets over a welcome cuppa we set off on the second half of the journey to Kemble, commenting on the fact that it was a good idea to have taken the decision to drive, as the mist and fog swirled around us. The day seemed somewhat in doubt but we pressed on regardless........it's a long way by road compared to the trip by air from Shoreham.

Having finally found the way into the airfield we were greeted by flyguy and Shadow (ex RAF, Red Arrows and Brittania commercial pilot - a little experience then!) who briefed us for the ensuing conversion to the Bulldog.

A VP prop on the bulldog meant I had an additional thing to think about today, amongst everything else. This was going to be an education.

Having squeezed myself into a flying suit/babygrower, we made our way out to the brightly coloured bulldogs sat on the apron. Having been shown how to put on a parachute with the assurance it wouldn't be needed, we were shown how to pre-flight the bulldog. Most noticeable differences were the enormous pitot, the chunky switchgear and the trailing edge of the rudder that must have been almost an inch thick!! The following ten minutes was spent initially doing up the parachute harness and then the seat harness and straps - trussed up like chickens we went through the pre-start checks, my brain reverting to proper student mode, struggling from check to check, missing the odd one from the preprinted checklist and chastising myself for it.

It is incredible just how much you become familiar with your regular checklist and conversely how much you can be thrown by a strange one. Engine start and oil pressure and so on ok, so we sit and wait for the engine to warm and the gauges to reach the green. Then we hold the stick fully back and taxi to the hold for the power checks before lining up side by side with the other bulldog.

A wave of the hands (after a pre-agreed brief on our departure for safety reasons) and we are off, slowly increasing the power to maximum before lifting off the tarmac. Looking to my right the other bulldog is just inches...... well ok, just several feet, off our starboard wing. We climbed in close formation between a gap in the clouds before breaking into the clear bright sunlit sky.

We took the initial lead whilst Shadow demonstrated to David what is involved in basic formation flying. We then swapped and flyguy proceeded to show "echelon right". We dropped below the lead plane and made 3 distinct moves to formate. Move up to the same level, move forward to the desired position and then in toward the lead aircraft. Yeah ok close enough!!

 Moving to "line astern", we dropped down from the lead and positioned behind and below the lead, before moving up and toward the rear of the lead aircraft. Geeez, that is pretty close!! This is when the lead aircraft is in the most vulnerable position as he is unable to see the formating 'craft so absolute care is needed.

We then moved to "echelon port" in a similar fashion, being shown left and right turns and how the speeds and heights need to alter to keep the formation tight and together. Highly skilled stuff, requiring the utmost concentration. Made to look easy by the pro's we were with of course.

We had been given the option of a tail chase and we initially chased DW around the sky, keeping them in constant view and in a constant position in the screen. Upside down, round and round, one minute looking at the sky, the next at the ground from all sorts of angles!! It wasn’t long before we swapped places and we took the lead, pulling 4g whilst flyguy flung the Bulldog about the sky. We broke away, David and Shadow to the east and us to the west to learn some general handling qualities of the Bulldog. The first thing I struggled with was keeping straight and level. It appeared to me that the nose was too low (it wasn't!) so I wanted to pull the stick back and of course kept on nudging the altimeter upward.

What a solid aircraft to fly though and superb visibility out of the bubble canopy. Changing heading to avoid Fairford, we proceeded to fly steep turns. Well I thought I did. The comment from flyguy - "did you learn to do steep turns at 45 degrees?" - clearly meant I wasn't flying steep turns. Onto 60 degree turns and again feeling like a total novice as I sank and rose 100' either side of the predetermined altitude but at least we hit our own wake on one of them!!

Stalling - yikes. Having learnt on the Tomahawk I was dreading the wing drop, but the Bulldog remained stable and easily adjusted on the rudder. The buffet was obvious and I managed to keep it in the stall while dropping down through the air, recovering immediately the nose was pushed down. More stalls in the approach configuration, very nose high and plenty of buffet again whilst recovery was again instant on lowering the nose and pushing in the throttle.

