Choosing Your Formation

(Photo credit United States Marine Corps)

Military pilots use formations in a calculated way to achieve an objective. That objective might simply be to move more than one aircraft through congested airspace, or it may be to provide mutual support and maneuver space to allow the flight to react to, or engage the enemy. Although there are many types of formations, every formation is a compromise of sorts. A closer formation allows easier control for the flight lead but it limits the leader’s ability to maneuver quickly (wingman may not have time to react and move with the lead) and limits the wingmen’s ability to provide visual mutual support (since they are busy maintaining formation). A loose formation on the other hand, reduces the flight’s workload related to position keeping, allows better visual support, and provides more freedom of maneuver… but increases the lead’s difficulty in maintaining control of the flight.

Related to that balance is the number of aircraft in the formation. Obviously, more aircraft require more space and more foresight and planning by the lead. The biggest advantage of larger formations for military pilots is that more aircraft means more combat power can be brought to bear. This is something to remember as we discuss the parallel to motorcycling; very few of us (are there any??) need to worry about the amount of ordnance we can bring to bear on the enemy while we are on our Sunday morning ride.

Probably a more appropriate comparison, though the discussion about balancing control and freedom of maneuver is still valid, is replacing “enemy” with terrain or other obstacles. The basic balancing act still applies – more aircraft and closer formations restrict the ability of the flight to rapidly react to terrain and obstacles; looser formations and fewer aircraft provide more options for all flight members.

Rarely did I ever participate in formations larger than four aircraft; generally the few exceptions were for photo opportunities. When operating with four aircraft (a “division”), we always planned and briefed situations where we would separate into groups of two (a “section”) if necessary.  Let’s look at a notional mission as an example: The division departs their home airfield and joins up in a close formation to expedite their transit through the controlled airspace heavily used by civilian aircraft. After establishing their cruise altitude, the flight spreads out somewhat to allow each pilot to begin preparing weapons and sensors. The flight descends to begin low-level flight at 500’ above ground and 420-480 knots; the division now roughly in a box formation with the lead section flying abreast of each other (.6 – 1.0 nautical miles apart) and the trail section spread similarly from one another and about a mile in trail of the lead section. Approached more confining terrain, the trail section executes a timing maneuver to increase the separation between sections. This would be a planned compromise; less control and visual support between sections but more freedom of maneuver for each section to address the increasing threat from the terrain/enemy. As planned, the flight follows a river towards the target area by dropping even lower into the river valley. Each section shifts into a loose trail formation; again compromising control and support in favor of maneuverability and giving each pilot more time to concentrate on his flying and cockpit tasks rather than watching his wingman. After executing the target attack, the division rejoins as briefed. Approaching home base, the flight closes up to a “parade” formation with all four airplanes in close echelon to facilitate entry into the overhead break and landing pattern. This close formation allows the lead easy control over his wingman and an expeditious entry to the airfield.

In the same way, motorcyclists should approach their upcoming ride with a little planning and forethought. There are really two formations that are useable by most riders – staggered and trail (or single file). I’m not going to discuss riding abreast since it is rarely a good option for most riders. Yes, I realize motor officers use it all the time. They also spend far more time than the rest of us training, practicing, and planning their riding to maximize the advantages of that formation while minimizing the disadvantages. Staggered and trail are formations that can safely be used (in the proper situation) by riders of all experience levels. I’ll discuss the staggered formation first, since it is frequently mentioned in motorcycling literature and probably the most common formation in use.

The staggered formation allows a reduced nose to tail distance (because you are not directly behind the motorcycle in front of you) which keeps the formation relatively tight while allowing adequate stopping distance and more lateral maneuver room than riding abreast. This can be an advantage, for instance, at the start of a ride where multiple turns through town are required to get out to the highway and a close formation ensures no one gets lost or left behind. It can also be useful on a multi-lane highway as a means of reducing the overall length of the formation and therefore reducing the impact of the formation on other drivers. However, because the primary advantage of a staggered formation is allowing more motorcycles in a small space; the disadvantage becomes obvious – limited maneuver options for all riders if obstacles or threats need to be avoided suddenly. As in our flying example, the closer we approached the target the more advantageous it became to allow each flight member the freedom to maneuver as necessary. So to in riding, as we approach our “target” – whether a great section of tight curves or our favorite dirt road – we need to provide our riding partners the freedom to maneuver as required. The same applies to sections of road where traffic becomes more threatening. This is not to say a staggered formation of several riders would be unacceptable at all times on a two-lane road, for instance, as long as all riders understand the need to drop back into trail whenever oncoming traffic starts to increase or when negotiating curves. This allows all riders to concentrate on the threats at hand, whether the oncoming SUV with the texting driver or the approaching blind right-hander. Personally, I think the staggered formation is the most misused and misunderstood formation across all types of motorcycle riders. It is mentioned as an acceptable formation in most riding books and many riders then assume it must be THE formation to use under all circumstances. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen staggered formations of large groups of motorcycles – which takes away the primary advantage of the staggered formation (a nice, tight, unobtrusive formation) and multiplies the main disadvantage (limited maneuver room). Use it when the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and use trail for all other situations.

