Why are formation lights used,and why are they largely/always used only on military aircraft and not civilian?


2 Answers 2


Formation lights are used so that aircraft can fly close formation at night. They are typically luminescent strips positioned so that an aircraft can be in the desired position (i.e. fingertip formation) and have references fore-aft, up-down, and near-far similar to references as used for daytime formation flying. Something along the lines of, "keep the position light just below the formation light (strip) under the cockpit and the aft fuselage light (strip) just touching the wing hardpoint, and you're in the right position. If the position light goes farther below the strip, you're getting high; if the hardpoint is sliding back into the aft light you're getting close, etc."

Obviously these references are very specific to each individual aircraft.

You can see the formation lights in this picture of an F-14; the dots are actual position lights, while the strips are the formation lights. Source F-14 showing formation lights, from Airliners.net

As to why only military aircraft have them... how often have you seen or heard of civil aircraft flying formation at night? Yeah, me neither. There are very, very few non-military reasons for formation flight, and essentially none that require it to be done at night.

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    $\begingroup$ Stupid question but do they not help the enemy spot you? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ @curious_cat: I think a lot of it is just down to the sort of military mindset that just loves regimentation. Basically the same reason I spent seemingly endless hours doing close-order drill in boot camp, rather than practicing something that might have been of practical use in the jungle. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @curious_cat it is more about "pucker factor" than "regimentation". In a combat zone where there is a plausible surface-to-air threat, form lights are turned down or completely off. This slightly increases the likelihood of mid-air bumps/collisions, but greatly decreases the likelihood of being seen by an unaided ground threat. Aided-vision (NVGs) may still see the aircraft, but it is much harder and still difficult to integrate with surface-to-air targeting systems. $\endgroup$
    – r2evans
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 0:38

From the practical standpoint I can remember vividly two times where the formation lights were invaluable. First, let me say I always used them while flying formation in clouds. They just gave you a little more light to fly off of. I flew A-7Es - light attack single seat fighter jets - off the USS Nimitz for two tours and was stationed in the soup of the Mediterranean.

With respect to flying in clouds, I was with my lead as we were coming into NAS Cecil Field in the summer. It was a nice day and we were with approach control being vectored to the VFR initial at the speed. At some point we were approaching a cumulus cloud and I tightened up my position on the lead. Entering the cloud he nearly disappeared from me. The cloud was the densest cloud I had ever encountered. I was tucked in uncomfortably tightly and asked him to turn on his formation lights, which allowed me to see him better. Very useful that day.

The second time was with a training flight we did off the carrier. I was always looking for cunning ways to "train like you fight, and fight like you train." We often did intercept runs with the F-14s at the end of our hops. We would be vectored on separate channels by the E-2 to positions 20 nm apart with 1,000 ft of altitude separation, or something like that. We would come toward the F-14s at constant altitude and constant heading. The E-2 and the F-14s would practice vectoring in on targets, hand off, and target acquisition. We would pass by one another, head out, turn around and do it until we ran out of time, or they ran out of gas.

The other JO was the lead and it would be a beautiful night out there. Clear skies and a full moon. I asked Turk if he wanted to have some fun. "Sure, what do you have in mind?" I briefed the flight. Turk got airborne first and as is customary gave his departure call that he was airborne. This was so the E-2 could keep track of who got airborne and who didn't. He went out to our rendezvous location and waited. When I got airborne I never made my departure call, and just headed out to join my lead. We went off and did our bombing on flares dropped on the ocean. After finishing that part of our mission we headed over to play targets for the F-14s.

Inbound, before checking in with the E-2, Turk turned off his anti-collision lights and had his formation lights on so I could nestle in close to his wing. This was okay because the E-2 had Turk's aircraft and kept separation for both us. We checked in and the E-2 set us up for intercepts.

On the beginning of first run, I was tightly tucked in on Turk, and the E-2 gave the F-14 flight our contact information, "I have one target at twelve o'clock, 20,000 ft." The F-14 lead confirmed the information, and then asked about the second aircraft that was supposed to be in the flight. The E-2 told them that they had no record of the aircraft getting airborne. They weren't buying it, and we listened on their radio frequency as they tried to piece together the fight as they were rapidly closing. "Where's the second target?" At one point there was a call, "Got 'em!" He is at five miles abreast and 4,000 feet low." We had them.

Their search radars were capable of discriminating one target where there were two. Visual can be obtained at around eight miles and so when their vector was "12 o'clock at 8 miles," the lead turned on his anti-collision lights and I broke away doing the same, forming a pincer attack on the two unsuspecting fighters. When they saw two contacts where there had previously been one, the trap was sprung. There were hurried calls of two targets separating, and...

I ended up on the six of one of the two F-14s and he was nose low in a descending right hard turn. When he hit burner I called a Fox two, and looked over my shoulder high to the left and saw my lead chasing his F-14 nose high in a tight left turn. When he went in to burner it was a beautiful sight, a long tail of flame from both exhausts and Turk called his shot. We were still turning. With experience, combined with graciousness, the other lead called, "Knock it off, knock it off," the standard call to end an ACM engagement.

It dawned on me that we had never checked the flight schedule to see who would be the pilots in that flight. Was it the CO or XO? We were either lucky, or the F-14 crews liked the training opportunity. That lesson will never be forgotten: "I don't want to be tricked like that again." Never heard back from the crew when we got back to the ship. You have to understand, we fought F-14s pretty regularly and at best could hold them to a neutral fight. This was a nice friendly get back.

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    $\begingroup$ I read that story when you originally posted, but just realized, you never indicated what you were flying. Thanks for the great story, and thank you for serving! $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 14:54

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