Theoretical Formation Training Course Brakpan Airfield

'Sing from the same hymn sheet'

Willie Bodenstein


Formation flying, is generally defined as two or more aircraft traveling and maneuvering together in a disciplined, synchronized, predetermined manner.

Formation flying developed in World War I, when fighter aircraft escorted reconnaissance aircraft over enemy territory. Fighter squadrons soon discovered that fighting in pairs reduced their losses and increased their victories. By 1918, the smallest fighting unit was two aircraft flying in formation. German flight leaders, such as Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann and Manfred von Richthofen ("the Red Baron"), strictly enforced rules of formation flying.

By World War II, pilots had discovered other strategic advantages to formation flight such as enhanced stability and optimal visibility.

In a tight formation, which is typically seen at an air show, aircraft may fly less than three feet (one metre) apart and must move in complete harmony, as if they are joined together.

All navigation, radio transmissions and tactical decisions are made by the flight leader, who is typically the most experienced pilot. The other pilots in a formation are known as wingmen and it is their responsibility to follow the leader and to maintain a constant position relative to the lead aircraft. This is called "position keeping." Any change in relative position between aircraft is considered movement by the wingmen.

Because flying close to another airplane can be extremely dangerous, discipline, practice, predictability and strict rule-following are encouraged in both civilian and military environments. Flights are briefed so that all pilots know what to expect and so that, generally, no one except the leader needs to speak on the radio. Leaders use hand signals, head nods, aircraft movements or radio calls to alert their wingmen of changes in flight attitude, formation positions, split-ups, rejoins and radio frequencies.

On Saturday 17 October Colonel (Retired) Jeff Earle presented a Theoretical Formation Training Course at Brakpan Airfield which attended by seventeen aviators, most of whom had very little formation flying experience.

Jeffery Albert Earle, better known to all as just Jeff, is an ex SAAF pilot who got his wings in 1962 and flew in the Citizen Force for thirty years, fifteen of which was for 40 Squadron flying T6 Harvards and fifteen years at four Squadron flying Aeromachi Impala Jets. He eventually ended up as Citizen Force OC and is still on strength at Air Force Base Swartkop.

Jeff flew 67 Operational sorties as a Citizen Force Pilot and qualified for Gold Wings with 2800 South African Air Force hours. He won the Squadron "Top Gun" trophy and was awarded seven medals including MMM and JCD and Bar. He is currently posted to the SAAF Museum as Colonel having flown DeHavilland Tiger Moth, Chipmunk, Harvard and P51 Mustang and has flown low level aerobatic displays in Chipmunks, Harvard's and P51 Mustang at numerous airshows across the country.

Jeff's flying career in the SAAF lasted for over 55 years and only stopped when on 21 June 2018 when he turned 75. SAAF regulations does not allow anyone older than that to fly its assets. However, he is still current and now has time to fly his own aircraft that include a Twin Comanche, Tiger Moth, Harvard and Super Cub.

The aim of Jeff's course, based on the SAAF's Central Flying School pupil pilot's manual, was to standardize civilian formation flying and enable pilots to accurately and confidently fly in close formation while at the same time, enhance safety. The course stopped short of formation aerobatics.

During the course, Jeff stressed the importance of pre-flight planning and the fact that the formation leader is responsible for the safety of the formation. The four main formations, Vic, Line Abreast, Line Astern and Echelon were demonstrated by Jeff using models and diagrams. Formation members keep station by carefully aligning key reference points on the leader's aircraft.

All aspects of formation flying were covered, including take-offs, landings and emergency procedures and the twelve chapters in the 34-page standard operating procedures (SOP) were discussed in detail. Participation from the attendants were welcome and Jeff managed to answer all questions.

Jeff concluded that close formation flying is a demanding exercise in which safety and airmanship are of paramount importance and the foundations of formation flying. The safety of each pilot and his aircraft depends on the accuracy and actions of every other member, practice and more practice and keeping to the SOP is absolutely essential.

"The formation will only be flown safely and perfectly,",Jeff said, "if all pilots involved 'sing from the same hymn sheet."

I am sure that if enough people twist Jeff's arm, he will repeat the course. All pilots, even if one doesn't intend taking up formation flying one is sure to benefit.

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