Tips for online
Tactical Formation Flying
Feature by Andy
This article is intended to amplify
the material in the fourth article in the "Boom
and Zoom (BnZ)" series as well as the article "Brevity
Code" in SimHQs
Air Combat Corner. Please read these articles before you
begin this one. Much of the material in these articles bear
directly on this new article, and I do not want to duplicate
The purpose of this article is to
provide additional info that can help online simmers effectively
fight in a multi-plane environment. A recent SimHQ forum question
revealed that more tips and techniques were needed in this
area...so here goes!!
Heres the problem. You and your
buddy are hooking up for some online action...but you are
not too sure how to effectively fly and communicate. You do
OK in a 1v1, but when it comes to maneuvering as a two-ship
or more, you feel at a loss. A number of questions come to
mind as you get ready for your next mission...here they are:
First of all, what formation do we
fly in? Is there a "one size fits all" answer...or
should we tailor the formation to meet specific needs?
Choosing a formation is nice...but
how do we fly the sim in order to remain in position? What
are the simulation limitations that we have to deal with?
NOTE: this article was written
with WW2 era sims in mind. The suggested formation spacing
numbers are for this era. If you want to apply these techniques
to jet age sims, I suggest you multiply the recommended numbers
by a factor of six...for example, if the suggested WW2 line
abreast spacing is 1000 feet, use 6000 feet when flying a
Staying in position is obviously important...but
so is looking out for the enemy. What tips and techniques
are there to help us improve our situational awareness (SA)?
Once we learn how to determine our
formation position, how do we maneuver? What techniques can
the leader use to help keep the wingman in the proper position?
Staying in position is only half the
battle. We must also be able to communicate between ourselves.
What communication aids and techniques are available to help
Lastly, what are some of the basic
offensive and defensive maneuvers that we can use to successfully
meet the enemy?
OK...lets get to the meat of
this subject...well begin with what kind of formation
you might want to choose. But before I go any further, let
me throw in a disclaimer. Im going to talk in general
terms for our sim audience. Not everything I suggest may meet
the "real world" rules of todays air combat
environment...not to worry. Were not flying for real.
Were flying for fun. Thats what I want to address...your
Well begin by saying that there
are two basic formation types...one where the wingman/element
is line abreast...and one where the wingman/element is angled
back. Lets define that. Line abreast means that the wingman/element
is on the leaders 3/9 line. Lets call this "Line".
Is the "3/9 line" absolute? No...the wingman/element
might be forward of the 3/9 line slightly (about 15 degrees
max), and be allowed to fall behind the 3/9 line to about
20 degrees...but the wingman/element should strive for the
3/9 line as much as possible. Note: in this article. I use
the term "wingman" to mean the #2 position...and
the term "element" to mean the #3 and #4 positions
The other option is having the wingman/element
angled back from the leader by some number of degrees. Well
call this "Wedge". How far back? 30-60 degrees,
with 45 degrees as being the typical position.
We can make some generalizations about
these two formations. Line is best suited for minimum maneuvering
situations, and, in Line, defensive lookout is maximized.
Wedge is a more maneuverable formation but sacrifices lookout
for this maneuverability. Think of Line as a "patrol"
type of formation with good offensive and defensive lookout...and
Wedge as essentially an "ingress" formation that
is optimized for maneuverability when lookout is a secondary
Wedge is more of a "follow me"
type of formation from the leaders perspective...the
lead is free to maneuver...the wingmans contract is
to maneuver behind the leader without the leader having to
signal his turns. In Line formation, the leader has more of
a responsibility to signal his intent to turn to the wingman/element...well
discuss this in more detail later.
Wedge formation is also thought of
as a formation best suited for low altitude flying while Line
is better suited for higher altitudes. Ill make the
assumption that online flying is oriented towards the higher
altitudes...therefore Ill make Line as the formation
of choice for this article...well sacrifice a little
maneuverability for better offensive and defensive lookout.
All right...weve settled on
Line as being the formation of choice. The obvious next question
is how far do we separate the flight members. What ever feels
right? Not hardly! The spacing in Line is actually an important
consideration. There are two primary factors in determining
this spacing...turn radius at the given altitude and cruise
airspeed...and maximum range of the enemys weapon, in
this case, the gun. Lets take them one at a time.
