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Mid-air collisions and formation flights. Watch out!

 

This LinkedIn post showing the dangers of mid-air collisions probably got you here.

If not, for a better understanding of the context, it would be beneficial to return there before continuing.

Formation flying requires specialized training.

Formation flying poses serious risks without proper training.

It is not rare to see SEAT (Single Engine Air Tankers) or scoopers groups crossing paths and interfering with other aircraft.

I have seen a few occurrences myself, not only in a specific country but in many different scenarios around the world.

We have also seen fatal accidents in the past, like the one in Nevada two years ago, or the fortunate close call in Greece, briefly described in the above-mentioned Linkedin post, where two Air Tractor Fire Bosses were damaged.

Here is a link to the fatal accident report by ASN that also links to the FAA report.

According to the FAA report, which is more detailed than the ATSB for the Fireboss “incident”, the accident was caused by the trailing pilot’s failure to maintain separation during fire retardant deployment.

There are, however, deeper factors at play.

According to the investigator, there may have been training deficiencies and previous reports regarding one specific pilot’s behavior on other flights, flying too close to other planes.

In a pilot-specific error, those organizational factors go deeper than what we can see, as the following illustration shows.

Training is key to mitigating at all levels, from what we see above the surface regarding the pilot-specific error, to more complex behavior and organizational factors deep below the surface.

And this is the goal of this post.

Train us. Make us learn, refresh, and reflect.

Other examples of the risks of formation flights:

The following video shows a classic formation drop we studied when performing large formation drops.

They were very lucky to get away.

Sadly, we have also seen recent videos with fatal outcomes.

On November 12, 2022, two World War II-era aircraft, a B-17 Flying Fortress and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra, collided mid-air and crashed during the Wings Over Dallas airshow at Dallas Executive Airport in Dallas, Texas.

Therefore, up to this point, I think we should agree to the fact that formation flying can get very messy very quickly!

For safe formation flying, it is imperative to receive adequate training.

Trying to fly close to each other based on gut instinct and self-taught concepts will not work.

It would be more beneficial if you seek advice instead of just going for it and seeing what happens.

The practical experience you will gain by taking a comprehensive and professional course and hiring a couple of inexpensive light aircraft, such as a Cessna, a Piper, or even an ultralight, could be greatly beneficial to you.

It’s not the type that matters most, it’s the concepts we learn before and during the flight.

As we move forward with this article, we will soon find a teaser of the most relevant concepts you should be familiar with regarding formation flights, as well as specific tips for aerial firefighters.

But before that, now that I’ve clarified that formation flying brings associated risks and training through deliberate practice is a must, I would like to take a moment to point out that aerial firefighters shouldn’t fly in a tight formation throughout an entire flight, but rather under a coordinated group concept.

We do not need to fly tight formations

Nope.

We are not the Blue Angels, working for the crowd.

We put fires out.

The show calls for tight formations, but the team does not.

If we fly too close to the preceding plane, we lose awareness of other critical aspects of our flight, such as terrain, wires, and other traffic. We switch from watching the environment with eight, six, or four eyes to just two. Those of the leader.

Loss of situational awareness

Loss of situational awareness is a significant problem in aviation that can lead to accidents and incidents. Situational awareness involves the perception of the operational environment, comprehension of the situation, and projection of future outcomes. During flight, aerial firefighters must maintain situational awareness at all times.

A loss of situational awareness in aviation can be caused by several factors, including:

It may be caused by distractions, fatigue, complacency, inadequate communication, information overload, lack of specific training, or target fixation.

Pilots should undergo regular training on group tactics, as illustrated in the material below, to recognize and avoid a loss of situational awareness. Furthermore, they should maintain good communication with other crew members and air traffic control, and prioritize critical information during flight. Getting trained on all of that is part of the process.

There is a classic instance in which two members of the group focus on the same aircraft and collide. In this case, number 2 and 3 think they are both number 2 after the lead, unaware of each other.

Losing situational awareness sounds like rocket science, however, there are some easy things we can do at an organizational level, as part of the prior risk assessment.

1-Making sure we send our aircraft abroad with ADSB and training our crew on the formation and group tactics are only a couple of examples. I have already stated publicly that ADSB is a must. See this article in AirMed & Rescue Magazine

2-Placing aircraft with different colors and marking strategically within the group.

