Wings Over the Web: A Look at Formation Flying

We are very excited about Microsoft Flight Simulator’s first virtual airshow that we will be streaming on our official Twitch channel on May 22, 2022! Organized by the Flight Simulator Thunderbirds members Chunky, Logic, and Slim, the  Wings Over the Web Airshow  brings together four virtual display teams, and seven individual performers, to create stunning air displays born of skill, practice, and communication. A full schedule of performances can be  found here.  

In anticipation of this upcoming event, we reached out to the Canadian Forces Snowbirds to learn a little bit more about their pilots’ experiences flying in a real-world precision formation team, as well as several of the virtual pilots who will be flying this Sunday.   

Precision formation flying requires skill and dedication that is almost unparalleled in the aviation sector. For onlookers, this skill and dedication is evident in their synchronization and perfectly executed maneuvers. The aerial feats that they perform can often appear precarious, with performance teams like the Blue Angels flying at speeds up to 700mph, often with less than 6 feet between the planes – sometimes even as little as 18 inches! To accomplish this, the pilots need to be in-tune with each other, their aircraft, as well as being constantly aware of their surroundings.   

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds 

The  Canadian Snowbirds, officially the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, are a nine-jet precision formation flying team that are based in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. All their performances are done in eleven  Canadair CT-114 Tutors – nine of the jets being used for performance, with two spares that are flown by Coordinators.   

These small Canadian aircraft were originally designed for use as basic training jets, but the Tutors that the Snowbirds fly have been modified to better suit their use as aerobatic planes; they have been fitted with smoke tanks, and their engines have received years of fine-tuning for performance. The majority of the Tutors that the Snowbirds fly today were also flown by the teams’ predecessors, the Golden Centennaires.  

The  Golden Centennaires  were a precision formation flying team that were formed in 1967 by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to celebrate Canada’s hundredth anniversary. Ten Tutors were modified for their use and sported a gold and blue paint scheme. They flew for only a single season as a tribute for the Canadian Centennial – when their celebratory mission was completely, they disbanded.   

Canada’s display team that we know today, the Snowbirds, were formed in 1971 and have incorporated a blue line that stretches along the side of the aircraft as a tribute to the Golden Centennaires. The team celebrated the Snowbirds’ 50th anniversary in 2021, and a golden stripe was added for the season – another tribute to their predecessors.  

We spoke with Snowbird 2, Captain Marc-André Plante, about his experiences in a formation flying team. As Snowbird 2, he flies in the Inner Right Wing position. 

Capt. Plante’s interest in aviation began at a young age. His father served as an Avionics Systems Technician with the RCAF, and his initial plan had been to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer or as a technician. At 15, he signed up for the Royal Canadian Air Cadet program. He had never really considered flying before due to a fear of heights. But, as fate would have it, his Commanding Officer recommended he sign up for the Glider Pilot Sponsorship. His first glider flight, which happened later that same summer, was all it took to help him decide that he wanted to pursue a career as a pilot.   

Thank you very much for speaking with us. Can you tell us a little bit about the journey that led you to being a part of the Snowbirds Air Demonstration Squadron? 

My journey to being a Snowbird started off as any military pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. We start with Primary Flight Training on the Grob 120A in Portage-la-Prairie, MB and then continue with Basic Flight Training on the CT-156 Harvard II in Moose Jaw, SK. My first taste of formation flying during this phase of training solidified by desire to pursue the Snowbirds path. I was selected to continue on the fighter jet path which resulted in obtaining my wings on the Harvard II. I then completed the jet transition course on the CT-155 Hawk in Moose Jaw before requesting to stay and become an instructor at the school. I taught on the Harvard II for four years before being accepted to the team through a challenging three-week tryout.  

How do you prepare for an airshow? What is the process like? 

Each airshow will have a designated team member acting as the show pilot. They attend meetings with the Air Boss and prepare all the documents/imagery for the team. We have a strict schedule in place to ensure that everything can be covered prior to our “Smoke On” time. The briefing itself is similar to any pre-flight brief where we cover weather for the show, some emergency scenarios and the airshow itself. When covering the airshow we go through the entire mission as if we were flying it, going through all the radio comms and chair flying the maneuvers. Once that is complete we go around the table to brief our personal objectives for the show, which is usually based on errors that were identified during previous shows. Then we break and get ready for our radio check-in prior to start. 

