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#3652204 - 09/28/12 03:30 AM Tactical Formation Flying  
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Andy (or anyone with military flying experience!),

Can you describe how formation flying is used tactically? We see some fancy formations (parade, diamond, etc.) in the virtual airshows, but I'm really curious to know how formations are used by Real(tm) combat pilots.


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#3653020 - 09/29/12 02:35 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Good question, but one with a number of answers.

First, we have to define the subject a little. We'll talk fighters, not bombers, transports, etc. Then we define 'tactical' as compared to 'strategic'...that means we are looking at relatively simple, short range conventional weapon missions (both A2A and A2G). And then we have to define the era...are we looking at today's tactical environment...or that of the 60s...WW2...or WW1? Obviously, such a singular focus makes a difference.

I won't try to go into such singular detail in this post. Instead, I'll list a number of purposes that have seen use over the years.

1. Probably the most common reason was the need to get a number of aircraft from one point to another in the quickest and easiest way possible. One leader and a bunch of followers. Not exactly a combat formation but one designed for ease of forming up, then be simple to maneuver enroute, and lastly being easy to disassemble at the destination.

2. Past that basic objective of herding folks from point A to B, then we can look at specific but more restricted objectives. One is to have wingmen to augment and/or increase the number of weapons needed for target destruction. Examples are hunter/killer, eyeball/shooter formations typically flown in a wedge style formation where the trailing wingman is the guy with the bang. An 'extreme' example of this was the 1930s RAF use of Fighting Area Tactics where a three-ship 'vic' of fighters would fly in close formation...the lead would line up the shot and then all three aircraft would fire...the idea was to put a heavy load of small caliber rounds into a bomber target. This concept was quickly discarded at the opening of the Battle of Britain! Didn't work...too hard to maneuver and totally fell victim to fighter escort.

3. In a low altitude environment such as A-10s in Cold War Europe (below 300'AGL), a wedge formation two-ship was used to permit the lead to navigate while the wingie provided lookout and backed up the navigation. If more than two aircraft were needed in this instance, we would simply add a trailing two-ship that remained in visual contact with the leading element. This arrangement was somewhat similar to the A2A Finger Four formation. Some A-10 units proposed using traditional four-ship Fighting Wing tactics but I personally thought this idea to be less workable than two two-ships operating in visual contact. One stateside based A-10 unit tried to convince us NATO guys that this was a usable idea...we dug our heels in pretty hard on this...that is defined as one USAF Major (me) going head-to-head with a unit wing commander...it ended up as a draw!!

4. These examples are end game formations...ones used for weapons employment. But what if the purpose is visual lookout and not weapons delivery as such? In a traditional visual environment, line abreast is probably the preferred formation...but that will depend on how demanding the holding of that formation may be...at low altitude, the wingman often was positioned back on an angle and moved in closer (wedge or fighting wing). It's worth noting that in my experience, the closer the wingman got, the less capable he was as a lookout...in fingertip or even fighting wing, during maneuvering, I found most wingies pretty much task-saturated with remaining in position. Runs counter to past theory, I realize, but given the talents of the average pilot, I found the idea of a wingie being able to hold position while the lead was engaging in aggressive maneuvering AND being able to effectively clear six was a mutually exclusive concept...usually the wingie could do one but not both. And in this instance, holding position usually won out.

5. In a modern environment, the need for visual contact has lessened. On board sensors and external assets such as AWACS have allowed the separation of formation members to distances that may be outside visual range. While in the past, a closer visual situation tended to reduce the need for radio contact, the modern extended formations depend far more on 'communication', be it verbal (radio) or communication that is avionics-based (a tactical situation display).

6. A final note before I turn this back to you folks...In my sim flying, I found that the ability to maintain an effective position on another aircraft was a function of three things. One, obviously, the pilot had to know the basics of maintaining position...two, the sim viewing system had to be flexible enough to allow a visual picture of what was going on (perhaps something like Track IR was good for this), and lastly, the pilot's controllers (throttle and stick) had to be able to transmit the fine detail of control need for formation flight.

