Formation Flying

In the beginning . . .

Ever watched a formation aerobatics display at an air show and wondered why air forces are so keen on formation flying? The shows put on by the Red Arrows, Blue Angels et al are pretty, but they ain't war. And of course you online aces know that formation flying is difficult, so why bother with it? OK, here's why.

In the early days of military aviation the aeroplanes in use had light wing loadings. They dipped and bobbed and wobbled as they felt the effects of every gust of wind and thermal, so any idea of flying them in tight formation would have been considered as madness if those bold first aviators had even thought of the idea. As it was, they were employed to reconnoitre for the army or navy so each aircraft operated alone or, exceptionally, as one component of a pair flying a good, safe distance apart (often losing sight of each other and continuing as singletons, as happened on the very first RFC recce mission of the Great War, and many times afterwards).

It didn't stay that way for long. Aircraft grew heavier and faster, less affected by bumpy air. At the same time, the RFC's two-seaters increasingly found themselves being shot at from behind by German single-seat Fokker monoplanes armed with a forward-firing machine gun. They couldn't reply because the Poor Bloody Observer (PBO) of the RFC's standard BE2c was in the front seat and usually unable to bring any gun he might have at his disposal to bear without first shooting away essential bits of his own aeroplane - so all too often goodbye, dead BE2c. The FE2b 'pusher' that was assigned to escort the BEs was hardly any better off, its PBO having a clear field of fire ahead for his Lewis gun but no shot behind except over the top wing. The sound military concept of 'concentration of force' ('getting there firstest with the mostest') began to assert itself on both sides: the Fokkers started to fly in loose pairs, the FEs grouped together and flew a 'defensive circle' to enable each gunner to cover the blind spot of the one in front to counter them.

And in 1916, it got worse. Hauptmann Oswald Boelcke formed the first 'Jagdstaffel' (Jasta), a group of eight fighters that flew together to counter the RFC's formations. The RFC's new DH2 and Nieuport single-seat fighters found themselves out-numbered, so they began to fly patrols of pairs or fours. The Fokkers were replaced by Albatros biplanes, each armed with two belt-fed guns that out-classed the single Lewis available to the opposition, and the Germans gained a degree of air superiority that prevailed until 'Bloody April', 1917, when the RFC lost a third of its combat airmen killed or missing. In that same month, the RFC put into service an aircraft that was to become the bane of the Imperial German Air Service: the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5, first active with 56 Squadron RFC. The 150hp SE5 was superseded by the 200hp+ SE5a, the mount of many of the RFC's greatest aces, including Edward 'Mick' Mannock, the greatest of them all.

But not every fighter pilot was an 'ace'. The original Jastas had been formed with hand-picked pilots, an 'elite' that left the other German flying units with aircrew whose morale suffered by feeling 'second-best'. In contrast, the typical RFC and RNAS squadron was always manned by pilots of varying abilities as a matter of policy, with every man encouraged to improve himself as much as possible.The SE5a was much easier to fly than the famous Sopwith Camel, but less manoeuvrable; in a dogfight, easily out-turned by the Fokker Triplane. However, it was a strong, fast aeroplane and a steady gun-platform, more suitable for the average pilot, who enjoyed a far higher percentage of hits than managed by the Camel-jockeys - if he could get his sights on target.

The 'Vic' Formation.

To gain the maximum benefit from such pilots and aircraft, commander of 84 Squadron RFC Major Sholto Douglas devised a tactic that ensured that the best shot in each Flight led the attack, while two pilots backed him up - the three-plane 'Vic' formation (an abbreviation of the phonetic 'Victor'), in which the two wingmen flew in echelon behind and to left and right of the leader. Each trio of SE5as flew the tightest possible formation compatible with safety and within clear sight of the hand signals of the leader, who alone was responsible for searching the sky and locating the enemy. At his indication, the formation dived together to attack. If the target was a single aircraft he was in real trouble, and any formation attacked would be broken up and become vulnerable to the other Flights. The vic then either carried on diving or zoomed back up ready to attack again. Douglas knew that it would be 'every man for himself' if his vics broke up to dogfight as singletons, so he issued standing orders that any pilot who left the vic for any other reason than engine failure would be immediately transferred back to Depot as 'unsatisfactory'. An added bonus was that should one or both of the leader's guns fail to fire (a common occurrence in WW1), one of the two wingmen was ready to fire instead. The tactic worked, 84 Squadron was credited with nearly 100 aerial victories and lost less men than any other fighter squadron on the Western Front - and Douglas enjoyed a subsequent career that ended with the rank and title of Marshall of the RAF Lord Douglas of Kirtleside.

He nearly got a court-martial instead. The vic was effective in concentrating firepower and presenting an unwary enemy with an awkward target, but the wingmen had to keep their eyes on the leader and were unaware of anything else around them. If the leader got it wrong, all three pilots were in danger. Proud of their new formation-flying skills, 84 Squadron pilots took to taking off and landing in vics as well as flying them, and one day the inevitable happened. Douglas led part of the squadron over to another RFC airfield, landed on an area that was boggy after heavy rain - and all six aircraft ended up on their noses, still in formation. Howls of laughter all round, once it was discovered that none of the pilots were injured, but the fundamental weakness of the vic formation had been exposed.

