Formation flying – is it easy and what is the training like?

So you’ve seen the movies, the hero pilot flies his aircraft really close to another aircraft, in order to wake up the sleeping pilot by tapping his wings with his own wings. Sleeping Beauty wakes up in a startled manner, everyone has a laugh, and they all fly off into the sunset to fly again another day.  Now I’m not condoning any form of aircraft touching each other, but the art of formation flying is all about safely flying two or more aircraft in close proximity, with responsibilities given to each team member.   

Where does formation flying come from?

You don’t have to think too hard to realize that we humans didn’t come up with formation flight. Look at the birds flying south in their big V formation – the bird in the front is busy with navigation, lookout, filing flight plans… (yes I know, he doesn’t have a radio – listen I don’t know much about our feathered friends as I’m not Sir David Attenborough). All the other birds have just one job – to stay in formation. 

Actually, as I write this, to ‘stay in formation’ could easily be broken down into a few more tasks. Don’t fly into any other birds, stay visual with the bird it’s flying on, and to sqwark/screech/honk if an emergency happens.  

Formation flying
Birds migrating in formation – be like a bird when you’re flying in formation

That bird formation flight is just like full-sized grown up airplane formation flying. The leader takes full responsibility for everyone else, whilst the other aircraft hang on and generally only speak up if there is a major issue.

Is formation flying easy?

Formation flying looks so easy, and after watching our hero in the movies, or maybe dribbling during the sick Van Halen backed youtube video of the Blue Angels, you may be inspired to do some formation flying with your buddies. Think of the amazing clips you can post on social media of your effortless flying prowess that your buddy will catch on your iPhone. Think of the incredible footage of the resulting impact and fireball that the news story uses after they recover your telephone from the scattered wreckage. Wait – what? 

Yes, formation flying is incredible, it’s beautiful, it’s fun, and it’s my preferred medium of conducting photography. It’s also safe when conducted by experienced professionals in a planned, briefed and organized manner.  But try your luck and just give it a go, and you’ll suddenly realize that it is an incredibly dangerous activity to ‘just wing it’ with your buddies. Even the most experienced professionals still get into trouble during formation flying, so don’t think you can do it without any training. This takes me on to probably the most important part of this article…

Licensing requirements for formation flying

Formation Flying

In most countries, formation flying is an actual rating that pilots must learn through an approved syllabus, and be taught by specialist rated instructors. You must also brief every planned formation so that all members are ‘on the same page’ and fully aware of how to conduct the flight.

An important ‘must-have’ is the post-flight debrief, where techniques, errors and other corrections must be raised in order to be even safer for the next flight. Regardless, (and I cannot advise you seriously enough) if you don’t require such a rating in your own country, do not be tempted to just give it a go and try formation flight – please get some formal training from an instructor highly experienced in this type of flying.  

I know that it looks very easy – those videos show the other aircraft remaining stationary whilst the pilots make tiny incoherent control correction, as they smoothly transition during climbs, turns and dives – and even loops.  But high diving off cliffs looks just as graceful, but I wouldn’t even expect an Olympic swimmer to be successful at that equally demanding task without training. 

In case you were wondering – yes you should definitely wear a flying helmet. Formation flying, particularly during training, is one of the easiest events to sustain a head injury during flying.

My soapbox has just about fallen apart, so I’ll step off now that I’ve had my safety rant, and will concentrate on the better stuff… 

Learning to fly in formation – the right way

Formation is about the best fun you can have with your clothes on, and it’s so satisfying to return after a sortie and realize that everyone in the team is safe, happy and just as joyous as you are. It’s a team sport, and you are with other pilots that trust you with their lives. Literally with their lives, because you are all following Standard Operating Procedures and exercising trust and leadership in order to fly safely. 

Watching the leader wobble up and down continuously whilst in straight and level flight seems funny until you eventually realize that the lead is actually flying straight and level, and that you yourself are the one that’s wobbling up and down, inducing motion sickness in your instructor.

Hopefully, by the end of your first lesson you can dampen the oscillations, not just in the vertical, but also in yaw, roll, and the fore and aft axes. It can feel an impossible task (a bit like learning to hover a helicopter), but eventually, some pilots get it. Don’t worry, the beginning of your second flight will see the dreaded oscillations return, but your instructor will calm you down so that the leader is motionless.

Then the leader will start climbing, or descending, or turning, or accelerating, or begin changing frequency and asking you to change position, and that means you’ll have to damp out new oscillations, think ahead, anticipate control movements, change power settings, or even say your callsign on the radio. Chances are the radio callsign will be a simple “Two!” response, but your overwhelmed brain might find that difficult.

There is an often-heard airforce ditty ending with the secret to formation flying being “…just grit your teeth and stay there”. You will constantly be reminded that determination is often the most valued asset of being a successful wingman. 

formation flight
They look like they’re not breaking a sweat, but trust me – even the pros need a LOT of practice to get formation flight right

Essential Skills to get your formation rating

The truth is, staying in formation isn’t all that hard. Elevator, throttle, trim, transmit, and all the other things you used to do to control the airplane – still works just as advertised. It won’t take long to learn the coordination in order to stay in position.

The harder component is learning how to safely get into position (join the formation), and when and how to safely exit the formation. Consequently, you will also learn how to take off as a pair, or how to take off with a few seconds separation (called a stream takeoff), how to swap formation positions, swap lead if tasked, learn how to break away in a safe manner, how to rejoin, and even how to land together. 

Of course, you’ll also have your share of being the leader, because there is more to it than simply flying out to the training area and back – you have to consider the wingmen, fly well inside the performance envelope, consider the experience limitations, handle emergencies, and maneuver much slower than usual. All of that takes practice, and you will get your fair share during a formation training package. 

How long does it take to get your formation flight rating?

It all depends on your skills, the quality of instruction, and the standard that your instructor is happy to accept. Remember not everyone takes 15 hours for their first solo, so nobody can say with certainty how long your training will take. 

Personally I wouldn’t be happy seeing anyone qualify before eight relatively consecutive lessons – but my military background means that I have more of an extensive syllabus than many others. I also don’t want my students being overconfident and swapping paint with their buddies on their very next solo flight. 

You’ll eventually be cleared to be a qualified formation pilot, and I promise that your learning doesn’t stop there. It’s a perishable skill that you will want to practice often, and you will learn to anticipate events better each flight, and you will find it easier operating in your performance envelope.

Later will come steep turns, and you might even decide to venture into formation aerobatics – again only with an experienced instructor. You might not be in the same league as the Blue Angels, but you can certainly play the same game and have just as much fun, whilst improving your flying skills, gaining admiration from your peers, and having a new reason to go flying next weekend. 

How to deal with formation flying traffic

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.

“Viper Check”

“Viper 2”



“Tinseltown Traffic, Viper, formation of four RV’s is 6 miles south at 2000ft, tracking for downwind runway 17.”

formation flying


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.

Do you have any experience with formation flying? How many pilots do you fly with? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

You might also be interested in our articles on:

Is Becoming A Pilot Worth The Cost?

Roger Dodger Flight Simulator Review

Landing Pattern – Learning To Fly The Aircraft Landing Pattern

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Flying Instructor


Michael Jorgensen is a specialist formation instructor and Australia's premier air to air formation action photographer, based in Sydney, Australia. Jorgo has a wealth of experience, stemming from his career as a military fast jet pilot, and heavy air-to-air refuelling tanker pilot flying for both the New Zealand and British Air Forces. Find out more

Jorgo has 23 posts and counting. See all posts by Jorgo

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