|Back to Basics: Formation Flying
The wealth of information that is posted on this web site amazes me. There's great articles on ACM, BFM, MUD-MOVIN', COMM handling, you name it. But what prompted me to jump into print was the absence of one of the best aspects to flying - online or not. Formation flying. So here's my stab at it.
I'm sure there's hoards of real pilots and military Sierra Hotel fighter jocks out there that could probably attest to the fact that they are potty trained on formation skills long before they go into advanced topics such as dog fighting. To this end, I am devoting this little article as the prerequisite to these other excellent articles. Daddy always told me you have to walk before you can run.
I do a fair share of my simulation flying hobby online. This includes chat and now voice communications with other people with my same love for sims. When I go online I ask who's interested in flying formation as often as I challenge them to mortal combat.
The question that I get asked so often is: "How did you get so experienced at dog fighting?" My reply usually surprises them. I say simply that I fly formation - a lot!
When I dragged my brothers into this hobby, they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. So I would always take them back to the basics. Formation flying. After lots of patience, when they learn to play follow the leader, through turns and loops, then and only then can they begin to be ready for ACM (especially guns only). This method has always been very successful for my students, while also being fun for me as well.
The basic cell of formation flight is the element or flight leader and his/her wingie. Formation flying, once perfected, can then be used as the cell that makes up the whole body. This flying body is then composed of bigger entities: elements, flights, packages, squadrons on up.
Large formations project power, and by themselves can inflict that necessary psychological advantage which can make the difference in attacking or bugging out. So you can see how fundamentally important it is for the fighter pilot to become proficient at form flying from the big picture perspective.
Not only does the number of planes matter to formations, but also the geometry. Form implies function works here also. Trail or stack formations conceal a flight's true size, a basic form of stealth by geometry. Finger4, Vic, Echelon and Wedge formations provide added situational awareness and protection. WW2 bomber box formations serve as defensive lines of fire power against more agile aggressors. Again, being able to fly effective formation is critical to survival.
Other than for reasons concerning aerial combat, formation skills are useful in other aspects of flying. Getting to and from the battle, refueling, and air show precision flying are also dependent upon honing these skills. If you think you're a great flier, get Jane's F15E or EF2000 or TAW or Falcon4, set all the options to max hardness and try your hand at refueling. There is as much concentration required to refuel as there is to dog fighting.
Precision flying is a challenge in itself. Only the very best pilots become Thunderbirds or Blue Angels. Try take offs, flying steer points, and landing all while in a tight formation. Doing it while online is even a greater challenge due to the inherent warping that can make it even more difficult. I have found Su27 Flanker EAW, F15E, WW2F and EF2000 to be the very best sims online for this purpose.
In fact, we Flanker fans did all this without the use of voice comms or text chat. We learned to do it with sign language, i.e. using moving surfaces like flaps and air brakes, countermeasures and good old fashioned wing wagging to communicate!
So you might say, "OK. I buy the concept that formation flying is something I want to develop. How do I get better at it?"
First I would recommend you practice off-line. Flying over internet or on a LAN complicates things for a beginner. What I do is join up with a flight of planes that fly level for a long time. This can be either an existing mission or one that you make with the mission editor.
If you can start off on the tarmac first, that is what I recommend. It's far easier to stay with a flight, or for them to stay with you, if you are tightly formed up from the beginning. It also adds to the realism factor.
For off-line play, this is why it is very important for game developers to include extensive wingie commands. If you're online with human wingies you can semaphore, text or voice chat to issue the commands during the flight.
Once you're in the air, form up as close as you dare or the connection quality will allow. While Su27 Flanker's graphics are old by today's standards, the flight model and feel of flight is at the top. Simplicity of the graphics also gives a near warpless formation experience because of the low bandwidth and cpu utilization.
The other factors that allow for stable form fight is the ability to use your cockpit avionics to keep track of the leader's speed, altitude and range. These are all excellent habits for dog fighting close in. If you over shoot in a dogfight you are dead. If you lose sight, you lose the fight.
If your sim has padlocking and virtual cockpit views use them. If not, using the Mark-1 eyeball method is effective as well. After getting really close, I like to fix my eye on the other plane. Find some reference point and keep that affixed spatially to some reference point on the HUD or cockpit.
Some simulations, like Falcon 4, have labels. Others include the other ship's flight data in the label system (like EAW and WW2 Fighters). This is a good learning mechanism, but I recommend getting away from that as soon as possible because it develops bad habits and detracts from the realism factor.
If you're the leader of a formation flight, it is imperative that you have a steady hand and communicate your changes before you make them. In time you will develop the skills to be able to scan your instruments and look out the window with ease and speed.
When it comes time to join the fight, a skilled pair of wingies are very hard to beat. There is synergy in a disciplined pair. Find someone to fly with regularly, if you can, and get your formation and dog fighting skills perfected. I have found that these are the fundamental skills that make dog fighting more successful, and flying with a partner in general is a joy.
Hope to fly with or against you soon. I can usually be found at the KALI Flight, Jane's JCN and MirC Flanker-O-Club chat rooms. Das Davanya.
Angel (aka Su27-Angie) Download Angies Falcon 4 Formation Mission here.
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Last Updated February 26th, 1999