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Combat vs. Cruise
When flying formations there are two situations to consider: Are you cruising, or in combat?
Formation flying in cruise and combat requires two entirely different approaches on positioning and spacing, and the pilot needs to be prepared to be able to switch between the two at will.
When cruising the formation is generally at close range. Standard cruise formation distance is to be a spacing of 50-75 yards between each aircraft. Because of the ranges involved, maintaining position tends to be easier as visual cues on whether you're closing or falling behind are more obvious, and less extreme measures are generally needed to correct the pilot's position.
The close positioning of cruise formations also makes changes to course headings somewhat easier. As most cruise formations generally place the leader's wingman and second section behind the leader it gives the flight a strong visual reference to use in order to maintain position. As a result, it's much more difficult to lose one's position, as the aircraft one forms on is almost always in sight.
Regardless, it is good practice for the leader to communicate any course changes using standard comms procedures.
Although cruise formations offer advantages to maneuverability, they are not ideal for combat. The close spacing allows a single bandit to focus his attention on the entirety of the formation at once. It can also complicate the formation's ability to meet the threat. While the leader has improved options for maneuverability and capability to engage, the wingman is more restricted. Once the possibility of hostile contact becomes imminent, the flight should shift to a combat formation to provide a more balanced offensive and defensive capability to both aircraft.
Forming in Cruise Formation
Although the exact formation may vary dictated by the circumstances, in most cases the wingman forms on the lead plane in a stepped-back position. This places the wingman to one side of the leader and trailing slightly behind, approximately 30-60 degrees off the leader's tail. Range should be within 50-75 yards.
Wingmen should form up with their leader upon takeoff. The lead plane in the formation (whether section or flight) sets and communicates the group's power settings. He should also slightly reduce his own power to a level below this, allowing his section or flight some leeway. It is then the responsibility of the wingman and second section to maintain their position on the aircraft ahead of them.
The standard combat formation for a two-ship section is combat spread. This is a Line Abreast formation between the two aircraft with a spacing of approximately 500 yards.
Combat spread affords maximum offensive and defensive lookout potential, although it does sacrifice the lead plane's ability to maneuver. Because of the distance between the aircraft good communication is vital to effectively maneuvering the formation. While in cruise the leader can often maneuver with little or no prior warning to his wingman, since the wing can see the leader turning, the distance involved in combat spread takes the leader out of the wingman's field of view unless he looks directly at him. Thus, both lead and wingman must communicate any maneuvers.
However once mastered, combat spread affords greater combat potential. Many wingman tactics are built around combat spread, as it allows excellent mutual support of the lead and wingman both defensively and offensively. It also forces a bandit to choose one target and (generally) prevents him from positioning himself in a way that keeps both aircraft in front of him, and allows for a variety of sandwiching, dragging, and bracketing maneuvers.
Forming in Combat Spread
When hostile contact is made or imminent, the leader makes the call to shift to combat spread by announcing the formation change and distance, IE
"Red Two, One, Spread Right, 500."
This indicates to Red Two that he is to form into combat spread 500 yards off Red One's right wing. Once in combat spread it becomes the responsibility of both pilots to maintain their position in the formation by using the techniques to be outlined in the next lesson.
To return to cruise formation, the leader would advise his wingman or flight to close up formation:
"Red Two, One, close up."
Combat spread should be utilized at all times while the section is under threat, or may potentially enter combat. Pilots must also be able to quickly change into this formation if caught by the enemy unprepared.
Periodically it may be necessary or desirable to alter the formation. This is executed by the lead pilot calling to his wingman or flight, and advising them to shift the formation:
"Red Two, One, shift right."
All pilots are expected to be able to maintain a formation, as this forms the basis of many of the cooperative tactics that we will be discussing in later lessons. The next session will examine how to maintain or recover if out of formation.