by Stu Simpson
There seems to be very few people doing any group flying these days. The vast majority of those who do are flying ultralights, homebuilts or are in the military. I’m proud to say that we in the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club make group flying a nearly weekly habit. As such we’ve developed a fair amount of experience in this area so I thought I’d share the lessons we’ve learned and hopefully whet your appetite for getting up there and going somewhere with other pilots who think like you.
What’re the advantages of group flying? Why go to the trouble? Turns out there are plenty of very good reasons. First and foremost, group flying is FUN! All pilots enjoy hangar flying on the ground, why not do it in the air where it’s many times more enjoyable? The sense of camaraderie, achievement and adventure from group flying is unparalleled.
Group flying is also a fabulous way to learn. After a while, flying alone can get a bit dull and the learning curve tends to flatten out. But flying with other guys, especially in close proximity to them, is always challenging. It forces you to heighten your situational awareness, be sharp on the stick and fly your airplane that much better. It’s very rewarding and provides a strong sense of accomplishment when you do it well.
Group flights sometimes involve more than just pilots, too. For the CUFC’s annual Air Adventure Tours, which last four or five days in the summer, we bring along a ground crew. It’s composed of family members and other CUFC members who don’t own airplanes yet but who definitely want in on the adventure. We’ve traveled from Calgary into the Rockies as far as Castlegar; traversed Alberta and B.C. to places as far away as Cold Lake and Dawson Creek; and made hundreds of closer, local flights together.
The main thrust of this article is aimed at larger groups of planes, four or more, and longer duration flights. However, all of the principles apply equally to local flights to your favourite pie and coffee place. After all, each leg of a long trip is often about as long as a leg you might fly in your own neck of the woods.
Planning: The First Step
The CUFC has learned that planning is an absolutely crucial factor for successful group flights. If you have a good plan to begin with, AND everyone knows the plan, it can make up for a lot of shortcomings and problems later on. It’s important to keep everyone informed.
We usually start planning our Air Adventure Tour in January or February. It’s not essential to start that early, but it gives participants a good long time to book holidays and plan around other events. We decide on a route, bashing out the pros and cons of various suggestions. We get input from those who might have any particular knowledge of the route such as problem terrain or appealing features. Bring to these sessions a lot of maps, some stick pins, and a plotter.
Picking the route is fun. For instance, is there a particular destination in mind, a place on which to focus the trip? There needn’t be just a single destination; there can be many. There might be an historical point at one stop, a neat museum or airshow at the next. Perhaps there’s a route you want to fly because of the unique scenery, or simply just because it’s there.
For ultralights, our experience shows routes with legs of 1 to 1.5 hours duration are best. Two hours is the maximum. This is because ULs often don’t have much more range than two hours in optimum conditions. Nor are they as comfortable for pilots as conventional aircraft. Open cockpits, which are often found on ULs and homebuilts, may warrant special consideration, too.
Pick your stops at airports that suit your aircraft AND the size of your group. For example, in the summer of 2002 we made a stop at an ultralight field near Grande Prairie, Alberta. Being an ultralight strip, it was perfect for our planes and had our kind of people welcoming us. But we had 13 airplanes to land there, which taxed the ramp space to the absolute limit. We had a Starduster Too and a C-182 flying with us on the trip that couldn’t land because of the strip’s short length.
Consider other features of the airports along the route. If you have conventional aircraft along, will the strip have fuel for them? Will the runways be long enough and smooth enough? Be cautious and check carefully before landing at unknown strips that aren’t on the map or in the Canada Flight Supplement. The owner may say the field is fine, but what are his standards? Fields listed on the map or in the CFS will rarely be unsuitable.
Try to pick airports near towns where you can acquire a wider variety of supplies and services that might be needed, either expectedly or unexpectedly. If your trip involves overnight stays, pick centres as large as possible for the same reasons. You’ll also likely find better accommodations and restaurants.
Be aware that the route you choose may limit the number and type of aircraft that participate in the flight. Mountainous terrain scares off a lot of ultralight pilots and large bodies of water will likely dissuade those without floats.
Plan to fly the trip between Monday and Friday to avoid business and service closures along the way. It’s incredibly frustrating to need that one little thing you can’t get because it’s Saturday in a small town. It’ll also ease the pressure to get back home by Sunday for folks who work on Monday. Mid-week flying makes the whole trip much more enjoyable.
When it comes to scheduling your trip, pick a date and stick to it. Plenty of people will come to you later and ask you to change things by a day or two, or a week or two. But doing so will throw the whole thing into a tail-spin, especially for those who initially planned on the original dates.
Pool your group’s resources. Make use of the equipment and expertise among your club or group members. One of our guys has a slip tank to carry fuel for the planes. It goes into the back of someone’s pick-up truck. Another of our members is an electronics whiz. He rigged antennas for the ground vehicles so the ground crew can stay in touch with the aircraft. Still another member, an accountant by profession, keeps track of financial matters for the trip.
