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Formation Flying for the Simulator Pilot

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Formation Flying for the Simulator Pilot

By PhrogPhyler


One of the most demanding and rewarding advanced skills one can obtain as a pilot is to fly in a formation with other aircraft. This tutorial is designed to offer some steps and pointers to allow you to fly basic formation flight while flying in a simulator environment.


Why Fly Formation?

There are two basic reasons to fly in formation, one reason is to enhance the fine motor skills of aircraft maneuvering. This can be seen at its best with the world class aerobatic teams such as the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, Red Arrows, Snowbirds, and Blue Impulse.




The other is to control multiple aircraft as one, easing the burden on ATC. Radio calls made by Lead are for the flight instead of individual aircraft. This is used daily by military operators worldwide. Two aircraft or more are always in formation, tight parade to loose cruise.




What Makes Formation Flying So Challenging?

First and foremost is that you are maneuvering your aircraft in close proximity to other aircraft. In real world flying, lack of fine control could Lead to contact with your Lead or another wing aircraft, with the possibility of catastrophic results. For the sim pilot, as well as in real aircraft, the application of control and/or power inputs are constantly being applied to effect small changes in speed, altitude of separation.


You will need to understand and apply appropriate control inputs for a controlled rate of closure, as well as understanding the relationship of angle of bank to the radius of turn. These will be discussed more in depth below.


Whether you are flying 4th generation jets at Mach speeds, an ultralite at 40 kt, or something in between, the two primary skills required (control of closure and bank/radius) remain the same. The relative difference in speed between aircraft is the same no matter what the indicated aircraft may show.


I will be using Microsoft FSX Acceleration for the screenshots, along with FSX aircraft and utilities. You will find that this tutorial holds true for any flight simulator version you may be utilizing.


I hope that this tutorial will provide you with the knowledge and techniques fly basic formation.


Simulator Limitations

We must first address some limitations that exist with all versions of Microsoft and other PC based Flight Simulators.


Formation flying requires the pilot to spend most of the time "heads up" and looking outside the cockpit, with occasional scans of the instrument panel. A 2D panel does not allow for angled viewing outside the cockpit. Using a VC view will greatly enhance your ability for early identification relative position changes and make small adjustments to maintain your position.


Most simulator pilots, myself included, rarely if ever fly on-line with other pilots. Therefore, we have to find aircraft already in the simulated world that we can join with as a formation flight.


There are a few ways to do this such as recording a flight and replaying it as AI aircraft, thus allowing you to follow and join the recorded aircraft. I will not be discussing how to do this, so it is up to you to work out this method for your simulator version.


Another method is to use a utility that allows the creation of AI aircraft formations, from delta-winged ultralites, to




Classic aircraft,




Helicopters, or




Modern corporate aircraft.




You can also intercept enroute AI flights and fly with them to their destination.


This method offers a wide variety of aircraft to fly formation. From fixed-wing airliners, to








Of course, if you fly on-line with other simulator pilots/aircraft, everything in this tutorial directly applies, with the addition of a thorough preflight briefing including a determination of positions and responsibilities within the flight.


Relative Motion

Essentially, formation flying is nothing more than controlling the relative motion between aircraft. Lead is considered to be fixed, and any movement between aircraft is considered movement of the Wingman in relation to the Lead. In the Contact stage (joining the formation enroute), the horizon is used as the primary attitude reference. Once in Formation, Lead's aircraft becomes the primary reference for attitude control for their wingman. Relative motion can be resolved into movement about any one or combination of all three axes. Vertical movement is primarily controlled by elevator inputs to climb/descend relative to Lead.



1 Vertical movement



Horizontal movement can be controlled by using power to move fore/aft and by using aileron to move left/right relative to Lead. Work to recognize and limit deviations, and to make timely and efficient corrections.


The farther Wing is away from Lead, the more challenging it is to detect/correct position changes.


Good formation flying is the result of anticipation and the use of small, timely corrections about all three axes.


There are four possible errors in regards to the bearing line, they are broken down to "Acute with power," "Sucked with power," "Acute with aileron," and "Sucked with aileron." "Power" and "Aileron" in these terms refer to the primary control needed to correct the condition.