OK...back to everyone for comments!

#3653322 - 09/30/12 02:39 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Fantastic stuff Andy. Einstein knows I'm going to ask this question.. wink

Is there any truth to the rumor that the wingman usually burns more fuel than the flight lead or is that an urban myth?

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#3653346 - 09/30/12 05:20 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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You can see this happen with any FM that simulates things adequately - even LO's SFM is quite adequate.

You will see one extreme quite often in MP: A wingman keeps walling out of position, firewalling the throttle to catch back up, etc. It should be fairly obvious that he is burning more fuel, and it becomes even more obvious in fast movers where people will make use of long afterburner use for position corrections.

On the other hand, an efficient wingman will burn more fuel than lead, but not very noticeably so, unless he has to keep up with very aggressive maneuvering. In that case it is very likely that he WILL fall behind and eventually will remain at high power to catch up with lead after the maneuver(s).

Also, As a rule of thumb a wingman will make 3 throttle movements for every throttle change lead does, which burns just a touch more fuel. Usually.

Note that I am assuming that lead is flying with wingman consideration when he can afford to, ie. not balls to the wall on all legs of the trip.


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#3653415 - 09/30/12 11:01 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Interesting discussion and a great question Einstein. smile

Although until few weeks ago I would totally agree that the wingmen burns more fuel than the leader even if barely noticeable, a 'Mythbusters test' with 5 or 7 planes done in a VEE formation (simulating birds) actually showed that everyone flying a wing position saves fuel flying this way due to the upwash created by the lead plane.

Here is the clip in question. It doesn't show the test with actual planes, just the explanation.

So, I am curious now - provided that you fly parade formation, i.e. reasonably close as shown in the show, would there be any fuel saving at all or this just isn't something you have ever encountered with Andy?

If the test in the show is true (applicable to RL situation), I would think, that the fuel burnt through maneuvering (e.g. turning) and level flight fuel saving might result in a more or less equal fuel consumption as the lead plane...


#3653435 - 09/30/12 11:55 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Wingmen will burn more fuel especially in close formation - maybe I'm just rubbish at formation (I'm definitely distinctly average!) but I always called fuel states before my leader (unless I forgot) - and when leading it was always 2 or 3 who called before me.

The leader will be using a certain throttle setting, but it will be set - the wingmen will be constantly making small adjustments on their throttles to keep in position, including relatively large power inputs when on the outside of a turn etc, meaning that by default they use more fuel.

How much depends upon how much you're jockying the throttle - I guess most people don't use as much as me!

#3653482 - 09/30/12 03:43 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: T}{OR]  
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It doesn't apply at all. No one wants to be flying in someone else's vortex. It's bumpy, and entirely capable of changing your flight path.



Originally Posted By: T}{OR
If the test in the show is true (applicable to RL situation), I would think, that the fuel burnt through maneuvering (e.g. turning) and level flight fuel saving might result in a more or less equal fuel consumption as the lead plane...


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#3653700 - 10/01/12 01:50 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Wingmen usually do burn more than the lead. How much will vary with wingman throttle technique (a hamfist will burn more than a more talented wingie)...hard maneuvering usually demands more power for the wingie...and closer formations tend to result in higher burn rates than extended formations.

Wingmen maintain position thru a power advantage and thru cutoff. Leads will normally give their wingmen a few percent...but not too much otherwise their own performance falls off.

Regarding the question about close formation having aerodynamic benefits for the wingmen resulting in fuel burn advantages...never heard of that before being applied to aircraft...NASCAR drafting and geese, maybe so...fighters...not so much.

#3653775 - 10/01/12 05:04 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Great stuff, Andy!

How are formation flight maneuvers coordinated, tactically? Is there a lot of dependence on visual communication (hand signals, lights, etc.), or does it more tend towards verbal comms?

As a follow-on, we don't have hand-signals modeled yet in many flight sims (Rise of Flight does, yay!), but could you give us some examples of non-verbal communication that is used in tactical formation flying that we might be able to use in our flight sims (rock wings, flash lights, etc.)?


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#3653786 - 10/01/12 05:29 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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How much fuel did this wingman burn? wink



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#3653852 - 10/01/12 10:00 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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The fancy close in formations generally aren't used much other than during the recovery when you're heading for the break.
Tactically, we primarily use a simple line abreast as a two ship, with the distance varying depending on situation. For a fourship a typical cruise formation is four ship fighting wing (1 and 3 fly line abreast and the wingies 2 and 4 fly fighting wing off their leads on the outside of the formation.

When just cruising from a to b, with no threat, it's usually about a mile between the two. If there's danger of enemy aircraft, then adding a little more increases the possibility of checking the other guy's six. However, open up too much and you can't see anything approaching your lead/wingie from the far side. In this case it's also common to take an altitude stack of a few thousand feet, either high or low, to make it more difficult for an enemy to pick up both planes visually right away.

In a BVR scenario where you are 99% certain that you have the SA that no one is going to pop up in close with you unaware, it's possible to float a bit further out, relying on sensors like the datalink for deconfliction. This sacrifices visual mutual support but allows more heads down time to work the radar/targeting pod etc.

Low level, the starting point is still line abreast, however the wingman is automatically cleared to collapse to fighting wing when he wants to if maneuvering gets heavy/dynamic (canyons / ridges etc). A four ship low level can split into two time deconflicted ships beyond visual range (say 10-15 miles) or will usually fly offset box (or offset container as it's also called) with the first two ship flying a standard line abreast, and the next two ship following a mile or two behind, also in line abreast, but offset where number three is in the middle of 1 and 2, just aft. Again the wingies can collapse if needed. Number three maintains a good visual on 1 (and 2) to be able to follow without going blind. The more featured the terrain is, the less the exact offset box is maintained and it is more two line abreast two ships following each other visually.

In general the wingies do burn more gas than the leads. Usually it's not that much difference though (not counting large different amounts of afterburner use due to tactical situations). Mostly wether it's little or a lot depends on wingie technique. Some are always moving the throttle up and down, whereas picking a fuel flow and setting it and then GENTLY correcting will save you over time. A little bit of lead technique is involved also (if the lead does not set a constant power setting and his speed fluctuates up and down over time, it will usually lead to more fuel burn for the wingman if it takes him a bit to notice and then make bigger corrections).

Also, besides being steady on the throttle, good wingmen will not just firewall the throttle when they notice they're drifting aft, but dive, trading altitude for speed, until they catch up and slowly recover their altitude once they're back on the 90 degree line. (of course this is in tactical situations, if you're transitioning on a specific altitude clearance somewhere you cant just randomly dive 2 to 3 thousand feet). Being line abreast has a higher priority than the altitude stack mentioned earlier.

The close in fuel burn thing is impractical in reality so I would say it's not a factor we take into account in fighter flying. It may be true (I haven't heard of it before), but we rarely fly in such close formation as I said, and even if true, then even on a ferry flight i dont think the fuel savings would be big enough to warrant the agony of flying in close formation for a few hours straight haha

Coordination wise, I would say it's mostly comm based, due to ease and maybe laziness ;), but a lot is possible with visual signals as well. This goes for close in with hand signals, but also in a line abreast situation using wing flashes or just turning.

Ie flying line abreast with the lead on the right. If lead wants to go 90 right, he gives a wing flash (like bank it up 60 to 90 degrees then back to level). Wingman sees it and starts turning. Lead will finish the tactical turn. If he wants to go left, he just starts turning into the wingman. Wingman sees it and finishes the tac turn. If he wants to turn 180 degrees over right, he gives a wingflash and as soon as he sees the wingman start turning, he starts turning (away) himself. Now the wingman knows it's a hook turn. Hook turn into the wingman is not possible comm-out because there's no way for the wingman to know it's not a 90 left.

Advantage: no need to clog up the radio. Disadvantage: if the wingman is looking the wrong way it may take more than 1 wingflash before he notices. So if you got to turn NOW then comm in maybe be preferable.

Hope this helps. This is F-16 type btw.


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#3653885 - 10/01/12 11:49 AM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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As a trainee making my way through one of the F4BMS virtual squadrons, I can confirm that wingmen burn more fuel than the lead, and this is working with lead pilots who stay at 90-95% RPM giving the wingman a significant buffer to work with. At the start of my training, I could burn off 500lbs or more fuel for a typical practice run, but that was with me going full throttle to catch up, then idle throttle + airbrakes to prevent overshoot, then full throttle again to raise airspeed, then try finding the proper RPM setting... whoops, I'm too far back now, full throttle again ad nauseaum.

Now I can identify the RPM setting that will give me constant airspeed with a given flight configuration and although I still go full throttle when I want to catch up, I've sorta developed the skill now to return to the identified RPM setting then adjust with +/-3-8% RPM to speed up a bit or slow down slightly as necessary. I don't overshoot as much, if at all (depends on how well I can concentrate), and usually burn 100-200lbs of fuel more than lead.

One thing I noticed though: for a 1-2% RPM setting change, it seems like I only need to breathe a bit and nudge my fingers on my TM Warthog to get that effect, so all that "anime style" of forward-backward on the throttle has fallen by the wayside. smile So that does enforce that quality controllers are a must!

For Andy -- why do you say closer formations tend to have higher burn rates (what exactly do you mean by burn rate btw?) than extended formations? Assuming that the wingman can stay in position for both formation distances...

Also, what is the "normal" formation distance when en-route to target or on the way back home? I know this is a very open question, but assume a two-ship, how far do real-life wingmen fly from lead? Or for a 4-ship, how far for #2 and #3? For discussion purposes, say they are flying into (or out of) a hot theatre but they have appropriate fighter escort and AWACS. The reason I'm asking this is like I said I am practicing formation flying in BMS and my lead IP always says I come in too close. On one flight I looked at my yardstick and it seems like I'm shooting for a 0.1nm distance or closer but they (depends on who is lead) seem to be okay with 0.2-0.4nm distance. Another reason I ask is because all I have for reference are movies and YouTube videos which obviously show such close formation flying that if the lead pilot farts, the entire flight will smell it!!

Thanks!


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#3653903 - 10/01/12 12:27 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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About 1.0 to 2.0 line abreast. So a lot further than you or the other guy says. May not be as practical in Falcon due to monitor vs real eyes etc. I havent flown F4 in a long time so I'm not sure what it looks like at those distances.

As far as the burn rate (how much fuel you're burning at any time so your fuel consumption basically) in close, not to speak for Andy per se, but I would say if your lead is flying a steady speed and you're a mile line abreast of him it's much easier to maintain that with a constant throttle setting than if you are in close i.e. fingertip. Then you end up needing constant corrections, it's much harder to keep a consistent throttle setting and you almost always end up doing more with your throttle than if you're far out is my experience. And hence you use more fuel.

Also, if we want to reference a certain throttle setting to fly and not a speed to maintain we usually either set a specific fuel flow or a specific FTIT (the engine temperature). We dont really ever set an RPM. May be worth experimenting with for yourself.


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#3653960 - 10/01/12 01:47 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Isn't the normal contract a speed, rather than an FTIT/FF?


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#3653963 - 10/01/12 01:50 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Yes, good point. Hence my comment "if we want to reference a certain throttle setting to fly and not a speed"

This really only happens sometimes in a navigation part of the mission, not a tactical part. Probably should've mentioned that smile

(edit: exceptions to that would be "buster" and "gate", which of course are references to throttle settings but are definately used tactically.)

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#3653974 - 10/01/12 02:00 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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That's what I figured smile An FTIT/FF is a problem if there are significant weight/drag differences, and speed makes things simple in predicting where you need to be when flying/correcting in tac - for me at least, so it makes sense to use it sometimes in NAV (but then, why not reference an AoA instead ... I guess though it's almost the same as referencing FF/FTIT/Speed if you're trying to hit some sort of max endurance or max range value - but I always thought that's easiest done by referencing AoA).


