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"Mooney Bravo Lead, converging traffic, co-altitude,10 o'clock"

posted May 22, 2018, 9:25 AM by Ashley and Maria Neboschick   [ updated May 22, 2018, 9:26 AM ]
"Lead, you're on fire."  This is the phrase that Lead doesn't want to hear, and yet simultaneously, it is the only radio call expected from Lead's wingmen.  Most with a military or previous formation experience background will recognize those words as direction from Lead that wingmen do not chatter on the radios unless ... Lead is on fire.  I'm a relative newbie with Mooney Caravan to EAA Airventure at Oshkosh, having only done it twice, but I have been to a handful of regional formation training events.  In our Mooney Caravan community, radio discipline is always briefed as a formation weak item.

The problem is that Mooney wingmen are first and foremost pilots, generally used to being in command, used to making their own decisions, and boy, do we love to talk!  Converting oneself over to a follower mentality is challenging.  Really challenging.  But that's the wingman's job: to follow Lead.  Wings must focus 100% of attention on not hitting Lead—a job done best if done relatively silently. 

Radio silence in the Caravan is important because we are a horrendously large grouping of aircraft.  With over 50 Mooneys and 100 radios and pilots and copilot passengers and back seaters and ATC and other non-Mooney aircraft approaching Oshkosh on frequency, it takes only a few extraneous calls before someone in the formation suffers cognitive overload -- and no one wants the cognitive overloaded pilot to be in the airplane flying next to them.

This problem is not unique to Mooney formators. The National Interagency Fire Center cites excessive radio chatter as a major causal factor in firefighter casualty figures. Incident commanders struggle with the desire to give everyone a radio in case of emergency or to keep the radios close hold so that the frequencies don't get jammed up.  We Mooneys all have radios...and most (if not all of us) two radios.  So, we're listening on ATC, listening on Mooney common frequency, chatting with our passengers, AND trying to follow Lead or the previous element. Wingmen are told to stay in position (don't hit lead!) and use the radio only for safety issues. But what constitutes a safety issue?  Converging traffic, co-altitude qualifies as radio-call worthy (but please specify who you are calling traffic to, since our Mooney Caravan formation is often 4 to 6 miles long!), but an aircraft in the distance might not. An abort would qualify. Definitely, a structural or other issue with another aircraft in your element.  These are "urgent" calls.  Necessary radio calls are those made by formation lead and the element leads. Unnecessary radio calls constitute just about everything else.  

All radio calls, even the "urgent" ones, ought to follow a pre-arranged sequence.  In much the same way that you make calls at an uncontrolled field -- station name, your identifier, your message, station name -- if a radio call comes in an expected format, it will be easier to understand and digest. This is why ATC calls are heavily scripted and why our formation guide tells us how to answer frequency changes. Radio calls that follow a cadence -- when things are said in an expected sequence -- add to situational awareness for all. And when placed in a stressful situation, comprehension matters. 

Last year, during a large formation takeoff, one member of our group experienced an abort. Some aircraft were airborne, some were on takeoff roll, some were still sitting on the runway.  Think a little bit about this scenario. Without being able to look behind him, Lead couldn't tell how many airborne Mooneys he had. Aircraft sitting on the runway, unless they were next up, couldn't see what had caused the abort. ATC wasn't sure what to make of the situation and they were now trying to control Mooneys in the air, a Mooney taxiing off the runway, and Mooneys on the runway but already in receipt of takeoff clearance. Within moments, the radios became heavily congested greatly adding to the confusion. People were talking on Mooney common frequency, ATC was demanding answers on tower frequency, and Lead was trying to direct the formation for airborne aircraft as well as ground aircraft. Radio discipline is important. 

Radio discipline is a skill that should be practiced so that when a situation arises that absolutely requires it, we are ready. That's not to say that followers (aka, wingmen and element leads) should not speak up. If something makes you uncomfortable, you need to say something.  If it's an immediate safety situation, then that call should be made ASAP -- on the radio.  Anyone can always call a “knock it off.”  But make these calls as per SOP, and as briefed. Worse than no call is a confusing, stress-creating call that just alarms everyone without communicating information or enhancing situational awareness. 

If you don't understand something in the briefing, you need to speak up -- preferably in the briefing. If you see an unsafe situation developing, you need to bring it to the attention of others. We're all in this together. We ought to study and know how to make radio calls while in formation, but perhaps equally important, we need to know how and when NOT to say it on the radio so that our use of the radios will enhance safety rather than detract from it.  The more we practice, the safer we become.

Too much radio chatter leads to pilot overload.

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