What do you find the most challenging about flying in tight formations, compared to flying as a solo aircraft? 

I find the most challenging thing about flying in tight formation is the margin for error is much smaller than as a solo aircraft. In my position as Snowbird 2, the Inner Right Wing, my error box spans 2ft in either direction, and I’m surrounded by other aircraft on both sides and behind me. There’s a lot of trust that I will maintain my position and notify the others in a timely manner should I ever deviate from that box. If I’m flying solo, since there’s nobody else around me those margins are certainly more forgiving. 

At the moment, the Snowbirds do not use any flight simulators for official training nor rehearsals, but it is something that they are currently exploring. VR (virtual reality) in particular is something that they are experimenting with for use in practicing certain complex maneuvers and running ground tracks.

What are some of the benefits of flight simulation that you have noticed? 

Some benefits I have personally noticed were with learning how to fly in formation while I’m inverted, which is a key element in flying the Double Take. While at the moment we have not found a way to accurately fly specific profiles like the Double Take, I was able to utilize the flight simulator to practice rolling inverted, recapture my references off an aircraft flying straight and level, and then learn the mechanics of inverted formation flying, in which the controls are opposite, except for the rudders. 

What is your personal history with Microsoft Flight Simulator? 

My first experience with Microsoft Flight Simulator was with Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator when I was a child. I still remember how our Pentium III processor was high tech at the time. I’d play it any day I could and really enjoyed it. During airshows I was always drawn to the tent that had a flight simulator and I would fly it for as long as possible before lining up again for another go. 

We have several different virtual air display teams that users have formed within Microsoft Flight Simulator. What do you think about the opportunity that this provides for our community members to get involved with this form of flying? 

I think it’s incredible to be able to provide that opportunity to everyone, that’s ultimately what makes technology so incredible. The fact that someone can now open Microsoft Flight Simulator, load any aircraft of their choice and fly in formation with other users across the globe with little latency is mind-blowing. I think at the very least it will give people a sense of appreciation for what we do on the team and how much training goes behind the shows that we perform.  

Do you have any advice for aspiring pilots who are interested in formation flying or being part of a display team?  

If you want to delve into formation flying, remember that it can be an unforgiving environment with little room for error. Make sure you do it in a safe environment with a trained instructor or in a virtual environment which is a lot more forgiving. If your goal is to become part of a display team, keep pursuing your passion and don’t feel down if your path does not follow the script you had laid out. While my path may look pretty clear in hindsight, I can assure everyone that it did not feel that way in the moment. Continue to improve yourself and make your intentions clear to your supervisors, you’ll get an opportunity soon enough. 

Lastly, no show is ever perfect. We are constantly striving for excellence but also have to react and adapt to any errors that occur. Errors and setbacks are a means to improve and grow, so long as you recognize the error and then come up with a solution to it. Formation flying in and of itself is an incredibly challenging and rewarding skill that builds upon the teamwork of all the professionals involved. It is an adventure that I would love for everyone to experience for themselves, and I commend anyone putting in the work to get there. 

Photo by Mike Luedey

The Canadian Snowbirds’ 2022 air show season has already begun, and their touring will be continuing their tour in June. If you would like to catch one of their incredible upcoming displays, you can check out their official schedule here.   


Microsoft Flight Simulator Display Teams

The pilots who will be flying in the Wings Over the Web Airshow have been preparing for the show for months, but  their experiences with simulated formation flying began long before that. 

We reached out to four of the performers: Chunky and Logic, the organizers of the Wings Over the Web Airshow and members of the Flight Simulator Thunderbirds, FLAMIN FENIX who flies lead for the Nyte Furys, and Blaze, who leads the Virtual Roulettes. Some answers have been condensed and edited.  

What was your introduction to flight simulators and how did you first get involved in formation flying? 

