Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Formation Flying

When FlyGuy was learning how to fly the military way, I eventually came to that part of jet training called formation flying.  Formation flying is when you put two or more jets into the sky at the same time and you all fly very close to each other, like 3 feet wing tip to wing tip.  We all looked forward to this part of our training and studied hard before we ever flew any of it.  We would study all aspects of formation flying including what we looked at on the other airplane to stay in the correct position.  The lead airplane would fly all the maneuvers and we would stay in position on them the entire time.  Straight and level, high G turns, loops, upside down, whatever lead did, we did 3 feet away.  It was high pressure, intense, and scary as hell.  My first formation sortie was scheduled on a crisp spring morning.  I saw my name up on the schedule board and went to get my briefing from my instructor.  There at the table, smoking a cigarette was a Jordanian exchange pilot.  His name was major Fanatseh.  Exchange pilots are common throughout the military.  Our allies would send some of their pilots here and we would send some of ours there.  I had seen the major walking the halls of the squadron, smiling, and calling everything “bitchin” as that was a popular saying back then.  This was the first time I had spoken to him.  Major Fanatseh was friendly from the start.  He told me he was trained as a fighter pilot and had been flying for ten years, he had a family living with him here, and I reminded him of his cousin.  The major briefed me on our sortie and we proceeded out to the parachute shop to get our gear and walk out to the flight line.  At this point in my training operating the jet was no big deal.  We got the jet started and taxied out to meet our partner jet for takeoff.  The major took the controls and followed the lead jet onto the runway for takeoff.  There we were lined up on the runway slightly to the right and behind the lead jet.  We used hand signals to communicate with each other, that is how close we were.  We got the signal to run our engines up, then the signal to release our brakes.  We accelerated quickly, the major staying in position as though the two jets were welded together.  The nose of lead came up off the ground and so did ours.  Major Fanatseh magically matched every movement of our leader.  He raised the gear and flaps and accelerated to cruise speed in position.  I was waiting for him to explain to me what I should be looking at, etc.  The instructor pilots were very good at explaining things to you six different ways until you got it.  The major was silent, not uttering a single word.  I was trying to remember the tips and techniques from my training guide but there was a lot going on and we really depended on our instructors for the real hands on stuff.  Text books and pictures only get you so far.

I was sitting there concentrating on what he was doing when with no warning he let go of the controls and said, “Lieutenant, phhht, phhht, fly the jet”.  At that exact moment in time I felt my sphincter and bladder loosen, and my eyeballs bulging out of their sockets.
I grabbed the controls and instantly pitched us up 10 feet with the lead jet mostly disappearing, I over corrected and dropped 20 feet barely missing leads wingtip, now I was looking up at lead, completely under leads jet and desperately trying not to pitch up into them.  All of this is happening at 300 knots by the way.  I tried to move out from under lead and all I did was make his belly look bigger.  I pushed over so hard I banged my head against the canopy.  That really hurt as my neck was arched back looking straight up at them.  The negative Gs caused everything on the floor of the jet like dust, screws lost during maintenance, paper clips, and an old checklist to fly around the cockpit confusing me even more.  I was absolutely sure that in any moment we were all going to be falling flaming debris raining down on the flat plains of Texas.  I was looking at the rivets on the bottom of a jet and did not know how to fix that.  I tried to move out from under lead again and this time I did.  I ended up not 3 feet but about 300 feet away.  I started moving back and realized I was moving into lead too quickly.  What was a jet about the size of my hand was now as big as an SUV and getting bigger.  All of this I have described to you took place in less than 15 seconds, yeah it seemed like forever.  Just when I was sure all hope was lost I heard Fanatseh say, “I have the jet!” and I felt the controls grasped from my sweating and knotted hands.  As quick as you can snap your fingers the major had our jet in position and motionless against lead.  “How the f*c* does he do that?”   I thought.  No sooner than we were in position the major said to me, “Phhht Phhht, fly the jet” and he let go of the controls again.  I flailed just as badly the second time as I did the first; the only difference was that my sphincter tightened this time.  And what was up the “Phhht Phhht” thing?  Once again I thought my life was going end when the major said, “I have the jet!” and snapped back the controls, maneuvering us into the perfect position.  And so it went for about half an hour, the major would utter those same words that started out with Phhht Phhht, and I knew what was coming.  I asked him more than once to tell me what to do and all I was told was, “Fly the jet!”  Soon it was our turn to be lead and that was no big deal as the other guy was now flailing off of me. I was smiling behind my oxygen mask watching my fellow student pilot doing what I had been doing, trying to kill all of us.  The major was flying so all I had to do was watch.  I looked down at the instruments for a second, and when I looked up I saw the other jet was sideways to us and moving towards us, fast.  If I could have crapped I would have but my sphincter was slammed shut and welded closed, god in heaven this was the end for sure.  As quickly as these thoughts were filling my miserable mind, the jet stopped, leveled and dropped into position like a perfectly thrown pass into the end zone.  It was obvious who was flying that jet!  Major Fanatseh was laughing, he yelled at me, “You see, he is not flying the jet!”    As we left the area I felt like I had failed the ride completely and would never be able to fly formation, therefore never get my wings.