Make sure participants, especially aircrews, understand there are minimum equipment requirements. I can’t recommend strongly enough that all aircraft flying on the trip be required to depart with a functioning 2-way VHF radio. Aircraft should have a useful range of 2 hours, plus a 30 minute reserve, and be able to cruise at a given airspeed. This speed depends on the other aircraft in the group. For instance, on the CUFC’s last trip to Dawson Creek we had three groups of aircraft. One flight of five cruised at about 60 mph, the second at 70, and the third flight of three planes at 80 – 85 mph. It’s fine to have different speed ranges, but it’s safest and more fun to have others to fly with in that range.
We’ve discovered the ground crew works best when as many as possible have CB or FRS radios. It’s crucial that at least one ground vehicle have a VHF radio (an external antenna is a must) to stay in touch with the aircraft. All this communication ability adds tremendously to the ground crew’s effectiveness and enjoyment on the trip.
Other important gear includes maps, CFS, GPS, cell phones, batteries, cameras, survival and safety gear, spare parts and tools. Naturally, some of this stuff will be too heavy to carry in ultralight aircraft, so it’ll have to go by ground vehicle.
Leadership & Procedures
Leadership of your group flight is another critical element. Before departure on each leg it’s important to hold a pre-flight briefing for everyone, including ground crew. This is especially important for the opening leg of the trip. The briefing is where everyone learns the plan, so don’t rush it. Encourage questions, keep an open mind to better, safer ideas, but don’t be afraid to politely reject an idea that’s just not going to work. Have someone who’s well able acquire and present the weather.
If the group is big enough break it up into flights of four or five aircraft at most. Use call-signs rather than registration idents for air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. The CUFC uses the call-sign Dragonfly. We’ve found that calling “Dragonfly 1”, or whatever, is much quicker, safer and easier to remember than an alphabet soup of aircraft ident letters. It also lends an air of professionalism and a unique identity to the whole adventure.
A note or two about radio procedure. When starting up for each leg, do your group radio check-ins on a discrete frequency to avoid clogging the local ATF or MF. After switching to a new frequency each flight member should check-in so lead knows they’re there and serviceable. Also, once clear of the ATF or MF switch to a pre-arranged, unused enroute/chatter frequency. This adds an immense amount of fun to the entire adventure. The designated ultralight frequency in Canada is 123.4 MHz, and the chatter channel is 122.75, but we find these are often quite busy and make our enroute communication tougher. Establish a “home frequency” so that if anyone gets lost on the radio, they can go to the home frequency and someone will meet them there to tell them the correct channel. These procedures have worked exceptionally well for the Dragonflies.
When departing for each leg have the faster flights leave first. This avoids congestion at the next stop. Otherwise, quicker planes can catch up to the slower ones and cause over-crowding in the landing circuit at the next airport.
Have a plan for how the aircraft will fly together. Many of the CUFC members enjoy formation flying, but tight formation over long distances is quite tiring. Plan looser formations so that each member of the flight is clearly visible to at least one other flight member. A pilot may have a comm failure enroute, but if someone else can easily see them they’re still pretty safe. A “V” formation works best for this.
Each flight of aircraft should have a designated leader for each leg, and a back-up in the event of a radio failure or other problem. Establish these procedures before leaving the ground. When approaching an airport the CUFC’s procedure is for the leader to request his flight to go into line astern (trail) formation about 8 miles back. The flight leader makes the radio calls for the group while approaching the field and onto the downwind. Once in the circuit each flight member then calls his own circuit positions on the radio. If you’re going to have more than one aircraft on the runway at once, be sure to add that it’s a formation landing or takeoff.
Establish emergency procedures and ensure each flight and ground crew member knows them well. The ground crew will be a very important link in the event of an emergency such as an engine failure and forced landing.
Much of what’s discussed above applies equally to the ground crew members. They should have a designated leader for each leg and communication for them is just as important. The CUFC has learned that a good ground crew is as precious on these trips as the air we breathe.
Stick To The Plan
The best way to carry out a group flight of either short or long duration is to have a good plan and to stick to it. If everyone knows the plan and knows what’s expected of them, they won’t wonder and they’ll do their best to achieve the goal. Of course, any good plan has flexibility and contingencies built into it.
Never forget that groups flights, especially larger ones, are a tremendous opportunity to promote recreational aviation. At nearly every airport we landed at on our 2002 Tour we garnered a tremendous amount of attention from both the general and aviation public, and sometimes from the news media. We learned it’s pretty impressive to see fifteen airplanes blow into town like an old-fashioned flying circus. For the 2003 Tour we’re planning to bring a number of brochures or circulars highlighting ultralight aviation.
The group flights the Calgary Ultralight Flying Club have conducted, both near and far, large and small, have been unforgettable, and and because of it there‘s a special bond between those who were there. When these flights are planned and flown with a strong emphasis on professionalism, safety and fun they become magnificent adventures that give us terrific memories and a wealth of proudly earned flying experience. And isn’t that why we got into this game in the first place?