Moving on, flyguy then demonstrated maximum rate turns, steep turns whilst pulling back on the stick until buffet was felt and then just relaxing it ever so slightly, so we circled just on the edge of the stall. The one thing I noticed was the different approach to the lookout on the HASELL check. The clearing turn consisted of a chandelle, looking around underneath as the nose dropped before recovering to carry out the actions requested.

It was at this point that my stomach decided it had been enough for one day.

Whilst flyguy sorted the radio I headed for a gap in the clouds above Cirencester, and we started our descent from 5000’ above the Cotswolds. I was prompted to orbit and we did a series of steep (for me!) descending turns to get under the cloud. Why couldn’t I have done those descending turns that well in my Skills Test!!

I will admit to being fairly disorientated by now and flyguy took over and pointed us at the airfield, onto a demonstrated circuit and touch and go. At 200’ on the climbout he handed the Bulldog back to me and we headed around the circuit. The extra speed caught me out plus the inclusion of “Prop” into the downwind checks but I had her under relative control by the base leg. How to feel like a newbie student again!!

Slow her down to 80, 10 degrees of flap, don’t overfly the farmhouse, turn onto final, remember she lands fairly flat so don’t overdo the flare, speed down to 70 as we put down full flap, over the threshold and I start a gentle flare only to discover we look closer to the ground than we really are. The wheels touch down for a firm but fair landing and then increase the throttle, rudder to keep her on the centerline………… “Flaps?” enquires flyguy!!!

Oh yeah…. It was then I realized that the last time I had done touch and go’s was on my Skills Test some 60 hours ago. We climbed out, turning early to avoid the village. This plane really does handle well. We fly a truncated downwind as the cloud is encroaching on the base leg now.

Speed control is a little better this time, though she still flies the downwind a lot quicker than I am used to, and the landing is a lot better this time. The last circuit is much better, as is the speed control and other than a small prompt from the right hand seat (it is his baby after all) to kick her a little straighter in the flare I think I carried out a reasonably good landing.

Taxiing back to the hanger I take care to hold the stick back, remembering that the prop clearance could be higher on the Bulldog and we shut down. 55 minutes airborne and we had covered an awful lot. I seem to remember flyguy saying that it would just entail spinning and PFL’s with a revision of VP prop to complete the conversion for soloing the Bulldog. If that is wrong I am sure I will be corrected in due course. If it is right I am quite pleased with the day’s efforts.

From what I gather David had a similarly successful day and we are both decided that we want to take the training further and look forward to signing up early next year. I, for one, came away feeling very humbled. I am not stupid enough to think I know very much at all, but seeing the way these guys handle a plane and with such accuracy is something to strive for and work toward.

I am also convinced that I really do want to add aerobatics to my experience of flight, and am assured that the nausea gets better and the disorientation becomes less of a problem. Here was I thinking that 2005 might be a less expensive year. Ha Ha Ha Ha.  It will be worth it though!!


I was greeted at the entrance to Kemble by the security guard wiping sleep from his eyes; "Do ya know the way?"ť he asked and after my positive reply waved me through.

As I drove around the airfield perimeter road I mused over what the day had in store for me. My palms were a little moist with nervous anticipation. The SOP's I had been learning over the past few days jumbled themselves around in my head. Would I make the grade I wondered idly?

I was greeted effusively as usual as I walked through the door of Ultimate High's office next to the control tower, no introductions needed today having flown with both the instructors that were going to turn our brains to mush today. As I was supping a cup of coffee my fellow victim arrived. Oh!!! he was a little more experienced than me, 300 hours and an advanced aero's man who owned a half share in an Extra 230 . Gulp!!

I was assured that it would make no real difference as the training that was to follow was spent equally divided between following and being followed.

We were soon down to business, an in depth multimedia presentation smattered with the usual UH style of humour, along with the emphasis on safety, safety and safety. This cannot be emphasised too much when flying formation. Understandably. I was to be tutored by Mark (aka Greeners/flyguy) and my partner for the course was to be flying with Des, an ex RAF pilot/instructor and a former Red Leader as well as some years flying 757's with Britannia ; a small amount of experience then!!!

