HOW DO I BECOME AN ELEMENT LEAD?
By Larry 'Joker' Brennan
Every year, someone asks “how do I become an Element Lead?” Some come to the Caravan with significant military or airline experience in senior positions, and wonder how any of that can translate into our Caravan activities. Or maybe a GA-only private pilot has mastered flying “wing” and is ready to take on new challenges, and wants to know how to progress. The simple answer is there are two things every Caravan Lead pilot has in common: (1) Demonstrated proficiency as a Lead, and; (2) actively contributing to the Caravan.
Turning to proficiency, flying “Lead” in any formation flight means planning, briefing, and leading two or more aircraft in flight safely. This appears simple, but as those of us who’ve done it know, it is much more complicated and stressful than it appears to those flying wing in the same flight. Planning for, maneuvering, and communicating among multiple aircraft while maintaining complete situational awareness is challenging but also very rewarding. Being able to provide meaningful feedback from which the flight can take home some learning points is also invaluable, and requires experience and judgment only gained by flying formation.
There are several organizations that offer opportunities to practice one’s formation flying and improve it. Many Caravan pilots work throughout the year with B2Osh, RedStar Pilots Association (RPA), FFI and FAST, all of which sponsor clinics for basic and advanced training. If you are interested in improving your skills, ask someone on the Caravan Operations Committee (Chair is Chuck “Cowboy” Crinnian) or anyone in Caravan leadership, and we will get you in touch with someone near you.
Both FAST and FFI offer “Lead Card” checkrides, the requirements of which are on each organization’s websites. These requirements involve serious commitment. Though not required of a Caravan Lead, achieving a “Lead” card from one of these groups is certainly an enviable accomplishment. But some people live far away from these clinics or even other formation pilots, and, whether carded or not, each Caravan Lead demonstrates formation Lead proficiency before every Caravan in order to Lead.
But proficiently flying Lead is not all the Caravan needs of a pilot assigned as an element Lead. In short, Leads lead. Each Lead is administratively responsible for each of the pilots in that element. A first-timer will have a lot of questions unrelated to the Caravan flight: From getting across the country to Madison, to Airventure, and about Oshkosh itself. This is of course in addition to the unenviable task of ensuring each element’s pilots have the required documents, execute waivers, have demonstrated proficiency, and attend each briefing on time, as well as other mission-related Lead tasks (fuel, equipment, weather, etc.). The Caravan and each participant depend on each Element Lead to support the element’s pilots and to account for them during Caravan activities.
As a charitable organization wholly dependent on the efforts of its volunteers, the Caravan depends on a core of active, enthusiastic leaders to recruit, plan, execute, review and improve. Over the last few years, the Caravan has been able to arrest declining participation, grow participation, and – more importantly – improve upon the Caravan experience for each participant.
This has only been possible because each of those years, new pilots have joined us and chosen to “step up” to improve the Caravan as a whole. Maybe it was volunteering to host a clinic in an area that needed it. Or taking on sponsorship, food, recruiting, registration, website, social media, technology, video editing, apparel, or some other key function that requires attention to ensure a great experience for ALL Caravaners.
The bottom line is, a “Lead” in the Caravan isn’t only a proficient formation pilot: That Lead is also a LEADER in the organization. And any organization only gets better with stronger leadership.
So, if you’re interested, step up and ask a Lead how you can help out. You probably have a skill or idea that will improve the Caravan or some part of it. Get to know what we are doing and pitch in. Talk to the Leads in the organization about their experience: No one who has stepped up has regretted it, and each has improved the experience in some way for everyone else!