It’s very rare that all aircraft are exactly the same and with the same colors, most likely there will be color markings or numbers that will differentiate our reference from the others.

But we need to brief for it.

Here is an example involving single-seaters and dual-seaters with different markings. This is exactly what we did when flying groups of 6 x Firebosses in Greece in 2021.

As part of the briefing, Craig Patton, the lead of the formation that day was very clear on the first and last of the formation being dual seaters, which are easier to recognize.

Distances and hazards associated to tight formations

As we circle the fire to assess it, while dropping, or during scooping, we should bring the team closer, but for the rest of the flight, being too close causes more harm than help.

I wrote this case report in response to some issues I observed as an instructor when slowly we started to drift to a too-rigid approach to formation flying, and we started losing the point of it during aerial firefighting operations.

It is possible that your organization is also experiencing this specific issue or even a more concerning one, such as not having any barriers to prevent mid-air collisions.

I would like you to consider the following questions:

  1. Do you maintain a hazard log as part of your Safety Management System?

  2. Does mid-air collision appear in your hazard log?

  3. Can you identify any existing barriers? What is their effectiveness?

Your risk assessment for this specific hazard should look something like this:

The importance of this approach to any hazard cannot be overstated.

Assessing hazards and implementing controls is essential.

Furthermore, making an initial effort is not enough. We should keep our hazard log and risk assessment updated. This is done by continuously reviewing probability and severity based on our own indicators as well as those of others.

So you have one, not only to meet regulations but to actually nurture your processes. Congratulations, you’re on the right track.

Don’t you have it? Then you should do one for each hazard, not just one for this one, and build your procedures around it.

Do you feel overwhelmed by the task?

Is your plate full of urgent tasks?

You can be assured it will get busier once you see your plane upside down or burned to ashes on the news.

To get started, if you do not have the resources internally, it is worth reaching out externally.

Coordinated Group flying tactics – key concepts

Maintaining a safe separation

What do I mean by safe separation?

A separation that allows keeping the preceding in sight, without a doubt, but not so close that makes us target fixate and lose environment and systems awareness.

1000m – safe and comfortable for cruising

1000m (300ft) tends to be comfortable when flying in pairs or small groups.

500m – bringing it a bit tighter when reaching the fire zone

500m (1500ft) provides enough separation to still be able to keep aware of our surroundings, not interfere with the preceding aircraft, and still be safe and effective while dropping.

We do not want to fly through the preceding drop, instead, we want to see how it drifts and still have time to make corrections in order to be effective as a group.

On the other end, we do not want to be so far we can’t see how the drop goes,  nor make other traffic around wait too much unnecessarily.

500m is a good compromise.

 

Watch out for not having your group too spread if flying with more than 2 aircraft

When flying larger groups, make sure all members can fit comfortably within the orbit space. Otherwise, the leader could be facing head-to-head with those struggling behind and can get very messy very quickly, with aircraft all over the place on collision headings.

 

Formation specific

Let’s start by refreshing the basics, commonly used wording, roles, positions, angles and communications.

Basics:

One word summarizes the basis for successfully flying aircraft formations:

PLANNING. Formation flying adds an extra challenge to any type of flying. Aerobatics, crop-spraying, skydivers dropping, aerial firefighting, it all gets harder.

Whether flying as lead or trail within the formation, the job requires concentration, teamwork, and careful planning. Both roles are as important as each other despite requiring very different skills.

A formation flight must be thoroughly briefed among the pilots willing to endeavor on a formation flight.

This briefing should at least address the following aspects:

 

Roles:

  • The leader navigates and communicates. Leader refers to a position in the formation but does not necessarily mean the leader is responsible for the whole flight. I can be leading a group from behind to watch others progress and still be responsible for the safety and performance of the whole group.
  • No 2 is responsible for separation from No 1. No 2 supports No1 with the task
  • No 3 is responsible for separation from No 2. Number 3 supports No 2 and No1 with the task.

Positions:

  • No 2 Echelon Right + No 3 Echelon rights (or left – left) is the usual, as we have seen on previous image. Different sides are also acceptable as long they are briefed.
  • After take-off, once in position, No 2 and No 3 must communicate.
  • Echelon right ties you to the right side! If you want to reposition to ECHELON left,  COMMUNICATE!
  • Echelon left ties you to the left side! If you want to reposition to ECHELON left,  COMMUNICATE!