During the debrief which only lasted about 30 seconds, Major Fanatseh pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a long drag on it, blew the smoke out slowly, and said, “Ok, remember always to fly the jet.”  He then got up from the table, I stood and saluted him and he left.  I gathered up all the courage I could and walked to the door of my flight commander’s office.  I knocked on his door and I heard him say, “Enter.”  I walked up to his desk and as I did so I saw two other instructor pilots in the room as well.  I saluted my flight commander and said something like, “Sir, requesting to discuss my last training flight.”  He nodded his head and I said, “Sir, it is my belief that at the hands of major Fanatseh it is a 50-50 chance that I will survive another training flight with him, that my young bride would be devastated and my mother would hound the Air Force until she was laid to rest.  I knew it was risky doing what I was doing but it was my butt I was talking about.  There was silence for a few seconds, and then all three of them started laughing.  I don’t mean a giggle or a ha-ha, I mean on the floor holding their guts laughing, for a while.  FlyGuy was very confused.  After they stopped laughing and wiped the tears from their eyes, I was told that I had been set up to fly with the major.  “We had to send him out with somebody and we chose you because you’re a good stick”, my commander said.  Well that did make me feel a bit better but I still was not happy.  One of the instructors said, “Don’t worry lieutenant; you’ll get your training.”  They were right.  The next time I flew my instructor was one of the best.  He showed me all of the techniques I need to know, the stuff no book can show you.  By the end of the second sortie I was holding my own staying close enough to not kill us and not so far away that I was being badgered to move in closer.  A few lessons later and I was hanging in position while doing high G turns, breaking off and rejoining with lead moving into the right spot and coming to a stop.  I LOVED IT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Eventually I got my wings and my first flying job was as an instructor pilot, teaching the trainees everything I had learned the year before.  I was checked out at Randolph AFB in San Antonio (great city) Texas.  I instructed for three years.  Whenever it came to teaching formation flying for the first time to a student I would always do the same thing.  We would take off with me flying and talking the whole time.  I could see the students squirm and clench their fists as we were uncomfortably close for them as this was all new and scary.  We would get to our training area and when we were in position, I would simply say, “Phhht Phhht, fly the jet” and let go of the controls.  The reaction was the same every time as the panicked and frightened students grabbed the controls and tossed us all over the sky, sometimes screaming in panic.  I would take control after a few seconds trying desperately not to laugh.  I would put us back into position and say, “OK lets try it this way, look at the helmet of the instructor, notice it is aligned with the chevron on the fuselage, also the flap hinge is at the angle where the rotating beacon cannot be seen, if you keep these two references aligned you are horizontally in position, now let’s talk about the vertical……………………” and so it would go until the student got it right.  The end of the formation program was when you took your student out in a two ship flight, the student flying solo in one and me with another instructor or student in the other ship.  Wow, were those some interesting flights!  Those student pilots including me came back from those flights with a higher level of confidence than any other part of the program would give them.  Young and inexperienced but they all had a taste of knowing what it was like to have the right stuff.  Be Safe, FlyGuy.


Blogger Dave Thurston said...

Keep them coming, they are all quite good. Thanks for taking the time to write them down.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awsome post. You are a true legend.


7:53 AM  
Blogger 61TASC130FE said...

I love reading your stories. I can recall watching T-38's while in bootcamp wishing I were there instead of standing in formation. As Dave said - keep them coming...

--- Jeff

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Great stuff, love reading everything here.

What kind of plane were you flying?

I'm not the best passenger as I love jets but hate not knowing what's going on in the cockpit, so reading your column helps cool my nerves that pilots do have all the right skills.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try this for laughs! The next time you are setting at the gate with a passanger standing in ear shot, on the jetway, waiting to board, slide your window open and yell down to the ground crew "Hey! Do you have a roll of duct tape handy"?

3:46 PM  
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4:41 PM  
Blogger Meggeroo said...

I love it! Great story...

11:34 AM  
Blogger fanatseh said...

hello,i am major fanatseh 25 years ago, by the way i'm still in the service,your article dragged me back to the good days i spent at rees AFB,tx. you are lucky there's no formation flying in air lines flying. i remember everyone who flew with me in the states or else where and a lot are still in contact , i appreciate your comments..wishing you good luck.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, just found your blog today, 10/23/08, and spent much of the afternoon smiling, chuckling, and sometimes outright laughing.

I am a Naval Aviator who earned his wings in 1978 at Chase Field in Beeville, TX.

I was an excellent flight student with very high grades. However, once we started formation training in basic jet training, my grades quickly went downhill. Like you, I didn't get the big picture. I was "squeezing the black out of the stick," and "killing snakes in the cockpit."

My flight instructor - God rest his soul - told me during the pre-flight brief before my check ride prior to flying a solo formation training hop, that unless I made extraordinary progress, I would get a down on the check ride, and have to go for some remedial flights. Getting a down on a check ride a cause for great embarrassment and resulted in major teasing from one's fellow flight students.

Somehow, (divine intervention?) during the check ride it all came together. Formation flying was easy, as smooth as silk.

Great blog, please keep it up.

9:24 PM  

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