These common errors are shown in the figures below:



2 Horizontal movement is done with power




3 Horizontal movement is done with aileron


Radius Of Turn


Another key to good formation flying is to clearly understand radius of turn and how it relates to controlling position. Because the Lead aircraft acts as the source of all position information, Wing needs to anticipate position corrections in relation to Lead's radius of turn. If Lead turns into Wing's position, Wing will require less power to complete the turn because he is flying a smaller radius of turn. Failing to reduce power will cause Wing to become Acute. When the Lead turns away from Wing's position, Wing will require more power because he is flying a larger radius of turn. Failing to increase power will cause Wing to become Sucked. Leading all turns with a power change in wing is required to maintain position. Think of radius of turn like running on a track: the runner on the outside lane has to work harder to keep up with the runner on the inside lane and vice versa.



4 Radius of turn


Parade Position

Parade Position is the basis for all maneuvers in this chapter. It is a fixed position on the left/right 45º bearing from Lead with sufficient wingtip clearance and step-down utilizing the checkpoints described below. To maintain Parade Position, Wing must remain relaxed and scan Lead's entire aircraft. By keeping the aircraft trimmed, Wing will need to only apply slight stick pressures and minor power changes to maintain position. Anticipate and immediately make corrections to minimize the magnitude of errors.



5 Parade position



The underrun procedure allows Wing to get out of an unsafe situation during the rendezvous phase, stabilize clear of Lead, and then safely rejoin. Wing should always approach the rendezvous with a conservative mindset. Wing will initiate an underrun when any of the following situations occur:


  • Wing develops an excessive closure rate
  • Wing becomes excessively Acute
  • Wing gets Acute in close to Lead and is too close to make angle of bank corrections
  • Anytime Wing feels uncomfortable and in their judgment an unsafe situation has developed
  • Anytime directed to by the Formation Lead


The underrun procedure shall be executed as follows:


Lead is wings level:


  1. LOWER the nose to maintain step-down.
  2. Retard PCL to IDLE (speed brake as required) to avoid passing ahead of Lead.
  3. Increase LATERAL separation using aileron and avoid crossing flight paths.
  4. When able, call underrun ("(TAC call sign), underrun").
  5. Maneuver as necessary to rejoin in Parade Position.


Lead is in a turn:


  1. LOWER the nose to obtain step-down.
  2. LEVEL the wings and move to a position outside the Lead's radius of turn.
  3. Retard PCL to IDLE to avoid passing ahead of Lead (extend the speed brake if required for excessive closure).
  5. When stable, and outside of the turn, call underrun ("(TAC call sign), underrun").
  6. Maneuver as necessary to rejoin to VMC Turn Away Parade Position.


6 Rendezvous underrun


After performing the underrun procedure, with de-confliction established (passing safely below and aft), expeditiously begin to match Lead's angle of bank and add power (retract the speed brake if it is extended). Avoid getting too long in trail or too far outside Lead's radius of turn.



7 Underrun - lead is in a turn


During the underrun, Wing moves to a stable position by matching Lead's angle of bank and airspeed, with closure under control, while keeping Lead on or above the horizon. Once stable, Wing will execute the join-up using airspeed differential to a VFR turn away position, remaining outside of Lead's radius of turn.


Parade Checkpoints:

1. Altitude: The most important of the three checkpoints because it ensures altitude separation should an excessive closure develop. For the T-6B proper step-down is achieved when Lead's inboard exhaust stack is fully visible and touching the bottom (tangent) wing. If there is excessive step-down, a space between the exhaust stack and the wing will exist. Conversely, if there is excessive step-up, the stack will be either masked by the wing or will be visible above the wing. Step-down/up is corrected by forward/aft stick and a corresponding power correction to offset the decrease or increase in speed as needed.


Bringing it together, Single User (non-multiplayer)

1. Select an aircraft.


  • Choose an aircraft that offers good visibility from the cockpit using the VC. I chose the Beechcraft T-6B Texan II by IRIS. It has an easy-to-read instrument panel when suing the VC, and it aligns with the T-6B formation guide used as a reference document for this tutorial. It can be downloaded for FSX here


2. Flying with AI Traffic.



  • a. Select a starting airport.
    • Create a free flight with the aircraft you intend to fly at a major airport. I have selected EWR, Newark Liberty in New Jersey. A major airport has a higher number of AI aircraft than general aviation airports.
    • Move off the active runway. Being on the runway may delay AI traffic from departing the gates.


