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Getting schooled in formation flying

The author gets an opportunity to be a passenger in a small plane taking part in a two-aircraft formation flight over California.

For some pilots, flying solo doesn't cut it. Pilots like Christian Goetze and Wolfgang Polak spend much of their time in the air in formation flights, with two or more planes flying in close proximity to each other. This is an aesthetically attractive, if demanding, form of flying. Here, Polak flies just feet away from Goetze's plane in the skies over California. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

I don't have a lot of rules, but here's a new one: when someone offers you the chance to take part in a formation flight, jump at the opportunity.

For me, that chance came a couple of weeks ago when Christian Goetze, a co-worker of my wife's, offered to take either or both of us up with him on one of two flights he was about to do.

To be perfectly frank, I didn't really even understand exactly what formation flying was, despite, for example, watching the Blue Angels flying from their home base in Florida last summer, but there's no way I was going to not find out.

Unfortunately, I missed out on being part of a five-plane flight a few days later, but on November 19, I climbed into Goetze's 1991 Grumman Tiger for my formation flight education.

Taking off out of the small airport in San Carlos, Calif., we flew straight up into a thick bank of fog. Our destination? The skies over Livermore, Calif., where, I was told, we'd be making a rendezvous with a friend of Goetze's, his fellow formation flier, Wolfgang Polak.

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Sure enough, not long after ascending out of the thick fog and into a stunning early morning blue sky, a tiny speck on the horizon gradually got bigger, and bigger, until Polak, and his 1977 Grumman Tiger, suddenly swooped around us in a big turn, and then approached slowly on our right side, eventually ending up so close to us that I could see his headset and the little round ball covering the microphone.

Which, I can tell you, is a rather sobering sight if you've not experienced such a thing before.

Luckily for me, these two pilots seemed like old pros at this flying mere feet away from each other, and on top of it, it was a gorgeous day up high in the sky where we were, with little turbulence to make for a bumpy flight, and therefore, little reason for the two pilots not to keep their planes so close to each other that they could almost have handed each other notes.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the flight was so that Goetze could take his plane in for its annual servicing. Having Polak bring his plane along too meant that Goetze had a ride back to his home airport in San Carlos, and heck, since they had some time to kill on the way to Columbia--and a newbie passenger onboard--why not play around a little?

"You want to do some maneuvering on the way?" Asked Polak over the radio.

"Sure, why not," Goetze replied.

To start off with, Polak, in the lead, and now on our left side and a little above us, began doing a series of hard turns. Goetze, as the trail plane, aligned his rudder with Polak's wing tip, a system, Goetze explained, in which geometry keeps his plane automatically aligned with Polak's.

I wasn't sure I understood that exactly, but sure enough, for every move Polak made, Goetze followed suit, and we were mirroring him almost exactly.

For a few minutes, with Polak leading, and Goetze and I trailing, we climbed, dropped, turned, and dipped. I was furiously taking pictures, focusing entirely on Polak's plane, and before long, totally losing track of the ground. The sensation of gravity kicking in was extreme, but at that point, I really couldn't have told you whether we were going up, going down, flying flat, or even where the ground was.

During some maneuvers, the only way to tell what we were doing, relative to the ground, was to see how the horizon was changing. Here, Polak, in the lead plane, makes a sharp right turn. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Then, Polak gave some sort of hand signal to Goetze, they agreed over the radio that there would be a count of five, and suddenly, Polak did a sharp turn away from us, disappearing into the sky and out of our sight.

"One, two, three, four, five," Goetze counted, and then, "hold on," and he turned his own plane hard, a thrilling and somewhat unexpected move that pushed me back against my seat.

At first, we couldn't find Polak in the wide open sky, but then we saw him. We flew back toward each other, and then were alongside again. This time, we were in the lead.

"OK, now we'll do a break and rejoin," Goetze tells me. "OK, bye bye."

He turns hard on the wheel, and the plane jerked hard to the left and away from Polak. And seconds later, Polak turned hard as well, and followed us.

And we repeated what happened before when Polak had been in the lead: A couple minutes of trying to spot each other and then a slow and steady rejoining.

As Polak flew alongside and a little behind, I asked Goetze how close he was. He explained that there were probably three to five feet between the nose of Polak's plane and the tail of ours, and maybe five feet of lateral separation. The planes don't overlap, he said.

I asked why not.

"It's too dangerous," Goetze told me. "We're not the Blue Angels. We don't have ejection seats."

Six Blue Angels F-18s flying together in perfect formation during a practice performance at their home base in Pensacola, Fla. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

A few minutes later, I noticed that, trailing us, Polak wasn't looking ahead at all. Rather, he was looking intently at us.

Goetze explained that the trailing pilot always looks at the leader, looking for anything that he might have to respond to.

"If I flew into a mountain," Goetze said, "he wouldn't notice."

Next up, Goetze starts doing what he calls "lazy-eights."

Essentially, this was a series of "S" turns, where he would gently pull the plane up as he began left turns, and out the window, I could see that Polak was mirroring our moves precisely.

The lazy-eights are so smooth and I'm focusing so much on the sky in front of me that it's hard to tell that we're doing them. Only the constantly changing horizon in front of us lets me know that we're not flying straight ahead.

Clearly, Polak is the more experienced pilot because as we pull out of one of the turns, Goetze got on the radio and said to Polak, "You're just disgustingly good at this."

"Sorry about that," Polak responded.

Goetze explained to me that in formation flying, the basic structure is the two-plane "element," in which one is the leader and the other the follower.

In what's called "acute" flying, the follower stays slightly behind and below, at a 45-degree angle.

"If he's too far behind, you can't get the 45-degree angle," Goetze said.

And as for why the follower doesn't fly even with the leader, but a little below, he added, "If I was to gently turn, he would have no reaction time, and I would run into him."

That, even I can understand, would not be a good thing.

Next up, Goetze told me about the two kinds of what he called "overhead breaks."

These are maneuvers in which both planes in an element--or more planes if there are more than two--turn simultaneously.

First, there's the "welded wing" turn, in which the follow plane climbs or descends into the turn with the lead pilot's wing. This means that as the leader turns left, the follow planes will climb above as they turn, while if the leader turns right, the follow planes will drop down as they turn.

An "echelon" turn, on the other hand, means that all the planes in a formation turn as one, keeping on the same level, or row.

"We only do (echelon turns) away from people," Goetze told me. "The Blue Angels will do echelon turns into each other, because they're crazy."

We were now approaching Columbia, and Goetze began to get ready to land.

But once he dealt with a few administrative details, he explained how formations work if there are, say, four planes, or two elements.

He held out his hand, with his fingers together and the thumb tucked away, demonstrating that the middle finger in such a formation would represent the lead plane in the lead element, with the index finger being the following plane in the lead element. The other two fingers, then, represent the second element.

With this general configuration in mind, he explained that there are all kinds of maneuvers possible in formation flying, but that they always do them in pairs. If there happened to be just three planes, the third would be its own element, he said, and would pretend to have a wing man.

By now, it was time to land, and so we broke formation so that our plane could hit the ground first, with Polak following close behind.

Goetze said they would have landed in formation--the runway in Columbia was probably wide enough--but they didn't want to scare me.