The vic looked very pretty to the military-minded. It was also a good way of keeping aircraft grouped together in the air and became the standard RAF formation for both fighters and bombers. When the RAF re-equipped with eight-gun fighters in the late 1930s, the vic was retained because it was quickly and easily re-arranged into line-ahead, line abreast or echelon right/left, the formations regarded by the peace-time theorists as most effective to hit the new fast enemy bombers in the two seconds each fighter was expected to be able to fire before breaking off the attack: 'Fighter Attacks One, Two, Three, Four'. The fact that two-thirds of the RAF's pilots were unable to scan their surroundings for enemy fighters cost them dearly in the early days of WW2. The fighter squadrons began to deploy 'weavers', one or two fighters placed above and behind the man body to watch out for danger, a generally unsatisfactory arrangement that often prevented surprise but even more often cost the life of the unfortunate 'weaver'.

The vic formation been retained to this day as the basic aerobatic formation flown to teach RAF pilots confidence and precise control and positioning of their aircraft. That's why you should bother to learn to fly formation, folks - it's the best way to hone your positioning skills and learn your control limitations. My Microsoft Sidewinder is a sloppy ol' twisty-rudder joystick which replicates very well the lightly-loaded biplanes that I used to enjoy flying in Dawn of Aces and other WW1 sims. Its downside is that it's not so good at the more precise control needed for accurate flying and gunnery in the faster WW2 fighters of Aces High or Warbirds. I've flown 'hi-jacked' in the cockpit of Dhyran of the Parrots, whose set-up enables him to fly with an awesome accuracy that I'll never attain (he's also a very good tactician, with superb SA, but that's another matter), so I know that some of you may have the means to fly as well as he does - but you won't find out until you push the formation-flying envelope. It looks nice too, and impresses the uninitiated wonderfully.

The Rotte, Schwarme and 'Finger Four'.

Banned in 1919 under the terms of the Treaty Of Versailles, German military aviation had to start again from scratch. The Luftwaffe emerged from its secret origins into the light of day in 1935. Not bound to the past, its fighter pilots devised new combat formations, the most important of which remains the basis of all fighter aviation to this day: the rotte (pair). Two aircraft flew line-abreast or with the leader just in front, each pilot scanning the sky all around his neighbour. The distance between the pair was dictated by the mission and its circumstances, from very close 'wingtip-to-wingtip' to concentrate gunfire, to a typical 100-200 metres on general patrol, to 400-600 metres when 'sandwiching' an aggressor between them in a combat turn. The tactic was perfected by Legion Kondor pilots flying Heinkel 51s and early-model Bf109s during the Spanish Civil War. Luftwaffe fighters' potential was increased even further by combining two rotten into a schwarme. Republican Spanish Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 fighters suffered high losses at the hands of the new flexible formations, as did the Armee de l'Air and RAF during the fighting that ended with the defeat of France.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The dangers inherent in the vic were recognised by not a few RAF fighter pilots by early 1940, but Training Command continued to teach the old 'Fighting Attacks' and most squadrons' Flights flew in vics until the end of October; there was simply no time to formally re-train Squadron Leaders in the heat of a battle where the nation was fighting for its very existence. Instead, individual commanders who had to get the best from inexperienced pilots began to copy the Luftwaffe, first flying 'one-on-one' sorties with the 'new boys', then pairing each with a more experienced man for more training, finally combining the pairs into a 'finger four' Flight.

What's a 'finger four'? Place your right hand flat on a table, fingers together. Ignore your thumb. Imagine a fighter aircraft positioned at the middle of the tip of each finger. Call the four Red Flight. Red One, the Flight Leader (who is also the first pair commander) is the fighter at the tip of your longest finger. His wingman, Red Two, is at the tip of the first finger, behind and to the left. Red Three (who is also the commander of the second pair) is at the tip of your third finger, to the right and just behind Red One. Red Four is the fighter at the tip of your little finger, to the right and behind Red Three.

From the basic finger four formation, it's easy to switch to line-abreast; if the four is flying close together in Spitfires or Hurricanes Mk.I, there's then thirty two 0.303" Brownings blasting a fire zone in front effectively 400 yards deep by 60-80 yards wide. At a cyclic firing rate of 1,000 rounds a minute, a two-second burst will fill that zone with over 1,050 bullets and anything in the way will be very sorry it was there.

The 'Thach Weave'.

In 1942, Lieutenant-Commander James 'Jimmy' Thach USN found himself leading the F4F fighter squadron of a Carrier Air Group. The wise man soon discovered that the Zero-Sen 'Zeke' was a formidable opponent and if his boys wanted to survive their tour of duty, they had to keep a good look-out to spot the enemy as soon as possible. The airplanes of the US Navy and Marines flew in vics, as did Yamamoto's fighters, and Thach sought to gain an edge by devising a new formation that eased the strain on his pilots' eyes and nerves.

He trained them to fly 'loose deuce' pairs line-abreast about 300-400 yards apart. Instead of looking out all around himself, each pilot only searched the skies around and beyond his wingman, which gave him a wide-angle view with fewer blind spots. At intervals of no more than five minutes, usually less, the pair commander signalled 'cross over' and they swapped positions in a S-turn, searching the lower sky and sea as they went. Now each was looking at the sky in the opposite direction to previously, easing neck muscles and avoiding the trance-like condition that often affected pilots patrolling vast areas of sky and ocean. The headings to be flown and any decision to engage the enemy was the responsibility of the pair commander. Two pairs could combine to form a Flight, when the Flight Commander called the shots and each pair covered the other. It worked - his squadron was never 'bounced' - and the tactic is still practised by US Navy pilots.

And that's enough on formation flying, you've now got all the knowledge about it that you need to become a useful flight sim fighter-jockey. Get online and put it into practice. Good hunting, all.