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#3653994 - 10/01/12 02:28 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: EinsteinEP]  
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Yes, configuration differences do make things a bit different, speed is indeed easier then. On the other hand, if configs are the same and cruising somewhere, then nothing is easier for a wingman than "set 4000 pounds fuel flow". It eliminates lead not holding his speed to the knot (I know, lead is perfect, if he said 360 knots and he is flying 369 then THERE IS A REASON haha) and the wingman being off speed (cause obviously wingmen suck).

As far as AoA goes, I dont really use it other than in an SFO/flameout situation (max range / endurance as you said). I've never really tried flying a certain AoA in level cruise flight and it sounds a bit overly complex?

I guess if I'm flying straight and level and I would want to set a higher AoA than i currently have, i cut back throttle, keep adding pitch to maintain level flight until i hit the desired AoA, then add power again to maintain? Seems like more steps than needed?

FF or FTIT is easier in that regard cause in the end it's (roughly) a function of throttle setting only. So is RPM but i guess we dont use it cause the range of useable RPMs is probably a bit more compressed than the range of useable fuel flows / FTITs.

Anyway this topic is supposed to be about tactical formation flying so we should probably get back to that. Sorry for the diversion smile


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#3654017 - 10/01/12 02:54 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: Tomcat84]  
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Originally Posted By: Tomcat84
... will usually fly offset box (or offset container as it's also called)...


LOL!! I'm surprised that's still being used...it was a common phrase some 35 years or so ago.

#3654029 - 10/01/12 03:04 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: Tomcat84]  
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Originally Posted By: Tomcat84
Coordination wise, I would say it's mostly comm based, due to ease and maybe laziness ;), but a lot is possible with visual signals as well. This goes for close in with hand signals, but also in a line abreast situation using wing flashes or just turning.

Ie flying line abreast with the lead on the right. If lead wants to go 90 right, he gives a wing flash (like bank it up 60 to 90 degrees then back to level). Wingman sees it and starts turning. Lead will finish the tactical turn. If he wants to go left, he just starts turning into the wingman. Wingman sees it and finishes the tac turn. If he wants to turn 180 degrees over right, he gives a wingflash and as soon as he sees the wingman start turning, he starts turning (away) himself. Now the wingman knows it's a hook turn. Hook turn into the wingman is not possible comm-out because there's no way for the wingman to know it's not a 90 left.

Advantage: no need to clog up the radio. Disadvantage: if the wingman is looking the wrong way it may take more than 1 wingflash before he notices. So if you got to turn NOW then comm in maybe be preferable.


Excellent description of what we used to call "comm out turns". This technique was developed in the FWS in the late 70s and was particularly good for high speed low level navigation. In the 104 FWS, the students would plan and fly a relatively long low level ingress to a tactical range...after taking the runway, no more radio calls were made until the egress where comm was allowed to regroup as needed.

In situations where adversary air was a threat, comm out turns required the wingman/element leads to be up to speed on the lead's navigation...if someone was checking six as the lead signaled a turn, things could get really messy very fast. I lost a very close friend at Nellis in a low altitude mid-air where it was thought that both pilots were probably looking behind their winglines and never saw each other coming.

#3654041 - 10/01/12 03:14 PM Re: Tactical Formation Flying [Re: - Ice]  
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Originally Posted By: - Ice
For Andy -- why do you say closer formations tend to have higher burn rates (what exactly do you mean by burn rate btw?) than extended formations? Assuming that the wingman can stay in position for both formation distances...


Adding to what Tomcat said...burn rate is simply fuel used over a period of time. If the flight leg/nav route took 30 minutes to fly, at the end, it was probable that the wingman or element lead would have consumed a little more fuel than lead over this period of time.

Maintaining a precise position in close formations typically means more frequent throttle changes than in extended formations such as spread. Not necessarily larger changes, just more of them. In fingertip, the pilot is making small but frequent throttle adjustments to hold the "light on the star". In spread where precise positioning is not as important, the wingie could make an adjustment and then wait for the change to take place. In this kind of formation, lookout becomes more important than exact position holding.

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