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I've attempted to fly formation over a multiplayer flight simulator, and it was incredibly hard. It felt really hard to have the two planes go exactly the same heading, so it was always necessary to sway the yoke back and forth, constantly overshooting and undershooting.

When real planes fly formation, do they use some sort of short-range radar system and an autopilot to maintain the formation shape? I could imagine that manually flying formation would cause extreme fatigue due to the need to constantly fiddle with trim and yoke, and would be very dangerous.

Or is this simply a case of actual pilots having actual training, instead of my amateur "training" of fiddling around in the simulator overusing instruments?

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Nope, pilots do not use autopilot to fly in formation. An autopilot cannot achieve the precision required for flying formation (e.g. keep the wingtip aligned to that door). Usage of autopilot would also hinder responses when an immediate correction is necessary.

You may refer to the TV episode Jet Stream and Blue Angle training videos on the internet. From the pilot's perspective, the planes are always moving around, though in a confined space. Continuous small adjustment is necessary. From the ground, the small floating cannot be noticed visually because the observer is too far away.


P.S. Based on my 17 years of experience with PC flight simulator, flying in formation in multiplayer is definitely doable, and can become second nature with practice.

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    $\begingroup$ Mostly correct, some components of the autopilot in aircraft like the super hornet are normally engaged during flight, like autotrim. But you are correct, small constant control inputs are needed throughout the formation, most notably in the throttle. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver May 29 '15 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ "Usage of autopilot would also hinder responses when an immediate correction is necessary." Wouldn't autopilots, if designed for this purpose, typically have a far better reaction time? $\endgroup$ – ithisa May 29 '15 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @user54609 the problem is autopilots are never designed for this purpose. They are designed to fly based on instrument readings, not based on the relative position of another aircraft. An autopilot also does not break off if a danger develops. $\endgroup$ – kevin May 29 '15 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ @user54609 Correct, computers can be made so that they can fly formation better than any human can, but they must be designed to do so and have a frame of reference to the other plane other than visual references. It is still too unreliable for computers to discern deviations just on sight. If they would create electronic means to detect attitude change and relative position to the lead aircraft (and cross-talk between aircraft computers), then yes. $\endgroup$ – Chris V Jun 13 '15 at 22:41
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Based on your question, it sounds like you are referring to fingertip. In fingertip, yes you are correct, it is exhausting to stay in position for any extended length of time. This is why it is not flown much (really only time is transiting through the weather, and even then you have radar trail and instrument trail). Besides TAC (see below), the other position you'll find yourself in at times is route, which is a much more relaxed position but allows the formation to maneuver easier.

Tactical formations like offset (container), spread, wall, wedge, etc. are flown instead. This relieves the wingmen of constantly having to focus on 1 and can handle other tasks such as clearing, sensor management, backing up lead, etc.

Having said that, I've always noticed flying formation in actual AF sims to be harder than the real jet.

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Computers can be programmed to fly formation, but there are no autopilots in production yet that can handle it. The industry is trying to develop it so that airliners can fly in a V-formation in the cruise, like birds, in order to save about 5% in fuel. It would also alleviate congested skies if airliners could pair up. This would need very accurate positioning sensors that also work at night and in 0 visibility.

The secret is to make small control adjustments. One will be oscillating with large amplitude, but low frequency. Learn to control it (straight-and-level first of course) and slowly bring it closer to the lead a/c. Your brain will recognize patterns of how to react to disturbances over time.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments aimed at other answers really should just be comments on those other answers. The second paragraph though, is some very interesting information. Do you have any sources to back that up? $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Jun 11 '15 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ news.stanford.edu/news/2009/june3/birds-060309.html $\endgroup$ – Chris V Jun 11 '15 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ Although I can't find a reference to where it said that they were actually working on it. $\endgroup$ – Chris V Jun 11 '15 at 8:39
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As far as fighter aircraft or small light aircraft flying as the wingman in formation, I agree with that's been said in the other answers. However, larger aircraft than these can fly formation, and in some cases autopilot use is a little more common than these answers might lead you to believe.

First, the lead aircraft has an entirely different task than the wingmen: his objective is to be a stable platform for them to maintain formation off of, and so for Lead to have the autopilot engaged is entirely possible in many scenarios. (Not so much if Lead needs to do lots of maneuvering, but if you're going a long distance straight & level, the autopilot can do that very precisely, leaving the pilot(s) free to devote attention to whatever other tasks may be required: communicating with AWACS/wingmen/Command Post/ground party/other flights, assessing the situation with regards to threats/weather/mission/whatever, eating lunch, etc.)

In the case of Aerial Refueling, it's fairly common for the tanker to be on autopilot, since this gives the most stable platform for receivers. When the receivers are more nimble than the tanker, this isn't such a big deal; when the receiver is another heavy, it helps. When the receiver is really heavy and performance limited, having a stable lead (i.e. the tanker) helps a LOT.

Beyond this, wingmen can also be on autopilot if the type of formation allows it. If you're stacked 500' above and a mile behind Lead, crossing the ocean for the next several hours, there's no reason at all not to use the autopilot! If you have the waypoints that Lead is using, you could even couple the autopilot to the FMC, and just adjust the throttles to maintain the desired spacing. If not, then you manipulate the heading bug to keep the position you want left/right. At the point when you get ready to do something like airdrop or a formation landing, the autopilot will come off, but for a long, straight cruise portion, it's entirely usable.

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