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Flying Story: Landing in Three Ship Formation

By Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, USAF (Ret.)

One of the great challenges of flying fighter aircraft is having responsibility for every airplane in your formation, or “flight.” Much of my flying was in formations of two, three or four aircraft. If I was the flight leader and any of the aircraft had an emergency, I had the duty to assist. This included making calculations about fuel, landing options and emergency procedures. Sometimes these decisions needed to be made quickly and with limited information. The following is one example; I was a flight leader flying out of an airbase in North Carolina. 

The year was 1963. I had been flying fighters for five years. I had more than 1000 hours in the F-100 aircraft and was an instructor pilot and a qualified four-ship flight leader. Flying in an air-to-ground exercise over North Carolina, there were three F-100s in my flight. The weather was deteriorating rapidly and all the airbases on the East Coast would soon go below landing minimums (200-foot ceilings and ½ mile visibility). In bad weather, it was normal that each aircraft would come down final approach and land individually. It soon became clear that if all of the aircraft in the air that day were to land safely this procedure would take too much time. 

I called the control agency and stated that all three of us would land at the same time. This pleased the controllers and helped them get other aircraft down more quickly. However, it surprised my wingmen. Neither one of them had ever landed in a three-ship formation – nor had I.

I did not have to tell my wingmen to fly very close to me. If they had not done so, they would have missed the runway and crash landed in the turf on each side of the runway. Happily we touched down simultaneously and safely in close formation at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. 

One of my wingmen was our squadron commander. He tended to be hypercritical of any of his pilots who deviated from normal procedures. During the flight debriefing, I expected that he would be harshly critical of my snap decision. I anticipated him saying the following: “Smith, you made a horrible decision. You didn’t check with me before you made your decision. None of us has ever made a three-ship landing. What we did was very risky. Captain Smith, you are grounded.”

What he said was something like, “Smith, in my twenty years of flying fighters, I never thought of landing in a three ship formation – good job.”