According to local folklore, Des flies formation with his eyes shut and is heard to mutter "Feel the Force  : Feel the Force!"
Time spent with him later in the course indeed backed up this fable as a much laid back pilot with superb skills.

We walked out to the awaiting brightly coloured Bulldogs and checked them over and then proceeded to strap in; not as easy as your typical spam can.

First of all you need to ensure that all the straps are laid out correctly before sliding into the seat and then the fun starts : first of all locate the side straps for the parachute harness, slip them under another strap and then locate them into the buckle, before taking the over shoulder ones and doing the same.

Then repeat the whole process with the seat straps until you are unable to move and are incapable of reaching the fuel cock. Lesson one, only tighten up seat straps once all the checks have been done! Total time taken about 9 minutes, though apparently I was down to 4 minutes by the end of the course.

Pre-start checks done I then need 3 hands to start the engine: one to hold the stick fully back, two to operate the starter (twist and push) and three to push the mixture from ICO to rich as soon as the engine fires!! The after start checks are all the usual and we sit waiting for the engine to warm up before carrying out a radio check with Merlin 2 on the company frequency and then calling for taxi information from Kemble Tower.

Cleared to A1 for R26 we taxi the Dog's to the hold to carry out power checks and then call for departure. Merlin Formation then takes off in formation with us studes following through on the controls. A sharp right hand turn out to avoid the cloud ahead, we then climb out into the local area to start our training.

As Merlin 1 we stay as lead, whilst Merlin 2 is shown Echelon Starboard and attempts to fly it again without instructor input. The same follows for Line Astern and Echelon Port, all in straight and level flight. Then it's my turn. Mark makes it look sooo easy; Position yourself in a stabilised position beneath and to the right of the lead aircraft. Once stable increase the throttle to draw almost level with the lead, then back with the throttle to slow down and almost immediately back to cruise setting to keep station. Go up to the correct level to draw you alongside the lead and then edge in using small aileron input to the predetermined place, more or less pinpointed by a triangulation of rear fin and the line from the spinner out through the mid point of the aileron. Stay level and close with small constant inputs of elevator, aileron and throttle.

Easy. Your turn Andy.

Yeah right!! Easy?!? I can't do this, I thought as I weaved about the sky, seemingly uncontrollably despite my best efforts. Suddenly I felt stupid, incapable, even incompetent.

Who gave me a licence? Did they need certifying?

Line astern was terrifying. Constantly being urged to go closer when all you can see is your propeller about to eat the lead's tail fin goes against all logical thought. Get too high and your tail hits the propwash from the lead, then your inputs become too large and PIO (pilot induced oscillation) starts and it's hellishly difficult to get back in position and settled down again. Echelon port is very much the same as starboard apart from you have to look over the P2 in order to see your references on the lead aircraft.

We then covered emergency breaks where you put in full aileron and elevator to get the hell outta there, then turn back, become visual with the lead and rejoin. This was followed by more practice at echelon and line astern with the efforts ramped up to include turns, climbs and descents.

Back to the airfield still in formation where we do a run and break, flying along the runway at 500' and then peeling off at the end with a sharp climbing turn onto downwind, maintaining the oval shape all the way down to the ground, with a stream landing (one behind the other) always being aware of leaving an escape lane in case things go wrong.

Feeling shattered and totally humbled we go back to the office for a debrief and a very welcome cup of coffee. After lunch we then brief for the next flight; very much the same but with the limits constantly being pushed, turning rejoins thrown in too and keeping station whilst turning : that is really hard; you are either at the outside of the turn so need to chuck on full power and go higher than the lead, or pitch down and lose some power to be lower than the lead.

Surprisingly it seemed a little easier (if one can use the word easy in the same sentence as formation!!) than the first time up. The RAF way of training is basically to push you as hard as possible (till you wobble was the expression used ) so that when you return to something previously done it seems easier - it works!!

This time we ended the sortie with a tailchase. Basically you follow the leader. Fine until he performs wingovers and barrel rolls. Unfortunately as we were about to enter the loop phase my stomach gave out and I called surrender so I was left gulping cold air in an attempt to stop the cardinal sin of emptying the contents of my stomach.