  • Locate AI aircraft near you.
    • Open the Traffic Explorer, sort by "From" by clicking the column name, and then look at the departure times. Remember that times are in UTC(Z). Here you will see that there are multiple aircraft departing around 13:59Z.
    • formfly_html_531e3360.jpg
    • Set world time to just before 13:59Z. Keep Traffic Explorer open so that you can see the progress of the AI aircraft (pre-flight, push back, taxi out, etc.).
    • When the aircraft you wish to fly next to taxis past, taxi your aircraft behind that specific AI and line up on the runway in echelon (right or left). Here I am lined up as dash-2 in a left echelon.formfly_html_16fdda7b.jpg
    • Switch to VC view. As soon as you see the Lead aircraft begin to roll, apply full T/O power.formfly_html_m7f350211.jpg
    • Enroute flying will be discussed in section 4 below.


3. Flying with an AI generated formation.




  • Select a starting airport and aircraft.
    • Create a free flight with the aircraft you intend to fly at any airport. I have selected a T-6B at Whiting Fld NAS (North) in Florida.formfly_html_m1545a008.jpg
  • Create a formation that you join.
  • Open the AI formation utility.


    • I am using Formation Toy that allows for the creation of an AI flight of 1 through 4 aircraft, in either a diamond, box, or line formation.
    • Set the parameters for the formation.
      • Number of aircraft
      • Type of formation
      • Altitude
      • Airspeed
      • Leg length
    • Connect to FSXformfly_html_a27df53.jpg
    • Return to your FSX screenformfly_html_11216269.jpg
  • Activate the flight from the Add-on menuformfly_html_m797e18f4.jpg
  • The flight of aircraft will appear on the runway slightly ahead and centered on your aircraft
  • formfly_html_7f43d28c.jpg
  • Switch to VC view
  • Select Start Formation, from the Add-on menuformfly_html_m2318a6d7.jpg
  • As soon as you see the Lead aircraft begin to roll, apply full T/O power
  • Initially, climb in a loose trailformfly_html_m537e5b5.jpg
  • As you get closer slide into a right echelon working with smooth aileron control and power inputs to maintain positionformfly_html_m7a5e749.jpg


4. Enroute/Flying in the Formation


  • Everything you do from this point onward is so to obtain and maintain your position within the formation. You must overcome the inherent desire to move quickly. Slow and steady corrections are needed. Rapid changes in power and overcontrolling are normal, but unnecessary, and will just exasperate any deviations in position that may have occurred.
  • Formations with other on-line aircraft will have a Lead (first aircraft) who will set the altitude, airspeed, and routing of for the formation. These are initially discussed by all pilots during a pre-flight briefing.
  • Since AI aircraft will function as Lead, they will also set the formation parameters.
  • One method of knowing what the Lead is doing is to use the AI aircraft information tags as if they were radio calls from the lead. I changed the AI setting to only display distance, altitude, and airspeed. Distance is useful for the initial rendezvous. Once aboard the formation, distance is maintained visually. Examples of the AI Lead information are below:



8 Indication of distance



9 Indication of airspeed



10 Indication of altitude


5. Correcting to the bearing line.



  • In this example you have become sucked, and are still closing on the Lead.
  • To correct you would:
    • Reduce power, increasing distance to Lead.
    • Move right with minor aileron input.
    • Increase power to slowly move forward to the intended bearing line.




6. Notes on control inputs:




  • Aileron and elevator
    • Smooth gentle inputs.
    • Do not over control or use large inputs.
  • b. Rudder
    • Light rudder inputs for minor changes in heading.
    • Maintain centered ball in turns.


  • Throttle
    • Power must be positively applied when drifting behind and getting sucked.
    • Conversely, power must be chopped, and maybe even with speed brake application, when a rapid closure rate is identified.
    • Never be afraid to make large power changes, increasing or decreasing.


