View Full Version : RAF Formation Flying

David Duxbury
7th August 2008, 03:25
Fellow Forumites.
I have typed up the following notes on the above subject, which I thought might appeal to a more general readership. It can be seen that formation flying in the late 1930s was strongly emphasized in all operational flying and was seen as fundamental to practically all types of operations. The stresses of war re-emphasized some of this but for night bombing purposes it obviously was not practicable to pursue these theories, and for "air-fighting" (fighter) applications the "Vic" was also found to be less than satisfactory. What is NOT emphasized in the notes were the pre-war Fighter tactics, which included various rather elaborate set piece attacks which again proved to be rather useless in the heat of combat and were very quickly dropped from the curriculum. However much of the simpler formations were continued at the various pilot training schools (particularly the SFTSs, AFUs, and obviously OTUs, etc.
I still have not been able to locate anything definitive on the actual purpose of "Formation" or "Station keeping" lights as mentioned in earlier threads, but is seems likely (at least to me!) that these may have been for reasons of safety in cases of entering cloud or poor visibility when it was considered that safety might best be served by maintaining formation rather than continuing individually. This could particularly be in the case of the perceived inexperience level of the average pilots in instrument flying, particularly in single-engine aircraft without a dedicated navigator, or because it might be possible to continue an operation by this means when the alternative was to abandon the operation because the aircraft might then be forced to proceed individually and therefore arrive at target in an uncoordinated manner when timing was important. Any other ideas?
David D

Formation Flying in the Royal Air Force

Notes extracted from Air Publication AP.1081 (Royal Air Force Pocket Book, 1927 Edition) contained within Chapter 1 (Signals).
The Phonetic alphabet then “in general use throughout the Fighting services, and is to be used in all cases where, in order to avoid phonetic errors, substitutes are required for spelling out doubtful words, names, etc., in telephone messages”.

This was probably the earliest such alphabet used by the RAF, and was the famous Ac, Beer, Charlie, Don, Edward alphabet. Interestingly the substitute for the latter “V” was simply “Vic”, NOT Victor, and note also that A was simply “Ac”, not Ack as in “Ack Ack”, although this spelling was frequently used because people thought that “Ac” without a following “k” just did not look right. The “Ac” letter was also immortalised when the ancient but reliable De Havilland 9A Bomber and General Purpose aircraft became better known in home and overseas commands as the “Ninac” (pronounced Nin-ack). Similarly substitute for letter “T” was “Toc”, which again did not look quite right, and no doubt many people wrote it down as “Tock”. Of course much later, when the international phonetic alphabet (as recommended by ICAO) came into general usage from about 1948, Vic became the present Victor, and this alphabet was later (early 1950s) adopted (with slight modifications) for use by the RAF and other Commonwealth air forces.

A few quotes from the RAF “Flying Training Manual, Part I – Landplanes” (Air Publication 129, better known as AP 129) (approx 1939 edition), from “Formation Flying” (Chapter V):-

1) A formation of aeroplanes is two or more flying in company.

2) The primary object of formation flying are:-
i) To obtain concentration of power for offensive or defensive action as may be required in carrying out any form of air operations.
ii) To afford mutual support. No aeroplane has yet been designed which possesses a uniformly efficient all-round field of fire; but a formation should be so organized as to eliminate blind spots and enable fire to be concentrated in any direction.
iii) To confer moral advantage. Both in attack and defence, the moral effect upon an enemy of a well-drilled formation is far greater than that produced by a number of isolated aeroplanes operating independently. Further, the confidence that aeroplane crews possess in their leader, and the consciousness they have of being supported by others upon whom they are accustomed to rely, increases their morale.
iv) Formation flying is adopted also as a means to securing the best results in certain forms of attack on particular types of land or water objectives.

3) The closest co-operation between the crews of a formation is necessary to efficient collective flying, and is attained only by continual practice.

4) An air formation should not be a heterogeneous assembly of aeroplanes flying together, but must be an organized unit composed of individuals accustomed to work together, operating their craft in definite positions relative to each other, their movements directed by a single leader and their whole formation capable of manoeuvring and operating with the closest cohesion.