My personal opinion is that like flying, any motorcycle formation larger than four should be the exception; maybe a parade or similar special occasion. Some of the disadvantages (these assume a “standard” staggered formation):

It’s hard to fit more than 4 bikes safely into a break in traffic without affecting the other drivers:

  • A motorcycle traveling at 70 mph covers 103’ every second. Most motorcycle resources including the Motorcycle Safety Foundation recommend a MINIMUM two second interval. Remember though, we are staggered so our nose to tail distance is really measured to a bike that is actually two bikes ahead. To make the math simple, we have three 103’ intervals separating the 4 motorcycles which means our four-bike formation covers a football field (309’). I guarantee a moving football field, especially on a well-trafficked highway, is going to affect the other drivers and their ability to change lanes, pass, etc.
  • If there are starts and stops enroute, the formation is going to get spread out unless there is enough space for the lead to stop and collect all riders before proceeding. This has a tendency to encourage the trailing riders to speed and/or take more risk in an attempt to close the gap.
  • Don’t get me started about the riders of a particular brand of American V-twin motorcycles who think their riding formation constitutes “sovereign territory”.

Here are my general recommendations, and except for number 1 (taught to me by my Dad), they are the same rules that combat pilots follow:

  1. Golden rule – your formation should not cause any other driver on the road to deviate from their current state. This means your entry to the road surface, turns, passing, etc. should not cause anyone else to slow down, change lanes, speed up or do anything they weren’t planning on doing.
  2. All riders should understand that they are responsible for ensuring adequate maneuver space for each other and should anticipate changing the formation as conditions change. It can be very beneficial to have an experienced rider as “dash 2” since it will become obvious to all trailing riders when he/she changes from a staggered position relative to the leader and drops into trail. All other riders can then follow suit.
  3. No more than four bikes to a group, and then only traffic permitting. It should be no problem to conduct a larger ride with multiple “divisions” operating with enough time and space separation as to not adversely affect traffic. Remember the distance mentioned above – 309’. Even with only four bikes you are at risk of becoming a moving road block and are greatly increasing the risk of someone cutting into your formation to make an exit, becoming impatient to pass and trying to get around at high speed or with insufficient time, and generally making a nuisance of yourselves while feeding the stereotype of the inconsiderate rider.
  4. Optimize your formation for the riding conditions. Find the proper balance between control and maneuver.
  5. Always plan to have a regroup point. This will alleviate the tendency of trailing riders to ride too fast trying to catch up to the group.
  6. In a group of four, designate #3 as the “section lead” for last two riders; this allows the group to easily split into groups of two when necessary. In larger groups, designate a “sweep” to bring up the rear. Everyone in the group should have the cell phone numbers for the lead, their section lead, and the sweep.
  7. All riders should be able to navigate to the destination and regroup points autonomously in case they become separated.
  8. Especially when riding together for the first time, hold a pre-ride brief to ensure everyone knows what’s expected of each rider, all are familiar with the route and stopping points, and share phone numbers. Cover some basic hand gestures so that riders can communicate the need to make a pit stop for bathroom breaks, fuel, water, etc.

As a Harrier pilot, I always thought that I should be able to fit into anyone’s traffic pattern, fast or slow, because I had the most versatile aircraft at the airfield. This should be your attitude as well; as motorcyclists we generally have the most maneuverable vehicle on the road – we should NOT be the ones causing problems. Unfortunately, that attitude is sometimes lost or confused with the “it’s my right to ride” premise of some. All drivers and riders operating vehicles in a lawful manner have access to public roads, but your “right” to ride on the road is limited to doing so in a manner that respects the equal rights of all other drivers on the road. Respecting the equal rights of other drivers in no way precludes you from enjoying your motorcycle. It simply means that you adapt your riding and your formation to the environment at hand. It’s not only considerate, it’s the safest way to ensure you ride another day.