It will come as no surprise that night formation flying can be particularly challenging. Especially in the Hawk, where we didn’t fly using Night Vision Goggles (NVG’s), flying close to another aircraft at night sent stress levels through the roof.
Luckily, we would do most of our night formation work in a ‘tactical’ formation. This type of formation (called ‘spread’) meant that the wingman would fly directly in line with lead, but one mile apart. While this certainly feels safer, the only way you can stay in position is by referencing lead’s limited external aircraft lighting and making sure you’re not too far forward and not too far back. From one mile away (and for someone who probably needed glasses at this point) this can get tricky.
I remember one of our night sorties being particularly dark. Moon illumination was zero and we were flying over pitch black and featureless terrain. Surprisingly, I was doing pretty well at maintaining my 1 mile position away from lead. He was rock solid in the windscreen. I wasn’t drifting forward, I wasn’t drifting back - I was absolutely nailing it - and my confidence was high.
The instructor came in over the intercom from the back seat.
“Hey mate, how would you assess your formation position at the moment?”
This is normally a leading question, but I was riding on such a strong wave of self esteem that I thought I was about to be the recipient of a rare compliment. I was ready to receive.
“Pretty happy with it!”, I blurted out, “I’ve struggled with maintaining position in the last few sorties, but I think I’ve finally worked it out!”
“Oh yeh? Great to hear you think that mate - “
I was glad he agreed.
“ - the only thing is that lead is currently about 3 miles away and 60 degrees behind us. I’m pretty sure you’re flying formation off Venus. You’re doing a good job of that though. Taking over”.