5) The achievement of the objects of formation flying in war depends upon:-
i) Leadership:- Good leadership requires balanced judgement, initiative and courage, combined with unselfish devotion to duty.
ii) Intercommunication:- Efficient and speedy means of communications between the leader and other member so f the formation is essential to obtain concerted action, and is beneficial to the morale of the individuals in the formation.
iii) Discipline:- The practice of instant obedience to the directions of the leader and the habit of spontaneous action for the advantage of the formation rather than of the individual.
iv) Drill:- Skill in combined manoeuvre, in retaining formation under difficult circumstances, and in re-forming rapidly after dispersal.
v) Fire Tactics:- This comprises skilful control and direction of fire combined with careful aim and economy of ammunition by the formation.

Factors governing the disposition of aeroplanes in formation.
6) Although the distribution of aeroplanes in formation will vary according to the duties to be performed, the type or types of aeroplanes employed and other considerations, certain principles are fundamental, and must be strictly observed. These are:-
(i) A formation is commanded and led by a pilot who is immediately responsible for its security, for the course flown, and for the tactics adopted.
(ii) The leader of a formation must be replaceable by a deputy leader, who flies in a definite and pre-arranged position relative to the leader, and must be prepared at any time to take the place and assume the responsibilities of leader.
(iii) The leader must fly in a position from which he can communicate with all his pilots, or, in large formations with leaders of all sub-formations.
(iv) The aeroplanes of the leader and the deputy leader must be marked by some device which can be easily recognised.
(v) No pilot should be stationed directly behind another, since in this position the slipstream of the aeroplane ahead would make it difficult for him to keep station, and his field of fire would be largely obscured.
(vi) The organization of the formation must be simple, easily adopted and easily retained, the fundamental principle being that, in the event of the leader or any other pilot becoming a casualty, his station can be filled with least disorganization and minimum of delay be another pilot.
(vii) The formation must be flexible; capable of opening out or closing in on the leader, and of changing to a different formation when necessary.
Note:- The minimum interval and distance at which aeroplanes may be flown in formation in peace-time training practices is laid down in Appendix IV, para. 3.

Numbering of Aeroplanes in formation.
7) For the purpose of numbering, the aeroplanes of a formation are assumed to be in “V” formation, the leader being “Number 1”, the remainder being numbered from starboard to port of the leader, even numbers to starboard, odd numbers to port.

General Principles.
8) Whilst there may be occasions when two or more squadrons will be required to operate in close support of one another, the basic formation is the squadron, and such combined operations will not materially affect their internal organization. The following paragraphs show how the squadron which is the normal unit, is organized to meet tactical requirements.

9) The purpose of a formation of squadron, or similar strength, is to develop to the full, by concentrating all available aircraft in one composite unit, its powers of offence and defence. It has the further advantage that, under the guidance of relatively few experienced leaders, a number of less experienced crews can be brought into action.

10) The size and composition of a squadron formation is governed primarily by the duties which it normally performs, and for which its aircraft are designed.

11) The principal qualities common to all such formations, but varying in importance with the type of operation, and also with its different phases are:-
(i) Ease of Control:- The number of aircraft which in close formation can support each other in attack of defence greatly exceeds that which can be effectively controlled by one leader.
(ii) Power of Cohesion:- This calls fro good station-keeping qualities. The greater the number of aircraft keeping station on one leader, the more are inadvertent movements at the head of the formation magnified at its extremities. This results in straggling, undue strain on pilots who are not adjacent to the leader, and a consequent reduction in the speed and endurance of the whole.
(iii) Power of Manoeuvre:- This calls for as much freedom of movement as possible for the leader, combined with instant response by followers to his directions. The greater the number of aircraft under one control, the more will they restrict the leader’s movements, and the more sluggish will their response become.
(iv) Flexibility:- There are frequent occasions, as in fighter or torpedo attacks, when success is dependent upon the concerted approach of a number of small, manoeuvrable units, from widely separated points in converging direction. In bombing it may also be necessary to deliver several consecutive attacks instead of one mass attack.

12) In order to satisfy the foregoing requirements, it is clearly necessary to divide the squadron into a number of sub-formations, the strength of which will again vary with the type of aircraft and duty it normally performs.

13) In deciding the strength and disposition of aircraft in sub-formations it should be borne in mind that power of cohesion and manoeuvre are of greater consequence than any other quality. It should be as small as is consistent with limiting the number of sub-formations in the parent formation to that which can be effectively controlled. It will rarely be necessary for its strength to exceed three aircraft, and there will be occasions when the necessary manoeuvrability can best be attained by employing sub-formations of two aircraft.

