Dissimilar Formations: Not Quite an Oxymoron

They make it look so simple, those pilots flying different types of aircraft in formation at an air show.   Two of my favorite acts are an Air Force Heritage Flight, or a Navy Legacy Formation made up of different makes and models of aircraft.  To me, there’s something pleasingly asymmetrical about a formation of different sized aircraft all moving together at the same speed.  I’ve seen plenty of formations made up of different types of planes; as much as there’s variety in the presentation there’s also many constants within each arrangement.  Let’s look at a few of the requirements for air show formation flying, and see why two organizations in particular have been created to keep dissimilar military/civilian formations in the skies.

Representatives from an FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) approve air show events, and monitor shows for safety and regulatory compliance.  Special certification for wingmen and flight leaders is required before one can perform in front of a crowd; the certification includes competency and currency requirements. Any formation flying, whether it be done by military and/or civilian pilots, must be included and approved in the Special Provisions paragraph of an air show waiver.  Straight formation flying is treated a bit differently than aerobatic flying during air shows, but the FAA requires all participants in the flying display be properly credentialed.

The Armed Forces train, evaluate and certify their pilots in formation and aerobatic flying.  Civilian flyers must  be approved for formation flight at air shows by an FAA authorized organization.  For years, an organization called FAST (Formation and Safety Team) has evaluated and certified many warbird pilots, allowing them to perform formation flying at air shows.  Sixteen civilian aircraft organizations are signatories to FAST agreements (examples are EAA’s Warbirds of America,  the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association, and the T-34 Association).  ICAS (International Council of Air Shows) does the evaluations for aerobatic formation flights.

There’s a pair of specialized organizations that sponsor mixed formations of active military and civilian-owned and piloted aircraft.  According to its web site, the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight (HF) Foundation “…presents the evolution of USAF air power by flying today’s state-of-the-art fighter aircraft in close formation with vintage fighter aircraft.  An HF performance involves a current USAF fighter piloted by an Air Combat Command [ACC] trained military HF pilot and flown with a historical warbird piloted by a trained and certified civilian HF pilot. The HF formations of modern fighters flying with World War II, Korean, and Vietnam era fighters such as the P-51 Mustang and F-86 Sabre, dramatically display our U.S. Air Force air power history and proudly support our Air Force’s recruiting and retention efforts. In 2010, the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation (AFHFF) was formed to keep this popular program flying.” 

“In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the Heritage Flight program was founded in 1997. Heritage Flight performances of current fighter/attack aircraft flying with World War II, Korea and Vietnam era fighters dramatically display USAF airpower history and honor the brave men and women who have served, or are currently serving, in the USAF.  In 2010, the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was formed to keep this popular program flying.”  In 2012 the Air Force’s ACC disbanded the F-15, F-16 and A-10 solo Flight Demonstration Teams, but pilots are still certified for Heritage Flights in those types of aircraft.

According to its web site, the United States Navy Legacy Flight program “…was established in 1999. It involves today’s state-of-the-art fighters flying in close formation with World War II, Korean War and Vietnam vintage Navy and Marine Corps fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and the North American Fury.  Its mission is to safely and proudly display the evolution of United States Naval airpower and to support the Navy and Marine Corps’ recruiting and retention efforts. The services have determined that their recruiting efforts are enhanced by having fly-bys at air shows with vintage naval warbirds and F-18 aircraft. Commander-Naval Air Forces, working with Chief-Naval Recruiting work together to determine funding, tasking and assignment of assets.”

“For USN assets, TAC DEMO aircraft and pilots are supplied by the various F-18 fighter/strike wings. The vintage warbird USN/USMC aircraft and pilots are provided by their civilian owners….  The Navy had an informal demonstration team, flying Grumman Hellcats, during the early 1940′s, but at the Cleveland Air Races in 1946 the Navy’s new official demonstration team, The Blue Angels, thrilled crowds in their new Grumman Bearcats.  Since then, the Blue Angels have gone on to perform for millions at air shows all over the country. And now, the Navy Legacy Flight program ties the aircraft from those early days with the modern fighters of today.”

In 2012 the Navy Legacy Flight group consisted of a dozen civilian pilots and nine types of warbird aircraft that would be joined by either an F-18C/D Hornet or F-18E/F Super Hornet.  The yearly training sessions normally occur at NAS Lemoore in California, but have taken place at NAS Oceana on the east coast as well.  Dan McCue is the east coast scheduler for Legacy Flights, and has been a warbird pilot with the program for 9 seasons now.  He’s a certified ICAS Aerobatic Competency Evaluator (ACE), skilled in solo warbird aerobatics, formation aerobatics, and non-aerobatic formation flying.  Dan had an interesting observation about the training for the Navy Legacy Flights… it is more for the benefit of the F-18 crews than for the warbird pilots.  The civilian pilots have many years of formation experience, including many hours of dissimilar formation time containing both jets and prop-driven warbirds.  This cadre of civilian pilots has remained more or less constant during the past few years.  The Hornet and Super Hornet pilots rotate through the Legacy Flight positions more frequently, and don’t have as much experience flying with dissimilar aircraft in formation.

It is important to know that things like power settings, angles of attack, and maneuvering speeds differ greatly between each model jet and prop-driven plane.  Dan explained that the Navy Legacy Flight operates around 200 knots, which is a comfortable speed for both aircraft.  Anything less than 180 knots requires the Hornet/Super Hornet pilot to work harder while maintaining the formation.

For both the Heritage and Legacy Flights, anywhere from two to four aircraft make the normal formation, depending upon the air show producer’s requirements and budget (these aircraft – both warbirds and military – don’t fly free).  A series of three passes in different formations are completed, ending with a dramatic formation break maneuver and (sometimes) individual low passes complete their performance.

Next air show season, when there’s a formation of dissimilar aircraft in the air, remember that the pilots haven’t just jumped in their airplanes and roared off to entertain you.  They’ve discussed and agreed upon a set program, and have proved to air show industry, FAA and/or military officials that they are competent to fly in formation with each other.  Luckily for us (and specifically for me), they continue to present a number of Heritage and Legacy formations at air shows each year.  Symmetrical formations are pleasing to watch, but the dissimilar formations with different types of aircraft catch my attention every time.

Ken Kula

November 2012


Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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