Formation Flying


  • Formation flight is a very challenging and rewarding aspect of flight, typically associated with the military, used to expedite aircraft departures and recoveries when operating in large numbers or adverse weather
  • Formation flying shall only be conducted after a thorough pre-flight brief that is conducted by the formation leader
  • With that, keep in mind, military pilots go through a syllabus dedicated for formation flight with incremental steps, a 10 minute brief does not make up for this

Formation Flight Defined:

  • Formation flight is when more than one aircraft which, by prior arrangement between the pilots, operate as a single aircraft with regard to navigation and position reporting
  • Separation between aircraft within the formation is the responsibility of the flight leader and the pilots of the other aircraft in the flight
    • This includes transition periods when aircraft within the formation are maneuvering to attain separation from each other to effect individual control and during join-up and breakaway
  • Standard Formations:

    • A standard formation is one in which a proximity of no more than 1 mile laterally or longitudinally and within 100 feet vertically from the flight leader is maintained by each wingman
  • Nonstandard Formations:

    • Nonstandard formations are those operating under any of the following conditions:
      1. When the flight leader has requested and ATC has approved other than standard formation dimensions
      2. When operating within an authorized altitude reservation (ALTRV) or under the provisions of a letter of agreement
      3. When the operations are conducted in airspace specifically designed for a special activity
  • Rules to live by:
    • The higher numbers in the formation must avoid all lower numbers:
      • -4 must avoid -3, -2 and Lead;
      • -3 must avoid -2 and Lead;
      • -2 must avoid Lead
    • Commonly referred to as "4 avoids 3 avoids 2 avoids 1"
    • One exception is if -3 has the Tac Lead in a division
    • Collision avoidance is reference the position you're flying, not necessarily your formation number
  • Radios:
    • Comm 1 (pri) is for ATC and GCI/AIC frequencies
    • Comm 2 (aux/tac) is for intra-formation calls
  • Always de-conflict prior to transiting anyone's altitude


  • The formation leader shall execute one flight plan for the entire formation and shall:
    • Sign the flight plan form as PIC
    • Ensure that all pilots are briefed on en-route weather and navigational aids
    • Ensure that each pilot holds a valid instrument rating, if any portion of flight is to be conducted under IMC
    • Ensure that a flight leader formation brief is conducted to include, but not to be limited to:
      • Loss of sight
      • Lost communication
      • Inadvertent IMC
      • Emergency procedures
    • Ensure that necessary maps, charts, and publications are in the possession of each pilot
    • Ensure that formation integrity is maintained in flight

Joining Formations:

  • Unless specifically ordered, a single aircraft shall not join a formation in the air
    • One formation shall not join another formation
    • The order for joining formation in the air shall be given prior to takeoff of the aircraft concerned or by radio, and the leader of the formation to be joined shall be informed that the order has been given
    • Exceptions to this paragraph may be made when the leader of a formation signals another aircraft to join the formation
  • When about to join a formation, the pilot of a single aircraft or leader of other formations shall approach their formation position from a safe altitude and from the side
    • They shall not take their final position until their presence has been acknowledged by the leader of the formation to be joined
  • Whenever a lead change is required in a formation of two or more aircraft, it will be accomplished in an unambiguous manner
    • Pilots shall ensure that both aircraft exchanging the lead are aware of the change through positive acknowledgment by visual signals or voice transmissions
  • Standard section formation is parade on initial join-up and in IMC
    • ATC Spread (within 1 NM and ± 100') should be used if VMC en route
  • Standard division formation is fingertip on initial join-up and in IMC
    • Fluid four (all aircraft within 1 NM and ± 100') should be used if VMC en route
  • Using an A/A TACAN each 0.1 is 600'

Dissimilar Formation Flight:

  • Pilots involved should perform a preflight brief delineating all aspects of the pending formation flight
  • Items to be briefed, in addition to those identified above, shall include items peculiar to either aircraft community (e.g., limitations/capabilities/hazards affecting the flight/rendezvous/join-up/separation)

Unplanned Formation Flight:

  • In the event unscheduled formation flight becomes necessary, every attempt shall be made by the aircrew involved to conduct a sufficient in-flight brief prior to join up


  • Altitude blocks, if allowed, are the safest option
  • Typically wing will have the higher block (1-4 and 5-9)


  • During both cruise and parade, you must be in a position to see hand and arm signals - if unable due to maneuvering, assume that position as soon as practical


  • You own the formation lights in front of you
  • The cue for maintaining bearing line at night is to have lead slightly aft of the day cue, because of the reduced overtake
  • DDI HUD display should be closest to lead for a shorter scan
  • 25 knots maximum excessive speed
  • All turns are IMC
  • "lights" or "go midnight" can be used to determine if you found leads jet


  • Most of this page is written for military, however, all can be applied to civil formation flying