Due to the positive response we received from the solo interview that I had with Caleb a couple months ago, we are creating another detailed glimpse inside the life of a student T-38 pilot just for you. Today’s topic: formation flying.
TKB: Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. Pretend that I have no idea what formation flying is. In other words, picture me, one year ago. What is formation flying?
CFB: There are two types of formation: close formation, which includes flying as close as three feet from the other plane, and tactical formation, in which planes fly approximately a mile apart. Close formation is used for flying short distances and through bad weather, allowing planes to navigate as a single unit, whereas tactical formation is used in combat situations, allowing multiple planes to attack a single target while simultaneously defending one another.
TKB: How do they even begin to teach you to fly three feet away from each other at 400 miles per hour?
CFB: Well you start out in the T-6, flying ten feet apart at 200 miles per hour.
TKB: Which is just a walk in the park?
CFB: Not exactly but you have a wider margin of error which allows inexperienced students to learn the basics. From there, the transition to the T-38 is relatively straight forward. The high speed and close range is more challenging but the basic principles remain unchanged.
TKB: So what sort of techniques or guidelines do they teach you to help you not crash the multi-million dollar airplanes into each other?
CFB: Well, they teach us visual references which show us how close we are to the other plane.
TKB: Such as: if you can see your wingman’s dimples you are too close?
CFB: You’re funny. The cue we use is looking straight down the front edge of the wingman’s wing and placing your head next to their tail. [Caleb would like to note that these are laymen’s terms. The technical terms are “leading edge” of the wing and “horizontal stabilizer”, or “elevator” where the editor thought the audience would relate better to “front” and “tail”]
TKB: Do you ever find yourself slowly gravitating towards the other plane and then over-correcting into a cloud? You know, how sometimes when one is driving a car and looks at something and then drift towards it?
CFB: You’re never truly in the exact correct position, and if you get there, moments later it will change because of the dynamic nature of flight.
TKB: Interesting. Now, all the flips and loops and rolls that you talked about last time: do you do those in formation?
CFB: We generally don’t do loops in formation, but we do fly barrel rolls and lazy eights. This is especially exciting when flying a formation solo, which means you’re alone and your instructor is flying as your wingman. Generally, there’s a student and an instructor in each plane.
TKB: Now, I know you talk about formation take-offs and landings. What is that like? Do you take off and land side-by-side?
CFB: Yes, and that can the most challenging part of the flight, especially if it’s windy. We have to coordinate gear and flap positions and changes in air speed in addition to the general challenge of fingertip formation. To aid this process, we use hand signals, such as pointing our thumbs down over our shoulders to indicate we’re about to put the gear down. Hand signals can be simpler than using the radio, and in combat you wouldn’t want to tip the enemy off to your presence or plans by making radio calls.
TKB: Wow, that’s impressive. And intense. Let’s not talk about combat.
Here’s a video of a T-38 two-ship formation take off. This is not a video of Caleb, but it could be! Feel free to skip ahead to about 0:45.
Stay tuned: in six weeks and six days we will know what our next assignment will be!