14) When a particular tactical or strategical object cannot be achieved by a small sub-formation, two or more such units can readily be combined.

“Close”, “Open”, and “Cruising” formations.
15) The spacing of sub-formations, and of aircraft within sub-formations, will vary according to the type of aircraft, the duty upon which they are engaged and the tactical situation.

16) “Close” formation is that in which aircraft are separated by the minimum amount allowed by the regulations in peace or expedient in war.

17) Examples of tactical situations in which close formation confers an advantage are:-
(i) In Attack.
(a) When it is desired to confine the distribution of bombs or torpedoes, to a small space.
(b) To facilitate the co-ordination and concentration of machine-gun fire.
(ii) In Defence.
(a) To ensure the maximum concentration of supporting fire.
(b) To present as small a target as possible.
(c) To facilitate evasion by manoeuvre.

18) “Open” formation is the term applied to broadly to any formation in which sub-formations or aircraft are not in “close” formation, and includes “cruising” formation.

19) Examples of situations in which “Open” formation may be resorted to are:-
(i) When the primary task is observation of the air or ground.
(ii) When sub-formations separate to fly through clouds.
(iii) When sub-formations equipped with R/T are distributed both above and below cloud layers.
(iv) When it is desired to straddle a bombing objective with the object of minimizing the chance of missing.

20) Close formation flying calls for the unremitting attention of all the pilots, and for a precision in flying which if unduly protracted causes unnecessary strain. Wherever possible, therefore, flights and individual aircraft should open to “cruising” formation. In this formation aircraft should be sufficiently far apart for pilots to relax a little from their former state of vigilance. In “cruising” formation, sub-formation leaders should be able to study the ground, with a view to knowing their position if called upon to lead.

21) In air-drill, pilots will be taught to fly in close formation from open and cruising formation, and vice versa, with rapidity and precision.

Air drill.
22) Standard Instructions for Air Drill in the Royal Air Force are given in Appendix IV, and should be carefully studied by all pilots and crews under training in formation flying”.

(The rest of the chapter covered the following subjects:-

Elementary Training, including Ground Instruction;
General Principles of air training; Sub-formation training; Changing direction (Paras. 23 to 34).

Flight and Squadron training, including Getting into formation; Station keeping; Breaking formation; Landing after formation flying; Formation leadership (Paras. 35 to 54).

Advanced Training, including Preparation for flight in formation; Operational Exercises (Paras. 55 to 58).

Intercommunication, including General, Pyrotechnic signals; Hand signals (Paras. 59 to 65). These include slow lateral rocking of aircraft (to indicate “enemy in sight”, then “Close up”); and fore and aft rocking, to indicate “about to attack”.

APPENDIX IV (Air Drill) comprised 63 (repeat 63) pages of notes. These include the following details possibly of interest to Board members.

(i) Names of formations.
Only formations which are of definite operational value at present are included. Unless authorized by amendment to the Flying Training Manual any others are to be regarded as of a “Display” or “Ceremonial” nature and are only practiced with the approval in detail and permission of the air or other officer commanding the R.A.F. command of which the unit concerned forms a part. (Then follows 4 and a half pages of diagrams and descriptions of the various standard approved formations and sub-formations).

(ii) Designation of aeroplanes and sub-formations.
(a) Numbering. Aeroplanes or sub-formations are numbered as shown in sub-paras. 1 (i), 2 (i) (e) and 2 (i) (f) above (not shown here). When they move to another station with reference to the leader they retain the numbers borne when in Flight, Squadron or Wing Formation.
(b) Marking. Each aeroplane is normally marked with approved squadron markings and the flight to which it belongs is indicated by the painting of its wheel discs:-
Red for “A” Flight.
Yellow for “B” Flight.
Blue for “C” Flight.
(c) All squadrons equipped with radio-telephony are allotted squadron call signs, e.g. “Thrush”. The flight colour and the formation number of an aeroplane are used for R/T purposes as a call sign when one or more flights are operating together, thus “Thrush Red one” indicates the leader of “A” Flight in the squadron whose call sign is “Thrush”.
(d) It should be noted, however, that in the air drill detail which is given in Section B, flights are referred to by numbers in accordance with para. 2 (ii) (a) above, since A, B or C Flights of a squadron may be allocated to any flight station in the Squadron Formation.

