Being There

Sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest places and in the strangest ways. Following the Fourth of July weekend and the tiring drive home, I found myself dozing at the computer. And in the middle of my dozing, I found myself at the controls of an A-4 as the wingman on a section go.

My next thought was, I need to video this and write about it my blog. Then I came fully awake, realizing my mind was somewhere in my past and my abilities to allow readers to experience a section takeoff would depend on my skills as a writer, not as a photographer. Then I found a video on of a pair of F/A-18 Hornets performing a section go filmed from the wingman’s perspective. Make the screen big.

(Found at

Then the phrase, You had to be there, ran through my head. It was then that I realized with absolute certainty, the impact of the statement. You really do have to be there to understand all that goes into the execution of a formation takeoff.

When watching from afar, military aviators make it look so easy. What’s involved? 

Beyond a great deal of training, there is also a lot of finesse on the part of both the lead pilot and his wingman. Each has to follow rules the training command has instilled in their minds since they began their flight training.

When you go to an airshow and see a pair of jets blast off into the skies side by side, they appear welded together and they move effortlessly as one. Well, not exactly…

As the two aircraft move into position on the runway, the pilot flying the lead aircraft will take position on the downwind side of the runway. He or she will place the airplane equidistant between the centerline of the runway and the edge of the runway.

The wingman will take position on the other half of the runway, slightly behind the lead’s jet. When in position and with takeoff clearance from the tower, lead will give the turn up signal by twirling two fingers overhead. After checking his gauges and making sure all is right with his jet, he will look over his wingman’s jet. He is looking for any sign of trouble; smoking ports, low tires, open or unlocked panels, or fluids leaking out of the airframe.

If lead is satisfied, he will give a thumbs-up to the wingman, after the wingman has looked over the lead jet as well, he will also pass a thumbs-up signal back to his leader.

Then the lead will place his arm on the canopy rail and drop it as if chopping with a hatchet. This is the wingman’s signal to increase power from 70 percent to full power and release brakes to start the takeoff roll.

Immediately after pushing the throttle all the way home, the lead pilot will “crack back a couple.” This means he will reduce his throttle setting by about two percent, allowing the wingman a little extra power to help keep his jet in position during the roll.

Now the real magic begins. The wingman keeps his airplane in position by looking at the lead aircraft and maintaining the sight picture. He does not go forward, he does not drift backward. As they race down the runway, the wingman imperceptibly changes his power to keep his airplane in perfect position. It is up to the lead pilot to clear the way and make sure the takeoff is safe.

As the two jets pass through refusal speed and then reach rotation speed, the wingman must match the attitude of his jet perfectly with that of the lead. If he over rotates, he will climb above the lead and fall back due to the increased induced drag on his airplane. With under rotation, he runs the possibility of shooting out in front of the lead aircraft. Neither is an option and will garner negative attention in the debrief after the flight.

The trick is to be smooth and perfectly in sync with the leader. Of course, if the flight lead is smooth on his flight controls, the job of hanging on as a wingman is easy.

As mentioned before, it would be great if you could actually see this from the perspective of the pilots involved. In essence, truly they are the only witnesses sitting in the best seats in the house. No one, except those two pilots, can actually see and appreciate each individual nuance of this finely executed maneuver.

To observe it, you truly have to… be there.


©2011 J. Clark

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2 Responses to Being There

  1. Dave Bowyer says:

    Awesome blog post, Joe. Pure magic.

  2. Pingback: Being There, Part 2 |

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