Turn Radius. Turn radius is important because it affects how quickly a
flight member can bring his nose to bear on an enemy that
is attacking the other flight member. For the purpose of this
discussion, Ill assume that the defender is going to
turn away from his supporting flight member, and Ill
assume that the attacker is going to follow the defender.
The supporting flight member will
want to turn into the attacker and attempt to "sandwich"
him. For this sandwich to work, two things must occur. The
supporting flight member must remain close enough to the attacker
to be able to shoot him, and the supporting flight member
must be able to bring his gun to bear in minimum time...any
time spent in excess maneuvering on the part of the supporting
flight member may result in the defender getting killed!
The supporting flight member will
have to turn at least 90 degrees before he can hope to get
a shot at the attacker. Assuming relatively equal turn performance,
when the supporting flight member completes this 90 degree
turn, his distance behind the defender will be approximately
equal to his initial Line spacing.
The expectation is that the attacker
is somewhere in between the defender and the supporting flight
member...but where? This is the key point. If the initial
line spacing is too close, then the supporting flight member
may roll out too close to the attacker to get a stabilized
shot,...and if the spacing was too great, then the supporting
flight member will roll out too far back from the attacker
to be an immediate threat.
Just for the heck of it, lets
say that the typical turn radius is about 500. This
then defines our minimum Line spacing...500. But that
will be a no-kidding minimum...it might be better to open
the spacing up a little to accommodate the sandwich. In this
case, we could widen the spacing to about 2000 max.
In this manner, the supporting flight member would end up
with a sandwich range of 1000 +/- 500.
Maximum Gun Range
What effect does gun range have on
formation spacing? Well, for one thing, we are talking about
the enemy gun range, not yours. The real issue is not gun
range though...its really lookout. Specifically lookback
angle. In real life, most pilots could comfortably look
back to about 30 degrees off their tail. In our sims, the
typical rear quarter snap view does the same.
I cover this concept in detail in
the BnZ article, so let me abbreviate this discussion and
just state that lookback angle and Line spacing determine
how far back an attacker can be seen. You want that distance
to be greater than the attackers maximum weapon range.
If we assume that max gun range is about 2000, then
the spacing has to be about 1150 to allow the attacker
to be seen before closing inside the 2000 max range.
If the Line spacing was less than 1000, then the attacker
could nominally get into gun range before being seen...so
1000 seems a good, average number.
If we now go back to our turn radius
example and use 1000 as the spacing, we end up with
the supporting flight member having a decent chance of sandwiching
All of which is a long way of saying
make your Line spacing a minimum of 500 and a maximum
of about 2000!!
One last item...should the line formation
be "stacked" in the vertical...in other words, should
the wingman/element fly at a different altitude than the leader?
In the real world...yes. In the sim environment, particularly
with relatively new sim pilots, I think not. Why? Because
I want to simplify the use of snap views to keep everyone
in sight. Having all flight members at the same altitude minimizes
the number of snap views needed. More experienced simmers
might want to experiment with altitude splits.
OK so far? Good! Now lets leave
the theoretical for a minute and get back to flying! Lets
take our nominal Line position of 1000 spacing and talk
for a while on how we can maintain that position in our sims.
Maintaining Formation Position
For starters, Ill tell you right
up front that tactical formation flying is one heck of a lot
tougher in a sim that it is in real life. We need to accept
that as a fact...
I know, I know! You want proof!! Why
is it a fact? Two reasons...restricted monitor field of view
and poor monitor resolution that negatively impacts the sense
of closure and the ability to determine exact spacing.
The lack of the "big picture"
and the difficulty in recognizing changes in closure and/or
spacing make holding your position tough. The need to cycle
views to maintain SA means that we are not looking at our
wingman for a considerable period of time. The limited resolution
offered by our monitors means that changes in closure and
spacing will occur before we are aware of them...and these
changes will likely go on for longer than is desired before
we finally pick up the visual cues on our screen. The typical
result is that the deviation gets appreciable before we see
it...and then requires a relatively large flight control or
power correction. This correction has to be monitored carefully
lest we over-correct...the result being too much time spent
on position maintenance and not enough time on maintaining
a good lookout.
