So you’re flying West towards an airfield, intending to join the circuit to land, and the following sharp exchanges are heard on your radio.
“Tinseltown Traffic, Viper, formation of four RV’s is 6 miles south at 2000ft, tracking for downwind runway 17.”
How to deal with formation flying traffic
I’ve observed quite a few instances of uncertainty by some pilots, about how to handle the formation of aircraft – as if they should be avoided. I’ve heard pilots suggest that they were going to hold four or five miles away until the formation lands. It’s a nice thing to say, however it’s never required. Please just treat a formation as ‘one aircraft’, and continue to do your business as normal. Separate via altitude or altering your ground track, but please don’t avoid them by unnecessarily holding. All of the pilots I teach formation to, are able to stay in position through 45 degree banked turns at a minimum, so the formation is able to move around better than many single ship Cessnas and Diamonds…
How do formation flights land?
The runway at Tinseltown is not wide enough to land in close formation, so we generally land in a ‘Stream Landing’. One behind the other, ideally at about 300 metres apart. Formations can enter the circuit via a variety of ways.
Formation drag recovery
Commonly they join via a long downwind, before ‘taking spacing’ by slowly drifting back behind each other, until about 300 metres behind each other. Or they may again join together on downwind, and stay together until their Base Turn point, when they individually roll onto Base Leg, again separated by about 4 seconds each.
Formation initial and pitch (high speed run in and break turn)
Another Method of joining the circuit is the more dynamic “Run in and Break”, which is also called “Initials and Pitch” by the military. It was designed to allow fighter jets to come in nice and fast (because flying slowly allows no manoeuvrability and also places them at risk from ground fire) via the Initials Point – an obvious ground feature about five miles from the threshold. Flying their formation through ‘Initials’ at around 250-300 kts, at 1000-1500 AGL, the Leader would aim slightly for the dead side of the active runway, and he would place the wingmen on the side away from the circuit.
So if it was a left hand circuit direction, the wingman would position on the right side of the leader. The leader may then descend for more speed, or to simply see downwind traffic easier as they are all skylighted above him. As the formation passes the threshold, the leader then scans the downwind leg for traffic, and looks for a safe gap big enough to fly into for him, and his wingmen, before positively banking for a steep 180 degree turn onto downwind, going to idle and deploying airbrakes and pulling G in order to reduce speed.
Their radio call would consist of an oxygen mask Darth Vader tin-can style “Viper, on the Pitch, Runway 17, fullstop”. Each wingman would wait a pre-briefed timing (generally about 3 seconds) before following the leader in turn, so that eventually they would all be on downwind at circuit speed, lowering their undercarriage and conducting their pre-landing checks, to land in a nice stream.
How does the formation that is flying impact my flight?
Whilst the last paragraph sounds action packed and technical and has a million things going on for all of the pilots in that formation, the bottom line is that it’s merely a single element flying ‘upwind’ on the dead side of the runway, and that the leader waits for an opportune time to turn onto downwind. He is responsible for separation. If there is no gap, she will wait, fly further upwind, or even head back to Initials for another attempt – or perhaps try something else.
The same thing applies to the somewhat slower group of RV aircraft. They may also join via Initials, but for simplicity will often say on the radio something like “Formation positioning via upwind Runway 17”, and then the leader will fly at about 140-150kts to get themselves and their wingmen there safely, before pitching onto Downwind leg. Please don’t feel obliged that you must avoid the airspace – you wouldn’t if it was simply a single Vans Aircraft. Merely separate via altitude or ground track, unless you have right of way. Besides, a formation is much easier to see.
No formation pilots want nor expect fellow pilots to go out of their way and spend more money flying than they have to. Whilst a little courtesy is nice (like offering to extend upwind to help them have a gap), it’s really no bother for the formation to also give way to you – as per normal rules of the air.
I hope that this may remove some uncertainties that pilots might have about formations in the circuit. By all means, go and talk to any of the formation pilots about how they conduct business, and if you wish to learn more, check out our guide on formation flying. They are always keen to pass on their techniques.