As someone who is a lover of aerobatics it does frustrate me when this happens. I got a little close to the lead at the top of a 130 degree wingover and had to shove the stick forward so forcing negative g on myself. One barrel roll and that was me finished off.

After regaining my composure I then flew back as Merlin 2 and though nowhere near perfect was surprised at how much better I managed to formate on the lead aircraft even around the circuit. There ended Day One - exhausted beyond belief for what was only just over 2 hours flying, exhilarated that I could sort of fly somewhere near another aircraft without flying into it but feeling very humble.

The next morning we were back again for more punishment and it was more of the same but ramped up in difficulty. I was able to do a formation take off, it really is something else taking off alongside another aircraft (usual safety rules apply!) and the lesson ended with me as Extreme 2 whilst we descended from 4000', into the circuit for a formation landing, engaging flaps by feel.

The base leg became a little ugly as I struggled to maintain echelon port on a tight left hand circuit whilst descending, lowering flaps with the associated change in attitude and tiredness kicking in. Eyes fixed on the lead until the runway hove into my peripheral vision and then focus on the runway.

Another lesson - continue to fly the aircraft at this point or your speed becomes too low  sorry Mark, don't like hard landings and nor do you!!! Consider lesson learnt.

What amazed me was not realising we were back in the circuit until Extreme 1 called downwind. The concentration required whilst maintaining formation is immense, the skills needed to maintain situational awareness even more so. It was much later when thinking over the day's proceedings that I realised for a few seconds it had come together earlier that lesson. On the way back from the practice area during the descent we had been in a turn and I had returned to straight and level whilst maintaining formation without realising I was doing it. It was only for a few seconds but the feeling of achievement was immense.


As I drove through the fog and drizzle and joined the rush hour queues on the M25 my mind turned to mulling over how successful the day was going to be.

After a break of six days how much would I remember?

Would the ability to follow another aircraft so closely have evaporated as I wished this fog would?

As the fog cleared, so did my mind and my brain started to work through the various exercises we had covered the week before. Line up on one side of the runway, thumbs up to the other aircraft and then wind up the engine to 1500rpm. All in the green and nod over to the number 2 as the brakes are released and the throttle is gently advanced to full power and then retarded an inch to allow the number 2 to keep up.

As we reach rotate speed, look over and give number 2 the nod and gently rotate keeping the Bulldog in line with the runway as we become airborne in unison…………………. …………..Ooer, unlike the silky smooth air last week, it was a little bumpy today!

Aware of the other aircraft just feet away to my starboard, it took all my concentration to keep straight and at the required 80 knots climb speed. I relaxed my grip on the stick a little and we rode the bumps together, climbing into the grey sky. At 500’ I gave the signal to raise flaps and as one they were retracted and we continued our climb through the turbulence. To my wonderment, I had the spare capacity now to reduce the needle on the fuel flow to 6 ˝ as we passed through 1500’ and easing back on the throttle we levelled out just below the 2000’ cloudbase.

We cruised around the circuit at 95 knots, looking for a gap in the clouds in order that we could gain enough height so as not to be of annoyance to those living below us. Climbing again we turned to the west so that we didn’t end up too far east in the strong 45 knot westerly and found ourselves in between two broken layers at 3000’. We remained as leader whilst number 2 was put through his paces.

Boy, they were really stepping up the pace now. Turning at 40 degrees of bank whilst climbing and descending I watched James in the number 2 ship be pushed harder and harder, yet he clung on to our wingtip tenaciously. He soon disappeared from view and announced he was “onboard” behind us in line astern. More turns, becoming progressively steeper and in different attitudes, yet still he hang on. I was going to struggle if they put me through this!!

After practising emergency breaks and rejoins from both sides and whilst turning it was my turn to be put through the mill. It was with a smile that I found myself joining up more swiftly than previously. Maybe I hadn’t forgotten too much.

Of course, I had not taken into account that I would be correspondingly harder on myself too, so was soon telling myself to relax as I struggled to stay close whilst running wide on the outside of a turn or cursing as I let the lead pull away whilst in line astern. I really enjoyed the emergency breaks last time so was horrified when I executed a messy break, a mixture of steep turn and maximum climb, but made up for it by doing a reasonably good rejoin in double quick time. We were in a different aircraft this time and it seemed to have a little more power which helped, but things were slowly falling into place.