For Chunky, his first introduction to flight simulation was in 2009 when his grandfather gifted him a disc copy of Flight Simulator X and a run-down Microsoft Sidewinder Joystick. 

 “I was hooked from day one. I used it as an outlet to keep myself out of trouble growing up alongside football. In 2010, I found a [formation flying] video by an existing group in FSX and quickly became intrigued. I was already a massive fan of airshow flying, so I joined their server where I met Logic, along with some of the other people I still currently fly with.” 

“I first got involved entirely by attending that groups’ public flight nights, and decided to start my own team(s) with Logic and we’ve been together doing this ever since. I have been flying with Logic for close to 8 years, and Frosty, our lead solo, for around 6 years and have both flown with me across several teams while also becoming genuinely close friends. The rest of the team came from posting onto the forums, MSFS Discord and Facebook groups about my vision for the Flight Simulator Thunderbirds.”  

Logic began his flight simulator journey around 2012. Growing up, his father would always take him to the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He said, 

 “While I always enjoyed watching airshows and seeing all of the unique aircraft, I never really took it any further until a family friend of mine offered to take me up for my first flight. He was a crop-dusting pilot, so it was an intense first flight to say the least! Since that flight, I have been hooked on aviation. I picked up Microsoft Flight Simulator X and a beginner joystick and took to the virtual skies! I met one of my long-time friends there, who flew airliners at the time. One day we decided to try formation flying together. For the next few years, we flew almost every day and eventually had a solid group of formation pilots who flew together.”  

Logic flying off of Chunky in 2016 as part of the FSX Black Diamond Jet Team.

For the Nyte Fury’s leader FLAMIN FENIX, he got into flight simming in June 2021 after his son got Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. He opted to give it a week-long trial with Game Pass to see if he would enjoy it. Suffice it to say – one new PC, two HOTAS’s, two VR sets later, and a head tracker later – he does. 

His first experience with formation flying was when he stumbled across a post where a user was advertising their team while he was looking for advice on how to flight in tight formation with another aircraft. When he later created a Microsoft Flight Simulator Spitfire Appreciation Discord server, he began organizing group flights with the group, named the Nyte Furys Squadron. After their first flight concluded, a few of them decided to continue a little bit longer when they encountered a Twitch.tv live streamer flying.  

As we approached, we thought it would look cool if we got into some kind of formation and did a “fly over”. The reaction from the stream as we did the flyover was amazing, and gave us a massive high, the epiphany struck, and the team was born.” 

Blaze, the leader of the Virtual Roulettes, goes back a long ways with flight simulators: 

“I got into flight simulation back in the 1980’s with Fighter Pilot on the ZX Spectrum, then Microsoft Flight Simulator 4.1 on the PC later on.  Since then I’ve fostered that passion for all things flight simulation related, through each variation of Microsoft Flight Simulator and Prepar3D up to the latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. I’m very lucky to have built a career around Flight Simulation and the Training industry.” 

“I got into virtual formation flying through RAAF Virtual and the Virtual Roulettes team. The Roulettes are the Royal Australian Air Force aerobatic team, who we work hard to pay homage to in all aspects of our display flying and team conduct.  Prior to my involvement in the team, I spent time developing connections with many other teams to aid my learning in running a display team and choreographing a coordinated display routine. 

What does your airshow preparation process look like? How long do you practice? 

For the pilots we spoke with, their teams try to practice at least twice a week, and three times a week for the Virtual Roulettes. A typical practice session usually involved going over routines and maneuvers, with time for briefings, debriefs and review. For the Flight Simulator Thunderbirds and the Virtual Roulettes, their preparation process also involves researching their respective real-world teams. They look at their mission, procedures, communication, and performances so that they can more accurately replicate and match them. This is considered part of their practice; learning and understanding what they are doing makes the next step of actually doing it easier. 

How much communication is verbal, and how much of the routine is memory? 

Many of the teams’ sequences are performed from memory, honed over their rehearsals and practice. They are guided by their leader’s calls, and coordinate based on their movements. In addition to following their lead, the pilots also need to be aware of things like their altitude and speed to ensure that they remain synced with one another – even if a maneuver requires them to separate.  

