Safety in Numbers

1988
The Stooges in formation. Source: Anne-Marie Seve

Kreisha Ballantyne interviews formation team The Stooges to discover how specialist training can enhance flight safety

Formation flying, along with aerobatics, is one of the only areas in general aviation that inspires team work, group flying and vital communication.

Formation team The Stooges have embraced the essential combination of dedication, practice and fun, coming together to improve their flying skills. Comprised of Eddie Seve, Mark Newton, Glenn Bridgland and Mal Kains, The Stooges fly a combination of RV-6s and RV-7s. Having originally teamed up to lower the cost of their formation training, The Stooges’ joy of flying in a group led them to forming their own team. Their name was devised by Eddie’s wife, Anne-Marie. ‘When we used it to request taxi clearance at Bankstown that morning, the tower nearly wet themselves laughing,’ said Eddie.

Stooging Around

 The Stooges conducted their formation training over a long weekend, with a theory briefing session one night during the week before. Jeremy Miller from Skythrills led the instruction, with additional skills provided by Pete Townsend from Australian Aerobatic Academy at Bankstown. Their initial goal was to learn a new skill which would enhance safety, allow them to fly together on weekends, and encourage them to sharpen their skills.

‘General aviation promotes independence, which is great for alpha-type personalities, but the flip-side is that it tends to be a pretty solitary affair, ‘ says Mark Newton, who lists teamwork as one of the benefits of formation flying. ‘You can go to the airport, prepare your aircraft, fly, land and leave without ever laying eyes on another human. It’s hard to promote community like that. ‘

Theory included basic concepts of the reference lines used to establish correct position, responsibilities of formation lead and wingman, drills and mantras, energy management, procedures for manoeuvres such as formation takeoffs and landings, break-offs, rejoins, and emergency procedures.

The three days of their initial training was dominated by heat, humidity, and pre-thunderstorm turbulence. ‘We spent the whole time feeling like we were flying through a washing machine, with other aircraft mere metres away and Jeremy shouting, “C’mon, get in there!” All of us reported collapsing onto the sofa and falling asleep at 7pm after we got home, it was the most exhaustingly intense training I think I’ve ever had,’ said Mark.

‘Through all of your flying life you have been trained to stay away from other aircraft, now you’re doing the exact opposite! ‘ says Eddie. ‘You’re scared stiff so much so that you’re soaked in a cold sweat, trying to control throttle to maintain a closing speed, working aileron and elevator to move into position along the echelon line. Your heart rate is up, you have a death grip on the stick and throttle and your instructor is telling you to move in closer! You edge in a little more, roll on, roll off and things are speeding up, you’re over controlling everything and when things start to go pear-shaped your instructor calls for you to bug out! You pull back on the stick, roll right 45 degrees allowing the turn to take you through 70 degrees and you roll level, look for and sight lead and call “number one, I have you visual, request re-join.” When the lead clears you to rejoin echelon right, it starts again, “height, line, speed”, “up, forward, in,” “roll on, roll off”! Add bumps and wind and it really is as hard as it sounds!’

The upside is that when The Stooges received the ratings and went formation flying the following weekend, the air was smooth, the conditions were benign, and they couldn’t believe how easy it was.

Debrief is where learning occurs after a testing flight. Source: Anne-Marie Seve

The Safety Briefing

 Formation flying requires a brief, debrief and document for every flight, following a set format. All the vital communication occurs before the flight. The objective of a formation briefing is for every pilot to know exactly what they are going to do before they walk to their aircraft. In the air the mission is to ‘fly the brief’ with no surprises.

‘We were fortunate to receive high quality training from Jeremy who provided us with very good SOPs based on military procedures, which I’m sure incorporate many hard-learned lessons, ‘ said Mal. ‘On day two of the basic formation course a couple of us received a stern talking-to for showing up a couple of minutes late for the briefing – a mistake not repeated. These foundations have embedded a disciplined approach to formation flying which I think is essential to being able to fly formation reliably safely. ‘

The briefings are run by the formation lead, who has command responsibility for the formation as a whole, and who is usually the only aircraft with the transponder turned on.

‘We rotate the lead for our usual weekend flying, ‘ says Mark. ‘For 2019 airshows, Mal carries the can. We start by answering some basic questions: Who is making up the formation? What are the assigned responsibilities? What is the mission? Then we move on to the environment: What does the weather look like? What limitations does it impose on our operation? ‘ Mark continues.

‘After that, lead walks through what we’re actually going to do, from engine start to shut down. How will we coordinate start-up? What radio frequencies will we be using? What does our taxi route look like? Where will we do run-ups? Will we be doing stream takeoffs or formation takeoffs in pairs or triplets? What’s our air exercise? Where are we going? How long will we take to get there? What will our arrival procedures be when we get there? Landing in formation pairs or streams? How will we react if the plan is unachievable?

‘An important part of the pre-flight briefing is done last, so it’s fresh in everyone’s memories before we start: How will we handle emergencies? How will safety be assured?

‘A formation lead is expected to be able to speak with authority on all of these things. There’s a lot of responsibility: The other members of the formation aren’t doing their own flight plan, they’re going to rely on the leader to do a job at least as well as their own standards, which means the leader’s preflight planning needs to be better, clearer, more comprehensive than what any single member would have done by themselves. A leader who can’t step-up can expect some fairly brutal questioning about why they’re leading during the debrief session.