Given these limitations that we cant
do much about...how can we make formation flying a little
easier? Here are a couple of ideas.
First, lets look at maintaining
position in Line with about 1000 spacing. The problems
are two-fold...maintaining that 1000 spacing and remaining
line abreast. The 1000 spacing is an aircraft heading
issue, and the 3/9 line position is an airspeed issue. Flight
leaders! You can help out here by telling your wingman/element
your heading and airspeed...as in, "Red Flight, fly 360
and 200 knots". Sounds corny, but now the wingman/element
can easily check their heading and speed to stay even with
Some folks may have a problem with
recognizing what 1000 spacing looks like. Flight leaders...take
a screenshot and have your guys study it beforehand. Understand
that the spacing does not have to be exactly 1000...but
the guys should be able to recognize the difference between
1000 and 500 or 2000, for example.
As I mentioned earlier, have everyone
fly at the same altitude...it makes using the snap views easier.
Lastly, what if the leader wants to
bank a bit to navigate? No problem...as long as the leader
does not change his heading when he does this. Heres
a tip. Roll into the bank and then apply opposite rudder to
yaw the nose opposite the bank...avoid any back pressure.
Once back to wings level, double check the heading and correct
if necessary. This cross-controlling may bleed a knot or two,
so crosscheck airspeed also.
OK...so much for recognizing and maintaining
the proper position...now, what do we do if we get out of
Correcting Formation Position
Getting back into position is both
the leaders and the wingman/elements responsibility.
Sometimes, its as easy as the wingman adding power to
move back into position. Other times, it takes a little more
We begin by stressing that correct
formation spacing is mandatory...give it your maximum attention
and do not accept sloppy flying on anyones part. Getting
out of position is no big deal...staying out of position is!
Dont be the Tail End Charlie that gets bagged!
Proper airspeed control is critical
to maintaining that 3/9 line. Sometimes the wingmen find that
they just cant seem to stay up with the leader....and
this may be because the leader is flying at max power. Solution...leaders,
dont fly at full power! Instead, set your throttle to
something less...say 90%...this will give the wingmen/element
something to play with.
Now, there will be times when the
leader just has to use full power...if the wingman/element
drops back, what do we do now? No problem. Instead of using
the throttle to adjust spacing, we now use geometry. We use
things called check turns, weaves, and shackles.
A check turn is a quick turn
made either into or away from the wingman/element. The magnitude
of the turn is directly relative to the amount that the formation
is out of position in degrees. Lets say the wingman/element
is 15 degrees behind the 3/9 line.
If the leader will make a quick turn
into the wingman/element of 15 degrees, this will move them
up to the leaders 3/9 line. The wingman/element must
make the check turn at the same time and for the same amount.
The leader accomplishes this with a radio command, "Red
Flight, check right 15". Everyone makes a simultaneous
quick turn of 15 degrees and then rolls out, checks heading
and airspeed as well as new position. Check turns are easy
and work well for small (0-30 degrees) errors in position.
But what if the leader does not want
to change his heading...or the error is larger than 30 degrees?
We then use a weave or a shackle.
Weaves and Shackles
A weave is used by the flight
member that is ahead of the 3/9 line...it could be either
the leader or the wingman/element. The weave is initiated
by the leaders command, "Red Flight, weave".
The weaver is obviously the person in front. The trailing
flight member maintains the original heading and airspeed.
The weaver then executes an "S" type of maneuver
to get back into position. The weave works well when the 3/9
line error is between 30 and 45 degrees. The weave also corrects
spacing errors as well.
The shackle is a little more
aggressive and is used when the positional error exceeds 45
degrees or the spacing error is large. The maneuver begins
with the leaders call..."Red Flight, shackle".
The two flight members turn hard into each other and vary
their bank angle and back pressure to cross flight paths.
The idea is for both flight members to change sides while
adjusting both spacing and 3/9 line. Use the shackle as a
last resort. It requires a lot of attention and time and may
not be suitable with threats close by. Weaves and shackles
are moderately aggressive maneuvers flown using steep banks
and about 3 Gs to minimize energy loss. Depending on the amount
of turning needed, full power may be necessary.
Every now and then, the unthinkable
happens! You lose sight of your buddy. Now what??!! Here are
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