It’s been awhile since I did one of these posts, and it certainly isn’t for a lack of learning, but quite the opposite actually. I’ve actually been a little overwhelmed recently with how much I have learned but I finally have a minute to put some of those thoughts to paper, or keyboard I guess.
The biggest learning that I have done recently took place just after the new year and involved planning and executing an 8-ship formation flight for my squadron. We ended up with only six planes in the formation because of some maintenance issues, but it was an awesome experience nonetheless. The maintainers actually deserve a huge amount of credit for getting that many flying considering what they had to do to make it happen.
I found out about this mission about a month before it was scheduled to take place and got some preliminary planning done before we all left for Christmas. To the surprise of no one that has served in the Air Force, when we came back from the break, the powers that be changed our plan completely which meant we had a week to put the new plan in place. I say we because I received a ton of vital help from about a half dozen people who provided guidance and expertise for something that I had never done. It never would have happened if it weren’t for their help.
That week of planning was probably the most learning I have done in my relatively short career and I am so grateful for it. With that being said I can’t really describe those lessons I learned because I don’t know how without spending the week that I put into it, besides, it is the flight that is the interesting part for most of you.
Because we don’t fly with this many planes together very often anymore it took a little work for all of the pilots to get back into the groove of flying with so many planes. It is not just a matter of putting six planes close to each other, as you have to deal with the turbulence created by the plans in front of you as well as the accordion effect that takes place when you put any large number of moving objects together. The closer you are to the back of the formation, the more challenging it becomes.
As you can see from some of these pictures it can be really challenging to stay in position in these conditions. I give all the credit in the world to the pilots, and mine in particular, because they were working hard to stay in formation and keep it tight. Being in the number five aircraft we had a great view of the formation and it was awesome to watch the ordered chaos come together almost perfectly as we recovered over the airfield.
For the second half of the flight we actually planned to split the formation in two with a rendezvous about forty minutes later to bring us back together for the second airdrop. As the person who had spent 40+ hours planning this thing down to the minute, and reassuring everyone else that it would work, I can’t really explain how excited I was when we reached the rendezvous point and I was able to look out the pilot’s window and see four other C-130s trucking towards us.
My pilot banked the plane up to turn towards them pointing the plane right at the last aircraft in their formation. Then about a minute later he banked it back up the other direction and we were back together as a complete formation. With all of the work it took to get there, it was incredibly fulfilling to see it come together so smoothly.
As I said before, there were really way too many lessons that I learned in the planning stage to try and cram them into one post, and most of them would make no sense without being there to experience it. But, there are still a handful of lessons that came from the flying that can be applied to lots of different types of flying.
First is having faith in the people you fly with. Whether they are sitting in the seat next to you or five planes away in the back of the formation, there is an incredible amount of trust we put in people we fly with. In the 600+ hours I have in the C-130 I have never once been at the controls, though I do get to steer the plane through the autopilot sometimes, which means that every time I step onto the flight deck I am literally placing my life in the hands of the two pilots at the controls. On this particular flight I could not have asked for a better pilot.
Second is the saying, “if you don’t use it you lose it”. As I mentioned previously, I regularly fly with some incredible pilots. They have flown me into different countries, through mountain valleys, and into dirt landing zones, but even the best pilot loses a little bit when they don’t do something often. This was apparent during the first part of the flight, but it was equally important to me to see how quickly their proficiency of flying in a larger formation came back. So for all of you pilots out there make sure that you are challenging yourself and forcing yourself to do things you don’t do often so that you can remain proficient.
For those of you thinking that formation flying is just for military planes, you couldn’t be more wrong. It takes a matter of seconds to find videos of civilian formation flights on YouTube. There is even a group of Bonanzas that fly in formation to EAA Airventure at OshKosh together. If you are looking for something that is incredibly fun, and challenging, then I highly recommend a formation flight. Make sure that you put in the proper planning though because it is not something to be taken lightly.
To take a look at more of the pictures from the fun we had head over to my friend’s Flickr page.