Formation Terminology

Here are a few of the terms that we use with formation flying that are either unique or have specific meanings during this type of flying.


Abeam: A position, either on the left or right side, which is 90º off the longitudinal axis of the aircraft.


Acute: A condition in which the Wingman is positioned forward of a designated bearing line.


Formation: Two or more aircraft flying in relatively close proximity to each other. The smallest formation unit is a section, which consists of two aircraft: a Section Leader and a Wingman. Next in size is a division, which consists of three or more aircraft. Adding sections or divisions, as required, makes larger formations. The Formation Lead is commonly referred to as "Lead," while the Wingman is often referred to as "Wing" or "Dash 2" (sometimes written as -2, -3, -4, etc. in larger formations).


Bearing Line: An imaginary line drawn aft and at an angle from Lead. Measured as the angular difference between the Wingman's aircraft and Lead (i.e., being established on the 60° bearing line means the Wingman is offset 30° from Lead's 6 o'clock position).


Closure: The rate at which an aircraft reduces range on another aircraft.


Cruise Formation: A formation which allows the Wingman more flexibility and provides better lookout capabilities and fuel efficiency for the Wingman.


Cutout: A visual checkpoint on the T-6B referring to the outermost or innermost corner of that portion of the wing that has been cut out to allow installation of the aileron.


Dash Two, Dash Three, etc.: A term used to refer to successive Wingman in a formation.


Division: Flight of three or more aircraft.


Nose-To-Tail: The distance from the preceding aircraft's tail to the wingman's nose.


Parade Position: Fixed position on the 45º bearing on either the left or right side of the Lead aircraft with proper step-down and wingtip separation.


Playmate: A term used when referencing aircraft participating in your formation.


Relative Motion: Any movement of the Wingman's aircraft in relation to the Lead's.


Section: The basic flying unit used in formation consisting of two aircraft.


Step-Down: The vertical distance below Lead's wing; step-down is the normal relative position for fixed-wing aircraft.formfly_html_m11d556ef.jpg


Step-Up: The vertical distance above Lead's wing; step-up is the normal relative position for rotary-wing aircraft.formfly_html_m5a6c55fd.jpg


Sucked: A situation where a Wingman is behind the bearing line.


Trail: A formation pattern where the Wing is directly behind the Lead aircraft.


Turn Circle: The flight path described by an aircraft in a turn.


Turn Radius: The distance between an aircraft's flight path and the center of the turn circle.


Turn Rate: Change in heading expressed in degrees per second at which an aircraft is turning.


Underrun: A maneuver that allows the Wing aircraft to pass below, behind, and outside the Lead's radius of turn in the event that the rendezvous becomes unsafe.


Types Of Formations

There are many standard formations that can be flown, however due to the limitations we have briefly addressed we will use only a couple of these possible formations.


The following graphic shows many of the common formations that are used.




Final Thoughts

Formation flying can be challenging, quite similar efforts have been experienced by those who take on simulator helicopter flying. There may be periods of frustration. These are quite normal. I am positive that for all of us that once you master early recognition of position changes and consistently apply smooth control movements, formation flying will become a fun extension to the flight simulator experience.


Happy Simming!


Resources Used For This Tutorial

FSX AI Formation Toys - Version 4 by Jerry Beckwith. This utility is available on FlightSim here.




Recommended Additional Resources For Formation Flying








Although this tutorial provides some of the basics for formation flight, it is for simulator use only. Flying formation with actual aircraft requires extensive training with qualified instructors.


The Author

PhrogPhlyer (FlightSim.Com) has over 5000 hours of flying in various aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing, military and civil. Over 1000 hours of that is in multi-aircraft formation, from a tight parade to a very loose cruise. As a military Standardization Pilot, an aviator's ability to demonstrate consistent, safe and accurate formation flying was part of nearly every evaluation given. PhrogPhlyer holds multiple FAA certifications to include ATP, CFI, MEI, and BV-107 Type Rating.


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Wow! Nicely done!


