In a formation, it's generally accepted that the lead pilot is responsible for safety of flight and navigation. #2 is, colloquially, responsible for not hitting lead. That is to say, in close formation, you never take your eyes off lead. In many situations, #2 may not even be in radio communication with lead or monitoring ATC frequencies and his overall situational awareness will be degraded.

If lead, who is responsible for navigation, takes the flight into protected airspace (i.e, flies into Class C airspace without first establishing two-way radio communication) would both pilots be violated, or just lead?

For clarification:

The regulations governing formation flight are pretty sparse. FAR 91.111, 91.146 and 91.153 are the only mentions of formation flying in the regulations. There is no requirement for communication during the flight - 91.111 just requires that all pilots agree to operate in formation. It is not unusual in a formation flight for lead to be on one frequency (talking to approach), and the wing to be monitoring another (or not monitoring at all). Most communication is done via hand signals. I do know that ATC treats formation flights differently - they effectively treat it as one aircraft (ATC Manual 2−1−13). If the flight is cleared to land, both aircraft a cleared to land - #2 does not need to acknowledge. Hence the question who is responsible if the flight (a single aircraft in the eyes of ATC), violates an FAR?

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know of any rule that says that an aircraft flying in formation that is not the lead aircraft is allowed to disregard ATC instructions. Usually ATC will issue instructions as "Flight of X, do Y", in which all aircraft are required to comply. All aircraft in formation must coordinate with each other, so they have to, by definition, be in communication with the lead and the other aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ Joe, can you site any specific regulations for this? Im with Ron, I do not think that planes flying in close formation are governed differently. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 21:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are you talking about simple formation flying, or aerobatic displays? If the latter, its highly unlikely that they would bust an FAR since they are issued a block of airspace to perform in that has pretty generous boundaries. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ Ron - there is no requirement for the flight to be in radio communication or to do anything more coordinated than agree to fly in formation. From ATC's perspective, a flight is a single aircraft. #2 simply maintains position off lead at all times - that's really the only coordination required. I'm also not talking about flying in waivered airspace (airshows), although the question would still apply (you can still bust an FAR flying in an airshow - i.e crossing the crowd line). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 4:59
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    $\begingroup$ I recall seeing that somewhere that a formation flight is treated as one flight in the ATC system. I don't know where I saw it, but I don't think that he's wrong about that. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 7:03

1 Answer 1


In the eyes of the FAA, the wingmen are individually responsible if they violate an FAR, even if they are led into it by lead.

The controlling NTSB decision is:

3 N.T.S.B. 3302, NTSB ORDER NO. EA-1560, 1981 WL 40208
Docket No. SE-4591, SE-4592, SE-4593
Adopted February 13, 1981

As the law judge stressed, each pilot-in-command of an aircraft “is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft” and each pilot has the affirmative duty to comply with the minimum altitudes prescribed by section 91.79, which contains no exception for aircraft in formation following a leader.


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