 

Angles:

  • Our standard is Normal (45º) + Slightly negative.
  • Negative provides more margin with preceding aircraft sin case of abrupt movements.

 

Offensive Formation:

  • Less demanding.
  • Allows resting more as there is more flexibility compared to committing to a specific side.
  • It allows positioning on the desired side of the turn depending on the terrain around, other traffic, etc.
  • Always stay in contact and maintain separation from the reference traffic.

 

 

Visual contact lost (blind):

 

  • Transmit: No 2 (or whoever) is blind
  • 30/30/1000 (Terrain and traffic permitting, when possible)

Distances and clouds applied to Firefighting:

Whether the distances I use sound reasonable or you have other standards, make sure everyone on your team is aware of the standards.

Here is what I suggest:

  • 20 -50m Close Formation
  • 50-200m Open Formation
  • >500m-1000m Group Flying (remember this is what we want to use most of the times).
  • We should stay away from clouds.
  • If crossing clouds during a ferry, as instance, no formation. We should use blind procedure and ADSB when available.
  • If no ADSB, we will use the route track as reference. Lead stays on the center. No 2 at least 1NM behind the lead and 1NM crosstrack to one side.
  • And so on.

 

Communications Management:

  • Read back communication and new frequency twice and slowly.
  • In the end, add the word “push”.
  • Wait about 5 seconds on the new frequency before “checking in”.
  • After checking 1-2-3, the message comes straight away.
  • The point is to make sure everyone is listening and using the frequency as little as possible.

 

Lead swoop:

  • An effective lead transfer is essential.
  • We might need to transfer to swap roles, allow rest, avoid boredom, and keep all team members “engaged” and trained.
  • Number 2 is responsible for separation during the maneuver
  • The lead must be in contact before transferring the lead
  • You have the lead -> I have the lead, must be clear.

 

Regulations on formation flights

In the Standardized European Rules of the Air (SERA) there are 2 rules that are applicable to formation flight;

SERA.3205 Proximity

An aircraft shall not be operated in such proximity to other aircraft as to create a collision hazard.

SERA.3135 Formation flights

Aircraft shall not be flown in formation except by pre-arrangement among the pilots-in-command of the aircraft taking part in the flight and, for formation flight in controlled airspace, in accordance with the conditions prescribed by the competent authority. These conditions shall include the following:
(a) one of the pilots-in-command shall be designated as the flight leader;
(b) the formation operates as a single aircraft with regard to navigation and position reporting;
(c) separation between aircraft in the flight shall be the responsibility of the flight leader and the pilots-in command of the other aircraft in the flight and shall include periods of transition when aircraft are maneuvering to attain their own separation within the formation and during join-up and breakaway.

Regardless of Firefighting aircraft being excluded from basic regulations and regulated nationally in many European countries, or the FAA, CASA, and other governing authorities having slightly different approaches, the core message should stand out:

We need to brief for it and have a standard procedure.

Here is an example of the format we had while dropping Skydivers with large turbine aircraft, putting together 50 skydivers or more:

Key things to remember:

  • Let´s promote the concept of coordinated group flying over the rigid concepts of formation flying. We are performing aerial firefighting, not a show for the crowd, nor air-ground attack where we can get shot back.
  • Do not accept to fly in formation without specific training and a briefing.
  • If any of the parameters to be checked during the preflight briefing of the intended formation flight is negative, do not proceed, ask for advice, or await better conditions.
  • As trail, continuously keep visual contact with the flight leader! If visual contact is lost, report it via the radio, follow the procedure and ask for a position update from the leader.
  •  Pay attention to the sun! When the sun falls in the wingman’s field of view (when looking at the leader), the wingman may get temporarily blinded, leading to loss of reference and mid-air collisions.
  • Avoid Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), even for short periods, and keep visual references to each other, the ground and remain clear of clouds.
  • Always be ready to use the agreed break-off procedure!
  •  Brief the flight and fly the brief. Plan everything and then stick to the plan! Diverting from the plan will create radio chatter, that weant to reduce as much as possible.
  • ALWAYS BE READY FOR EVASIVE MANEUVERS, AWAY FROM THE OTHER AIRCRAFT!

Stay safe and away from mid-air collisions!

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