I have a few comments about this in the sim with multiplayer:


It's best if you have voice communication with the other player(s) (I've used Microsoft Meeting, Freetel and some others, but for a number of years used a free and open source program called mumble (with the murmur server)- works very well, but sometimes awkward to set up initially - after that it's simple to use.


In FS98 (I forget which version changed this) multiplayer formation is difficult because relative positions shown are affected instantly by internet delays, such that you'll sometimes get an instant stop or jump of the other player(s), followed at some point by catching up/corrections.


In FSX (and some earlier) MS changed the position keeping to (apparently) use interpolation, that is, with internet delays it assumed the other aircraft are keeping the exact same path, altitude and speed, so that mostly it appears to remain smooth, but on rare occasion you have some sort of jump if the delay lasts too long and you or others have changed path, speed, etc. during the delay. Thankfully that's rare.


In real life, any aircraft, ANY aircraft in coordinated flight which are turning at the same bank angle and airspeed will have exactly the same turning radius and rate as any other at that angle and speed. In FSX and before (and in P3D V1 and V2) not all flight models make this happen (actually few do), and it can sometimes be a real headache to change that on any specific aircraft (along with other flight model characteristics), thus making formation flight more difficult than it should be when aircraft don't react the same. A good friend of mine that I flew with enjoyed modifying FS aircraft handling to correct this and other problems, and his corrected aircraft are a joy to fly, some even being spinnable. Unfortunately he passed a few years back. His work handles so well that we could often fly almost as close as the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels, so long as we kept the maneuvers gentle, even through some rolls and (mostly) through loops.


T-34 Formation- Carenado Beech T-34 Mentor in P3D V2.4




I'm looking backwards at my wingman- Mike loved to cut up.



I'll emphasize, since all too many simmers tend to be a tad ham-fisted, that Phrog's comment about slow and small corrections is EXTREMELY important, and the closer you fly to another aircraft and the faster the speed that you are flying, the more critical this is.


It helps TREMENDOUSLY if you not only use the VC as Phrog suggests, but if you have something such as TrackIR for looking around and keeping your eye on lead, though it's far from required, and Mike often didn't use TrackIR, though I always did.


Propeller driven aircraft are (mostly) easier to fly formation in than jet aircraft, largely because of the instant power changes available and because of the considerable drag of the prop when reducing power. Jets are very slippery and anticipation is even more important than in props, and slow and small corrections MUST be used to avoid crashes and worse.


Finally, a good joystick and some rudder pedals make this easier, though it can be done with a yoke and without pedals, but it's more difficult.


I also want to repeat Phrog's warning:





Although this tutorial provides some of the basics for formation flight, it is for simulator use only. Flying formation with actual aircraft requires extensive training with qualified instructors.




Hope I remembered most of the problems in formation flying that the sim introduces vs real life, though the consequences are not quite as bad in the sim.  😎



Larry N.

As Skylab would say:

Remember: Aviation is NOT an exact Science!

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Thanks Larry. I do appreciate your comments on multi-player, as this is something I do not have much experience with.

Nice pics also!

Maybe you could write up a brief section of this, and perhaps Nels can add as an addendum/inclusion?

Just a thought.

Always Aviate, then Navigate, then Communicate. And never be low on Fuel, Altitude, Airspeed, or Ideas.

phrog x 2.jpg

Laptop, Intel Core i7 CPU 1.80GHz 2.30 GHz, 8GB RAM, 64-bit, NVIDIA GeoForce MX 130, Extra large coffee-black.

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33 minutes ago, PhrogPhlyer said:

Maybe you could write up a brief section of this, and perhaps Nels can add as an addendum/inclusion?

Just a thought.

I'm not quite clear on what you're suggesting I write additional. I probably can add some things if they're needed, though.


Larry N.

As Skylab would say:

Remember: Aviation is NOT an exact Science!

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12 hours ago, lnuss said:

I probably can add some things if they're needed, though.

I will respond in message, Thanks

Always Aviate, then Navigate, then Communicate. And never be low on Fuel, Altitude, Airspeed, or Ideas.

phrog x 2.jpg

Laptop, Intel Core i7 CPU 1.80GHz 2.30 GHz, 8GB RAM, 64-bit, NVIDIA GeoForce MX 130, Extra large coffee-black.

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