The majority of the communication from the teams is verbal, with calls given by the team leader / lead pilot to announce their movements and position, and acknowledgments from the team when changing formation, or executing maneuvers. Further communications are on a team-by-team basis; the Flight Sim Thunderbirds make use of what they refer to as an “individual acknowledgement call,”   

Chunky:  Listen for “Legendary!”  –  Essentially this is a crosscheck between myself, Thunderbird 1, and our teams Airborne Safety Officer, Thunderbird 4, acknowledging that the next maneuver I have called is correct in the particular sequence that was briefed.   

For communication to be effective, the teams need to be able to talk using programs that are relatively easy to use with low latency. Discord, the voice and text communication platform, fits the bill well for most of the teams. For the Flight Simulator Thunderbirds, they lean towards Teamspeak for more serious formation flights, making use of the software’s “whisper” feature to simulate different communication frequencies.  

What is your favourite part about formation flying? And on the other hand, what is the most challenging part? 

Logic: I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so formation flying presents itself as a great challenge because I always want to be perfect when we fly our routine. Of course, perfection is impossible. After we fly our routine we all come together and watch back the flight and talk about what went right and what went wrong. I always walk away with something I can improve on for the next flight. And then the next flight happens and I walk away with something else. Knowing that there will always be something to do better makes it fun for me, ‘cause each flight is different. That challenge and goal of being perfect keeps this kind of flying interesting for sure.  

However, while the challenge of formation can be rewarding, it can also feel demotivating at times. There are certainly days where things just don’t “feel right” from the get-go. After a series of great flights, having one that goes wrong can bring down team morale a bit. There are days where it feels like we’re regressing, and that feeling isn’t great. There are some maneuvers that are far more difficult to execute than others. Falling out of position or being off on timing stings a bit, but luckily our team is very supportive and we work well together.  

Lastly, we wanted to ask for any advice you might have for users who want to get involved with a virtual display team.  

Chunky: Definitely find a group of people who have been doing it for some time, or start a group and seek help from someone or a group who has been doing it for a long time. You can figure it out on your own but learning from those with experience helps propel that into the next level. Remember that nothing comes overnight, formation flying is all about consistency and the continuation of practice. If you keep your eyes on the prize and understand that in time, you will be able to fly formation. 

Logic: If formation flying is new to someone, the best advice I can give is to get used to looking outside of the airplane. Unless you’re the flight lead, the majority of formation flying is all about flying visually off of another aircraft. It can be tough to get in the habit of not looking at your instruments or having a visual on the front of your own aircraft. It takes a lot of time to get used to and knowing what your bank is relative to the lead aircraft. But get your eyes looking outside! It gets easier with time, and you’ll learn how things are supposed to look from your perspective.  

FLAMIN FENIX: Don’t have the mindset that it’s easy. It’s not, but if you take your time and learn to walk before you can run, it will get easier as time goes by. The only way to get better is practice, practice, practice. Find an aircraft you’re comfortable with and stick with it, changing constantly will slow the process down as you’re continually having to adjust how you fly between each plane. 

Blaze: Be consistent, show up for practice with your team, bring a can-do attitude and leave the ego at the door. Sometimes a display or training session just doesn’t go your way, so don’t take it personally.  Always be prepared to listen, and above all, enjoy the experience!  

It is no coincidence that the advice that Captain Marc-André Plante and the in-sim pilots shared emphasizes the importance of practice, tenacity, and growth. Formation flying and the skills necessary are not only required for flying real-life aircraft, and many of the same skills apply in a virtual setting.   

If you are looking to learn more about virtual formation flying, both Chunky and Logic are members of the Flight Simulator Airshows community, who aim to help teach aspiring aviators about this form of flying. They, and others of the community, work with new and fledgling teams to help them get established and learn the skills associated with aerial aerobatics. If you are interested in joining a team, or are just interested in learning more, you can join the official Flight Simulator Airshows Discord channel here. 

If you would like to see the Wings Over the Web Airshow live, tune in to the MSFSOfficial Twitch channel on May 22, 2022.  We will also have a recording available after the event, if you are unable to catch it live!