Another break and this time a turning rejoin to echelon port which went much better and for the first time I smiled, rather than maintaining a fixed deadly serious grimace! All too soon we were back in the lead and Des (my instructor) took control and led James a merry dance about the sky. At one stage, whilst they were line astern we carried out a climbing turn and at the top let the nose drop away earthwards yet still we couldn’t spit him out from behind us.

As I took over as number 2 again we entered some thin cloud and all references were obscured. Without the distraction of ground, then sky I actually found it easier to maintain station, but we were warned afterwards to watch out for the leans if that occurs. It is a weird sensation when you come out of the cloud and suddenly find yourself in a situation where you have background references again and discover you are in fact in a 30 degree turn when you thought you were flying straight and level. The lead really stepped up the pressure and I found myself struggling to keep up in places.

I was closer than I had been last week and didn’t find myself getting left so far behind that we had to start again but it really was hard work. It was only later in the de-briefing that I found I had progressed to 35 to 40 degree turns whilst climbing and descending.

At the time there is such a huge focus on maintaining position it is very easy to lose all situational awareness and to be totally unaware of which way is up. The whole time is spent focussed on the lead and making small inputs to throttle, elevator and ailerons. One day I hope I am able to have enough spare capacity to see the bigger picture – one reason why the job of lead aircraft is a very important one as he has to navigate and communicate whilst the number 2 (and 3 and so on) concentrate on staying in formation.

Suddenly our time was over and I was given the lead to recover and return to base. With the strong wind we seemed to take forever to get back to Kemble, joining crosswind with a huge amount of drift on to compensate for the strong wind. Thank goodness it was almost down the runway! Doing the radio calls and downwind checks meant another step up the learning curve was being coped with. Having slowed the bulldog to under 100 knots I gave the flaps signal to number 2 and turned onto base as gently as possible in the now bumpy air on the approach to final.

Base turn complete, we commenced a turning final whilst signalling to put down the other stage of flap and, other than getting lower than I would have liked, touched down on our half of the runway with barely a protest from the tyres – now why couldn’t I have landed like that when flyguy was at next to me? As the number 2 confirmed he had brakes we moved to his side of the runway and taxied back, a smile on my face as Des had said he was going to take over on final and hadn’t as he felt I was doing a good enough job; he remarked that I was obviously feeling comfortable with the plane and I am, more so than anything else I have flown. It seems to fit me like a comfortable jacket.

After a thorough de-brief we were then treated to stories from the Red Arrow days whilst we munched on sandwiches over a welcome cup of coffee.

So, apart from my certificate of completion, what did I gain from the experience?

1. That with my lowish hours, which have consisted mainly of cross country trips, I bit off a lot, but gained even more from being pushed hard. My skill levels have been hugely improved; both cognitive and motor skills.

2. An insight into how the RAF trains their pilots – it is clear from the start that these guys are true aviation professionals, disciplined in their approach and safe in their actions.

3. That formation flying is not to be undertaken lightly. Without proper instruction it is stupidly dangerous and is a sure fire way to have a mid-air collision. I genuinely believed that before undertaking this course, now I am convinced that it is so.

4. That formation flying (with #3 above taken into account) is immense fun, particularly if you enjoy being pushed and enjoy flying accurately.

5. Should I ever be unfortunate enough to find myself trapped above cloud and maybe even unsure of my position, I would be able to follow a lead aircraft back to safety, not that I would recommend getting yourself there in the first place.

6. How many PPL’s have flown with a Red Leader? Not many I would guess and the knowledge one gains from doing so is worth every bit of effort. I would happily do more formation flying, both for the grin factor and to gain the experience. The learning curve is very steep; the transition from muppet to a basic skill level is astounding. The only problem is that as you become better you are correspondingly harder on yourself. What would have been superb in lesson 1 becomes nowhere near good enough by lesson 4 so your expectation level increases along with your skill level.

Fantastic experience that rates as one of the best yet.