Tag Archives: formation aerobatics

Impressive video: behind the scenes of world’s largest aerobatic display team. Flying with the Frecce Tricolori 10-ship formation

Even while most people like to attend air shows to see aerobatic display teams performances, they usually don’t know what happens inside the formation, which are the main roles of the team, which are the solo radio calls, and which flight instruments are used during the display.

Last week I was invited to attend the traditional dinner with the pilots of the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Aerobatic Team, organized by the 1° Club Frecce Tricolori, the first of more than 120 fan clubs all around the world, that was born on May 27, 1989 at Pieve di Soligo, in North East Italy.  The event was also interesting because a brand new video, recorded with gopro cameras installed on both the planes, the cockpit and the flight helmets of the Frecce Tricolori,  produced by DeAgostini with the help of the Italian Air Force, was presented for the first time.

Available as a double DVD in a booklet containing information about the team (with excerpts from my official 50th Anniversary book) and stunning pictures, the new video gives a clear idea of what happens behind the scenes of the Italian Air Force’s 50-year old Frecce Tricolori the world’s largest aerobatic display team that can claim credit for five records unmatched by any other aerobatic team in the world.

I’ve seen many Frecce videos, but this one, with 170-minute footage bringing the viewer not only inside the cockpit but also inside the formation in the most unusual attitude, is by far the most interesting and realistic I’ve ever seen.

Here’s a teaser:

For more information about the DVD please visit Aviatorzone.com.

If you want to know something more about the team, here’s some background info for you.

Frecce Tricolori

Based at Rivolto, not far from Udine, in NE Italy, the Frecce Tricolori official designation is 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Aerobatic Training Squadron).

The Frecce Tricolori team is equipped with a modified version of the Alenia Aermacchi MB.339A, a single engine tandem seat training and tactical support aircraft. Apart from the overall blue color scheme, the aircraft differ from the standard model by the presence of the onboard colored smokes generation system.

This device is controlled by two buttons: one on the control stick, for white smoke, and one on the throttle for colored smoke. The system is fed from an underwing fuel tank filled with a coloring agent which is discharged through nozzles placed in the jet exhaust. The agent, vaporized in the jet exhaust, produces a colored trail.

The roles

Although every position is key in the overall display, the roles with greater responsibility are the ones of the Commander, the Leader, the First Slot and Solo.

Unlike other display teams, the Frecce’s Commander does not fly with the formation. He is the former Leader and issues instructions from the ground supervising the display both from a technical and a flight safety perspective.

The formation Leader (aircraft numbered #1) guides the whole team, dictating timings and managing separations, opposition passes and rejoins, aided by the First Slot (#6), who flies in the centre, and acts as a reference point for speeds and distances.

The Solo (#10) is tasked with displaying to the public the aircraft’s extreme capabilities in periods when the rest of the formation momentarily exits the air show area to prepare for the next maneuver. He flies an almost independent display program, with highly technical manoeuvres in which the aircraft is pushed to the limits of its envelope.

Formation flying

Most people don’t even know the reasons why military (and even civilian) planes fly and perform aerobatics in formation and many questions arise when display teams suffer incidents, like the Blue Angels near controlled flight into terrain or the Red Arrows tragic loss of Aug. 20, 2011 [although not display-related, unfortunately a pilot of the “Reds” was killed in a ground ejection incident on Nov. 8].

Formation aerobatics dates back to the end of the ’20s as a means for improving pilot’s skills, and it is still today one of the most important disciplines in the background of a military pilot. At that time formation aerobatics was used to train pilots to follow the formation leader in dogfights, regardless of the aircraft attitude. Still today, formations are a typical feature of military aviation: they are used in combat, for providing mutual cover or reducing the formation radar footprint, and also during peacetime operations for both training and operational purposes, and also for bringing an unexperienced wingman on the ground during a bad weather recovery to the homebase. That’s why, unless they are launched to check an aircraft subsystems after a maintenance work or to test some specific on board or ground equipment, the majority of tactical planes (“tacair”) missions involve at least two aircraft.

Apart from those phases in which the team splits into two sections, the Frecce fly in a standard diamond formation, in which its elements are arranged in five “layers”. The leader is the highest aircraft (hence it occupies the highest layer) while the second slot (#9) is the lowest. The first left wingman and the first slot are responsible for the set up and constitute the perspective reference to the rest of the aircraft. The Frecce aircraft very close to each other: they use a vertical and horizontal separation appearing almost overlapped to the eyes of the spectators.

Instrument flight is reduced to the minimum. The artificial horizon is used for no more than 20 or 30 seconds during the whole display, this being flown “visually”, looking out, maintaining one’s own position by sighting the specific reference points. For almost all the duration of the performance wingmen and slot pilots, have “only” to follow their leader, almost disregarding their position relative to the ground.

The program

According to the weather conditions as well as the topographic characteristics of the location in which the air show is being staged, the Frecce Tricolori can perform three types of program: “high”, “low” or “flat”.

The “high” program is the most spectacular: it is made by an uninterrupted sequence of some thirty figures (among those the Big triangle formation loop, and the Downward Bomb Burst), the performance of which requires on average some 25 minutes.  After performing the first part of the program with all ten aircraft, the solo display pilot detaches, alternating his own maneuvers with the ones flown by the remaining nine planes.