‘If the briefing is good, the flight will be silent. There’s a saying that the only things a wingman should ever say on the radio are, “Two!” and “You’re on fire!” but that’s only possible if everyone is on the same page. We keep radio use to a minimum, and regularly practice hand signals for in-flight communication. ‘

The Debriefing

Every flight ends with a debrief, which is where most of the learning happens. The debriefing sessions all follow the same agenda: start by identifying, exploring and mitigating any safety issues that came up during the flight, then discuss whether the briefing was adequate, then walk through the flight in order, identifying deficiencies in how the formation performed the departure, air exercise, and arrival.

The first agenda item on every debrief is safety. ‘We don’t pull any punches and the expectation and acceptance of candid debriefs is a feature of our safety culture, ‘ said Mal.

‘Properly structured debriefings are paramount, ‘ agrees Mark. ‘Even now, three years later, we spend as much time sitting in a circle doing briefings and debriefings as we actually spend flying. Plan the flight, fly the plan, and review the differences between the flight and the plan afterwards. Every flight is a training flight. Participants in the debrief session are expected to be direct and forthright: no sacred cows, no allowance given to other participants’ emotional responses. If something needs to be said, say it, because that’s the most direct way to learn. The flip-side of the “contract” for the debriefing session is that issues raised will actually be dealt with fully, usually by agreement for SOP changes, so when we draw a line under it and walk away from the debriefing, everyone knows there are no outstanding issues and we can all be friends again. ‘

‘Nothing gets left on the table afterwards, ‘ adds Glenn. ‘We debrief everything that happened, both positive and negative. We all have to be receptive to constructive criticism, as that’s part of the safety element. The whole aim is to take something that on the surface is rather risky, and turn it into a safe and enjoyable operation. ‘

‘I’ve personally found that the debriefings after each flight have made me safer, ‘ says Mark. ‘There aren’t many situations in general aviation where we make ourselves open to very direct and personal feedback from our peers about the quality of our flying and what we should be doing about it. Bad habits expose themselves very rapidly, and part of the ethos of the team is that they’ll be proactively dealt with. ‘

Safety in Numbers

Flying formation results in improved cockpit resource management, better situational awareness, stronger flight planning abilities and advanced radio communications. The act of being part of a team results in the growth of each pilot’s safety management techniques. ‘Since we all get to share the responsibilities of being lead, we each learn to think about how to manage the team as if it is one giant aircraft, ‘ says Eddie. ‘That results in each of us learning to think ahead more easily, improving our ability to handle high stress situations resulting in our flying becoming more precise, and our radio communications with towered airports and other aircraft becoming more confident and succinct. ‘

‘There’s an expansion of mental capacity, which then doesn’t disappear when you’re out of formation and off flying by yourself, ‘ adds Mark. ‘It’s particularly obvious when you’re leading a flight into a busy class D like Bankstown, hauling a group of four aircraft at 130 knots with an airliner’s turning circle, communicating arrival briefings, negotiating clearances, and signaling configuration changes and with hand signals while looking out for traffic and coordinating separation into pairs for landings. There’s a lot to do, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the first couple of attempts.

‘As a wingman, your aircraft handling skills go stratospheric. Fine motor skills, visualization of energy vectors and the hazards of directing them towards other aircraft, understanding of your own aircraft’s capabilities when there are performance differences between formation members, and anticipation of what the formation leader is about to do ‘

Formation flying was originally conceived by the military as an organised way of getting a group of aircraft safely to their destination without banging into each other.

‘Without the right training and SOPs, formation flying would be quite dangerous, ‘ adds Mal. ‘The skills and behaviours formation pilots acquire to be able to do it safely can no doubt enhance safety when carried into any type of flying activity. ‘

The safety benefits arise from:

  • Habituating a structured approach to the flying task, team discipline, effective communication and risk management.
  • Being exposed to intense scrutiny and peer review as part of every flight.
  • Leading a formation means having command responsibility for multiple aircraft, which raises the bar for how you conduct the flight and the quality of your decision making.
  • ‘It’s these things, perhaps more-so than the flying skills involved, that will enable formation flying to make you a safer pilot. And of course, being in the habit of flying smoothly and accurately won’t do any harm, ‘ says Mal.

‘The bottom line is, while safety is paramount, we have all agreed to try really hard to not take ourselves too seriously, we are doing this for fun, to improve our flying skills and to share in the joy that a team activity can provide, ‘ concludes Eddie.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Formation flying (like line dancing) always looks impressive, but not for me.
    I would find it boring and uninteresting having to focus on the leader constantly.
    But that’s only my option, and my choice.
    l prefer to fly cross country solo, and enjoy the view, l also scan the instrument panel and chart twice per minute.
    Flying is and always has been the greatest thing in my life, (no exceptions) l thank those pilots and their crew for the entrainment, but the greatest entrainment for me is to disconnect myself from the planet on a crisp dawn recce, it’s just me and a machine above the crap and corruption of humanity, the down side is having to return to it.

  2. As an occasional right seater and photographer for the guys I can certainly attest to their disciplined approach and adherence to the SOPs.
    It’s a real honour and pleasure to be included and participate in the debrief for the right seat perspective.
    I see the dedication to practice, the ongoing training and the joy of cameraderie between the group.
    As a wife I have been asked many a time about the time and effort needed and do I resent it.
    I believe ongoing skills upgrades and communication makes for better piloting and as a passenger I take pride and comfort knowing my pilot takes it seriously and has such passion for his craft.
    I never hesitate to get in that right seat.
    It’s a big wide country out there and each speck on the map is open for business and exploring it in our little bird is a most magic experience

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