Notes on Formation flying in the Royal Air Force extracted from the (RAF) Flying Training Manual, Volume I, AP 129, 5th Edition 1949.
Note that when Royal Air Force Pilot’s Notes for individual aircraft types were introduced from approximately 1937 onwards (under the same base number as the aircraft’s technical information), much of what was contained in AP 129 became less important as so much of the material on aircraft type handling was by now fully covered in their specific Pilots Notes. Later, towards the end of World War Two, a new publication was introduced, known as “Pilot’s Notes – General” (AP2095); this further reduced the value of the original AP 129 by incorporating the majority of information on subjects of aircraft handling, engine handling (piston and turbine), aircraft systems, equipment, all weather operations, long range flying, emergencies, etc, etc. Nevertheless the RAF decided to retain AP 129 (the original edition of which must have been introduced in the early 1920s) as it was apparent that a general guide to flying for all pilots was still required, as flying by 1949 was considerably more complicated than it had been in the days of fabric-covered single-engined biplanes which were generally only operated in reasonable fair weather. The rapid development of instrument flying since about 1937/38 onwards, the complexity of modern aircraft, aero engines and the weapons they carried, as well as a much better understanding of weather and other sciences such as Aero Medicine meant that the 5th edition of AP 129 (Volume I) contained five main sections titled General; The Pilot; Instruments; Flying; Safety & Rescue; plus Appendices and an Index. It was a considerably larger and heavier volume, some 50% thicker and probably containing at least two or three times as much information as the pre-war edition.
To return to Formation Flying, this was covered in some detail in AP 129, in Section 4, Chapter 13 (which was not incorporated until November 1950). By now things were a whole lot simpler than the pre-war instructions, with everything worth knowing fitting in a mere 15 pages. This included four pages on visual signals, mainly traditional hand signals plus the old reliables – “Pitching” and “Rocking”, as well as a new variation to indicate that somebody had inadvertently left their transmitter on “Send”, which resulted in a squeal on the R/T frequency in use. This latter indiscretion was to be remedied by everyone else in the formation rocking their wings until the offender realized the problem and switched his microphone to off. No doubt this had become a problem during WW2 so the remedy probably dated back to those days.
Much of the formation information was a repeat of that contained in the pre-war AP 129, often word for word, but the basic formations had not really changed since pre-war days, although from this edition it was “assumed that in this instance a squadron consists of two flights of six aircraft each, and that each flight is sub-divided into two sections of three aircraft”. Thus the RAF is back to the pre-war section of three aircraft, but it should perhaps be pointed out here that the Section of four aircraft was introduced purely for fighters during WW2, with all other types retaining the old set up right through that conflict, as the “Finger Four” had no advantages for Bombers or Coastal Command strike aircraft, or for training for that matter. It is also noted that “The above figures are arbitrary, and in practice will vary according to the tactical role of the squadron concerned”. The same language as used pre-war is evident throughout this Section, with Section Vics, Echelon (Port or Starboard), Line abreast, and Line astern (with all aircraft “stepped down” from leader) formations. All these basic formations could be built up to larger formations, such as Flight formations (six aircraft, comprising two Sections of three) or Squadron formations (twelve aircraft, comprising four Sections of three), as well as the simple Vic of six or twelve in Flight or Squadron formation, with always one aircraft more on the starboard “wing” of the formation. “In this manner, any number of aircraft can be arranged as a formation which can be controlled by a single individual”.
The pre-war practice of designating formations or sub-formations made up of more than one Vic by use of colour names was continued postwar. Numbering of individual aircraft in all formations was also identical to pre-war practice.

9th August 2008, 11:01

In the absence of any other response to your efforts can I say thanks very much for your efforts in transcribing this stuff. My main interest is in matters towards the end of the war when a lot of this material had been changed by further work at the AFDU but it is really helpful to know what was the default position!


David Duxbury
9th August 2008, 21:40
Many thanks for the kind words. I have often silently thanked (and sometimes even posted) other Board members for providing chunks of unusual and often hard to find basic material, so occasionally I make a bit of an extra effort (usually after doing some work on the subject after locating some real source material) and type it up for posting myself. You never know what might be coming up in the future, so I try and do my bit.
David D