Common Wingman Errors

From Matronics

< Formation Flying

This article describes errors that pilots commonly make when learning to fly as a wingman in formation, and attempts to give advice for both students and instructors in dealing with them. Each pilot is different, but most will make some of these mistakes during their initial formation training.


Confusing Fore-aft With In-out

When in echelon right or echelon left, one of a wingman's visual references is usually a diagonal line. A typical example would be the diagonal line running through the nose of Lead's airplane and the outermost point of the wing trailing edge.


Referring to the sketch (click to enlarge), it's easy to see that the wingman's perspective on Lead from position 1B is nearly identical to what it would be from position 1A. Because of this visual effect, when learning to fly formation a wingman often thinks he is ahead of the ideal postion (1A) when he is actually wide of the ideal position (1B). The wingman will then correct this error by reducing power, dropping back to postion 1C in the diagram. He is now both wide of and behind the ideal position.

Although less common, a wingman may make a similar mistake by thinking he is behind (2A) when he is actually tight (2B). In this case the wingman uses power to "correct," and ends up at postion 2C, both "tight" and "ahead" relative to the ideal position.

A good technique for avoiding this error is to have a second visual reference line that is more nearly perpendicular to Lead's longitudinal axis, and to be deliberate about using this other reference. That can help resolve the ambiguity of the single, diagonal reference line.

Lagging Behind Lead's Roll

If the wingman lags behind Lead when rolling into a turn, his turn radius will be wider than Lead's. When the wingman is on the outside of the turn (for example, in echelon right for a left turn), this will cause him to move wide during the turn. A very small difference in bank angle can lead to a significant widening of the wingman's position relative to Lead. Likewise, if the wingman is on the inside of the turn, he will tend to move toward lead. The steeper the turn, the more pronounced the effect.

The first step in avoiding this error is for the wingman to be very disciplined about maintaining his vertical position relative to Lead. The "rolling lag" problem most often manifests itself when the wingman allows himself to drop below (or rise above) the plane of Lead's wings during the roll. Normally, the wingman flies so that he can see approximately the same amount of the top and bottom surfaces of Lead's wing, putting the wingman's eye level approximately in the plane of the chord of Lead's wing. During a "step up" roll (i.e. Lead rolling away from the wingman), an inexperienced wingman will often allow Lead to "get ahead," so that he is now looking mostly at the bottom surface of Lead's wing. The natural tendency when this happens is to also lag behind Lead's roll rate, so that the wingman also has less bank at each moment than Lead. By forcing himself to stay "up" with Lead during the roll (i.e. maintaining his vertical reference by using aft stick), the wingman will naturally tend to roll with Lead.

The effect and the cure are the same for the reverse case, where the wingman is on the inside of the turn, except that lagging Lead's roll on the inside causes the wingman to get "tight" on Lead.

Staying close to the vertical reference will not always ensure that the wingman rolls with Lead, however. It may only be a partial cure, and the wingman may find that he has to rely on rudder to maintain position during rolls, until he gains more experience.

Forgetting Power

In the beginning, most pilots find that maintaining position on the wing overloads their mental capacity. There are many things to think about, and the feeling is not unlike that of the beginning juggler. When that happens, often the first task to get dropped from the wingman's consciousness is power corrections. An astute formation instructor will notice the lack (or lateness) of power corrections. However, failure to make timely power corrections can be caused by at least three things: failure to recognize the need for a correction (a perceptual error); failure to understand the kind of correction required, and especially failure to anticipate when a power change will be needed (both conceptual errors); and overtasking leading to a failure to even think about power. It's not always easy for an instructor to tell which of these things is causing the student to mishandle the power.

If you as the instructor determine that the inappropriate use of power comes from a perceptual error, focus on helping the student see the references correctly. This can be done during briefing or debriefing. For a conceptual error, focus on explaining the geometric and energy relationships between the two airplanes. As above, this is best accomplished during the briefing and debriefing. However, once energy and geometry have been well briefed some terse words from the instructor during the flight can help remind the student of what they are trying to accomplish. If the student is simply over-tasked, reduce the aggressiveness of the manoeuvres until they are more within the student's capability.

Formation flying requires nearly continuous power corrections, so it may be helpful for the student to simply remind themselves to use power by saying "power" out loud every few seconds while flying on the wing.


Dishing means flying slightly cross-controlled, with bank toward lead and opposite rudder (not to be confused with the deliberate use of top rudder). Dishing is visible outside the formation, especially from head-on or tail-on, so it's not a good habit to have. If you find that you frequently have rudder pressure in the away-from-Lead direction, then you are probably dishing. (The opposite, flying with bank away from Lead, is rare enough that it doesn't have a name.)

Most likely, pilots find that dishing makes it easier to maintain position because it loads the rudder and ailerons, in much the same way that most formation pilots prefer to have the airplane trimmed slightly nose down. Dishing also improves the wingman's view of Lead, by lowering the inboard wing, but that is less of a factor when flying an RV than it would be with a longer-wingspan airplane.

One very effective way of avoiding dishing, or lessening the habit, is to deliberately remove your feet from the pedals regularly during the flight, briefly maintaining lateral position only with the ailerons.