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Following the Leader. By Linda "Slim" Torrens

posted Feb 24, 2020, 9:37 AM by Maria Neboschick

In formation flying, there are leaders and there are followers. Both roles are equally important, but the distinctions are not as clear as just being labeled leader or follower, lead or wingman.  All formation flights have a  designated Lead. The more complex the mission, the higher the possibility of there also being designated both a Mission Commander and a Deputy Lead. In our Oshkosh Caravan, Mooney Lead serves as Lead, performing many Mission Commander duties, while #2 is the recognized Deputy Lead. Both positions are crucial to the safety of the flight. In smaller formations — for example, ones found at training clinics, Mission Commander and Deputy Lead might be informal positions within each training sortie.

"One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency." --Arnold Glasow
Obviously, the role of Lead is to lead. Lead must think well ahead of the formation and his own plane. If the formation is 2 or even 5 miles long, he must plan turns, commands, clearances, and think through contingencies so that every airplane in the formation experiences the safest possible flight. Lead must be aware of surrounding traffic, decipher radio calls, incorporate ADS-B and weather data into in-flight planning, know where the position of the formation is within the planned flight maneuver area, and be ready to respond to changing conditions in the maneuver area and at the destination airport. In addition, Lead must be intimately familiar with emergency procedures so that he is ready, nearly instantaneously so, to call a breakout or a knock it off or a formation abort or even to direct a formation rejoin should the need arise. A good Lead is in reality, flying not just his airplane, but is along for the ride in each of his followers’ aircraft. Obviously, the larger the formation, the more difficult it is to achieve complete situational awareness. That is why the position of Mooney Caravan Lead is so carefully chosen, not only for pilotage skills and past Caravan experience, but also for his or her ability to quickly make difficult, possibly life-saving decisions under pressure. It’s a BIG job that looks relatively easy when things go smoothly.
“The most difficult instrument to play … is second fiddle.”  — Leonard Bernstein

Mooney Caravan Deputy Lead is known to be the Caravan Lead in-training. This person is also highly experienced and intimately briefed on the mission plan. Deputy Lead assists Lead as required, but is also ready, at a moment’s notice to take over as Lead. No daydreaming during the flight for Deputy Lead. Deputy Lead flies the airplane but is also along for the ride in Lead’s, so that if Lead aborts, has an aircraft malfunction, or becomes incapable of continuing the flight for any reason, the transition from Deputy to Lead can be conducted seamlessly with no impact to the safety of the formation. 
Behind that important first element in the Caravan are the follower elements—each comprised of an element lead and two wingmen. You might have noticed that within each element, #2’s are generally the more experienced of the element wingmen. This is done so that each #2 can be more comfortable stepping into the role of element lead as necessary. The position of wingman #2 definitely requires less forethought than flying as Caravan Deputy Lead since elements are essentially Caravan followers, but it’s a possible role change that should be considered, nevertheless. As always, it’s best to think about potential unexpected events before they happen.

"Followership, like leadership, is a role and not a destination."  — Michael McKinney
The job of the follower is to be a good, reliable and safe wingman. Followers must be familiar with the plan and be ready to adapt to changes in the briefed plan. Followers should not create stress for either formation Lead, their element lead, or following aircraft. This means flying in position and anticipating where your element will go next, knowing the plan and flying in the briefed position with no unnecessary chitchat on the radios. Especially important is instinctively knowing what to do should the unexpected occur. What will you do if you accidentally pull back your mixture lever instead of the throttle? (yes, this has happened!) What will you do should you need to perform a high-speed abort and you have aircraft on the roll behind you? What will you do if you lose sight of lead? What calls will you make? What’s the safest direction to turn your aircraft? Climb? Descend? I’ve flown in two training formations where some wingmen inadvertently encountered clouds and it becomes obvious at that point of the importance of each pilot having a good mental picture of where the other Mooneys are flying.
While a new wingman with few formation flights might be highly trusting of his Lead, as we build experience, wingmen can start to think like a Lead. The more mission planning accomplished, the better we can perform as wingman. If you are familiar with the assigned area, you might recognize that that lake in the distance is on the maneuver area boundary, and so you know that your Lead is probably going to soon command a formation turn. You might hear CTAF radio calls and know that a Cessna on base is likely to mean a delayed turn to final for the formation. Of course, the ability to have increased situational awareness is enhanced with experience and the more formation flying you do, the better your situational awareness will become.  
Our Caravan is fortunate because some of our members are going above and beyond in their formation training, and they are attending advanced training events, receiving FFI check rides and obtaining special formation qualifications. This level of expertise greatly adds to the professionalism and safety of our organization. Rather than being just a gaggle of Mooneys trying to land at Osh, we can fly as a highly trained, disciplined, and impressive formation group. If you are not involved in advanced training events, seek out those who are and pick their brains to learn more about what formation flying can entail. The goal is that every member of the formation is performing his or her role in the safest manner possible and every member is ready and capable of appropriate actions when the unexpected occurs. All for the desired end game: