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Birds of a Feather: Flying the J-model in Formation

  • Published
  • By Maj. Chad Gibson
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs
If flying the most technologically advanced C-130 in the world sounds complicated, consider flying four or five of them 500 feet apart.

Formation flying looks easy from the ground, but it is much more complicated. Imagine yourself driving your car down the highway staying consistently within five feet of three cars around you, maintaining a specific speed, adjusting the radio, having passengers talking to you, having the car talk to you and making numerous turns along the road. It would be a great challenge.

Aviators of the 815th Airlift Squadron "Flying Jennies" face the challenges of formation flying daily.

Some of these challenges are not only maintaining a situational awareness while flying wingtip-to-wingtip, but also weather, night-flying, mountainous terrain and low-altitude flying. While training and competence are key elements of success, the J-model does its part by making the flight easier and safer.

The C-130J aircraft enhances formation flying tremendously. It enables aircrews to fly more efficiently, especially in adverse conditions. The Heads-Up Display allows pilots to view essential flight information which is constantly changing while never taking their eyes away from the outside environment.

"The HUD provides us with dynamically changing information regarding formation position, navigation status, on-time status and airdrop parameters, all without looking down into the cockpit," said Lt. Col. Brian Freeman, director of operations for the Flying Jennies.

In addition to the HUD, the J-model is also capable of flying 'fully automated' in adverse conditions. By synchronizing the aircraft's auto pilot and auto-throttle systems, aircraft in a formation can maintain a selected position safely and efficiently; something previous versions of the C-130 cannot accomplish, said Maj. Keith Gibson, a formation-qualified pilot and member of the 403rd Operations Group Standards and Evaluations Office.

Comparing again to driving a car, imagine all the car's dashboard information being visible through the windshield and having the ability to set the car on 'auto-drive,' making distances from other cars, speeds, and turns automatically with your experienced supervision.

The efficiency of the J-model has affected the aircrew composition as well, because it no longer requires a navigator (except for weather reconnaissance missions) or a flight engineer.

"With a much smaller crew it is imperative for each member of the crew to be proficient at their jobs. Pilots flying must focus their attention on terrain/threat avoidance/time control, while co-pilots not flying focus on the accuracy of the computer systems, radios, etc. For these reasons, professional competence is at the forefront of what we do," said Major Gibson. "The key to success is training and a great amount of preflight planning."

Formation qualification requires much more training than Undergraduate Pilot Training provides. Pilots must complete an additional six-month course at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. to qualify. Even though both of these schools are strenuous, there is still a lot to learn.

"It takes years to season a pilot to lead large formations into a combat environment. This comes with experience, and formal follow-on training that we conduct locally," said Maj. Gibson.

This follow-on training never stops and is the source for continual improvement.

"Getting qualified is only the first step; all pilots are required to fly a minimum number of sorties utilizing different types of formation flying every six months, ensuring that each pilot remains proficient in all phases of formation operations," said Colonel Freeman.

The Flying Jennies have plenty of opportunities to fine-tune that experience, since their tactical airlift mission is in high demand in the Global War on Terrorism. The critical mission of the squadron requires all their pilots to maintain formation qualifications.

"Although we support many services and organizations, our main customer is still the U.S. Army which requires mass drops of paratroopers and support equipment over the target area or drop zone," said Major Gibson.

For as long as there is a need to put "boots on the ground" and to provide supplies to those troops, the C-130J and the Flying Jennies will meet the challenges of formation flying. These "birds of a feather" will be "flying together" for many years to come.