Even though to the eyes of a spectator displays don’t change during an entire air show season, the way the “Frecce Tricolori” fly may differ significantly depending on the environment in which aerobatics is executed.

“In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and rivers” Capt. Piercarlo Ciacchi, Frecce Tricolori’s pilot said.

Over the water, however, it is necessary to use buoys or boats to create the reference points for the pilots for the safe execution of all the maneuvers. “Although usually free of significant obstacles, displays flown over water can hide several traps. In those flown over the sea, the sunlight reflected on the surface may reduce visibility. Displays flown over a lake require even greater concentration on behalf of the pilots, since the absence of significant wave motion, low lake bottoms, and different water salinity amplify the reflective characteristics of the surface, causing the problem of spatial disorientation” Ciacchi explains.

The training

The training which precedes entrance in the formation lasts a little less than six months. It begins with single ship sorties and continues with other missions featuring an increasing number of aircraft. At the end of each training phase, the progress made by the new pilot is certified by a senior member of the formation, who is responsible for assessing if the trainee can proceed to the next one.

The newly assigned pilots enter the formation occupying the rear positions, considered easier and more comfortable to fly.

Blue Angels' almost crash: the risk of Controlled Flight Into Terrain during formation aerobatics

On May 22, 2011, the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron was performing at Lynchburg Regional Air Show, Va, when the diamond formation went too low at the end of the “Barrel Roll Break” maneuver. As a consequence of the lower-than-normal maneuver, the Blue Angels aborted the show and all F-18s landed safely. Noteworthy, neither on the preceeding day’s rehearsals, for unknown reasons, the maneuver ended as expected with the break (to see how the maneuver should be performed have a look at the team’s website and select Maneuver 28).

The following video shows both the May 21 and 22 maneuvers.

Following the incident, the Blue Angels announced a safety stand-down and cancelled their next performances (so far, until mid June) for more practice at their home base Pensacola, Florida, and, on May 27, team’s leader CDR Dave Koss resigned and was replaced for the duration of the season by Capt. Greg McWherter, who was the previous Blue Angels’ Commanding Officer.

The incident was obviously a Leader’s fault. He entered the loop too low causing the diamond four-ship formation almost to hit the ground as happened in 1982, when the whole Thunderbirds T-38 formation crashed killing all four pilots (even if in that case the cause of the crash was a mechanical malfunction with the #1 aircraft control stick).

Formation aerobatics requires specific qualifications, experience and training as it’s not easy to perform aerobatic maneuvers. When many aircraft (up to 9 elements) fly formation aerobatics, it is important not only to maintain the correct distance from one another, but also to maintain a very reactive flight attitude: who flies up front is required to anticipate wind gusts, turbulence, and the appropriate corrections, absorbing as much as one can the oscillations in order not to propagate them amongst the rest of the formation. Instrument flight is reduced to the minimum. The artificial horizon is utilised for no more than 20 or 30 seconds during the whole display, this being flown “visually”, looking out, maintaining one’s own position by sighting the specific reference points. For almost all the duration of the performance wingmen and slot pilots, have “only” to follow their leader, almost disregarding their position relative to the ground.

Formation leader is the role with greater responsibilities: he guides the whole team, ensuring flight safety, dictating timings and managing separations, opposition passes and rejoins. For this reason, formation leaders are the most experienced pilots flying in a team. However, even the most experienced pilots can do mistakes and when such errors occur during vertical maneuvers, consequences can be tragic.

In 2008 I was attending an airshow when a brand new NH90 helicopter of the Italian Army, piloted by an experienced crew, crashed into the Bracciano lake after entering a Fiesler maneuver at low altitude and, probably, suffering spacial disorientation caused by the surface of the water.

The above picture was taken on Jun. 1, 2008. For more info visit the NH90 crash page. Image is watermarked.

Who called the “Knock it off”?

After watching the footage of the Blue Angel’s almost crash, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss with blog’s visitors and Twitter followers, who might have called the “knock it off” (a radio call reserved for safety of flight issues used to cease maneuvering).

As already explained, the team Leader has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the formation. Many teams (as the Frecce Tricolori) have a  Commander who issues instructions from the ground to the pilots in the air to fine tune timings and distances in the various manoeuvres, supervising the display both from a technical and a flight safety perspective.  However, in the Blue Angels the Flight Leader is also the Commanding Officer, hence, most probably, it was #1 who radioed the safety order to the rest of the formation. Nonetheless, there are some maneuvers in which other formation members have specific responsibility to cross check heights and distances and during the whole performance, and above all, #4 has a demonstration safety officer role, as he flies at the lowest position in the diamond, from where he has a overall view of the formation. Maybe #1 failed to recognize the dangerous situation and #4 called the safety breakout. Unfortunately it is impossible to determine it but it owuld be extremely interesting to know whether it was the Leader or the Slot or another team member to radio the “knock it off” as it would give us an idea of the formation’ situational awareness.

Even if it is not among his tasks, each formation member can radio a call for a safety issue but it is an extremely unlikely situation, unless the call is made to inform the rest of the formation of a failure involving a single aircraft. Unsolicited safety calls are extremely rare even if the could prevent a so-called “Controlled Flight Into Terrain” (CFIT) of the formation. Military aviation counts thousands episodes of CFIT with wingmen recognizing a potentially dangerous situation earlier than their flight leaders but delaying too much the call that would have saved both lives for extreme confidence in the flight leader and respect of hierarchy.