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I recently finished a four part series about package leadership and I soon realized I have not seen a similar introduction to being a flight-lead.
Therefore this is what I am trying to provide here. As before; I am going to draw from real life concepts and procedures, but will try to apply them to DCS in a sensible manner, since none of us have years of intense fighter pilot training. We all want a rewarding teamwork experience, but keep the scope of things sensible.
The cycle of leadership
I have talked a lot about the cycle of leadership in my package leadership series and it applies to any leadership situation. Follow the good old Situation, Mission, Execution, Command and Control in everything you do from the start of planning till the end of your flight. For an elaboration on what this means in detail in which Phase and how to structure your mission, check out the aforementioned series.
Most other things apply on the smaller scale of flight-leadership, but now we are going to focus on the aspects which are unique to it.
As flight-lead you will be at the center of all information flow. Out of the pilots in your flight, you will be using your sensors the most, therefore you need to keep your flights situational awareness high, which means giving regular updates to your flight. These updates will of course follow our favorite format of Situation (What is going on), Mission (What do we want to achieve right now) and Execution (What is our course of action).
Responsibilities of the wingman
Apart from staying in formation without crashing into the flight-lead the wingman should keep a few other things in mind. Flight-lead is naturally busy with navigating, checking sensors and leading his flight. To compensate for this the wingman should try to keep his head outside of the cockpit as much as possible. Not only to stay in formation, but also visually searching for threats, making sure to also check behind from time to time. In looser formations, when the wingman has more time to look inside the cockpit it also makes sense to divide up the space covered by sensors. Have one radar scan high and one low or divide up the area which is to be searched with targeting pods.
In reality a strike flight can be up to six aircraft, but I advise sticking to a maximum of four. Once you have five people in the air divide them into two flights of two and three aircraft. Not only is it easier to handle, but it also means there is more to do for the individual pilots, which is of course more fun than just flying along.
If you get a full flight of four people #3 should be your most experienced pilot. He will be your second in command and section leader. This way you can always divide your flight into two sections of two giving you greater tactical flexibility.
There are a myriad of different ways you can string a flight of aircraft together, but we are going to focus on a few basic formations. They should be sufficient for most situations you encounter.
A close formation in which the wingman is off to the side and slightly behind flight-lead, number 3 flies in the same formation relative to number 2 and so on.
In reality the wingman should be relatively far forward, his cockpit aligning with flight-leads wing to make it easy for the leader to visually check his formation. For most people you fly with, it will be easier to stay a little back and keep the formation looser. Either way make sure you announce any direction or altitude change especially when turning towards your flight.
The benefit of this formation is mainly that you take up very little space, which in real life makes ATC very happy. In DCS it keeps us nice and tight and makes navigation easier. Lead knows the way and it is hard to get lost when you are 5 meters away and constantly looking at him. There is also the added benefit of practice. If you are used to transiting in close formation, AAR is going to become a lot easier.
The downside of course is the wingman being completely focused on their formation. Do not expect them to perform any other tasks or scan effectively. They are also not able to maneuver and react to sudden threats; therefore this formation is only to be used when transiting in a safe airspace.
Pushing out into combat spread you are now abreast with 1nm between aircraft. Precision is much less of a factor and your wingmen are able to work their aircraft. They also have the space to maneuver independently if necessary.
The problem is, only very small turns still work by all simply turning in the given direction. For most direction changes you will need to use Tac-turns. Not a problem if you have 3 experienced wingmen by your side, but in DCS this might not always be the case.
Lead flies out in front and the wingman flies right behind him. Easy to achieve if your wingman is inexperienced or does not have head tracking. A close trail formation can be used for transit in this manner.
For ground attack a 1nm trail formation is very effective to cover each other.
Flight-Lead attacks and #2 follows him in 1nm trail. Ahead of him he sees flight-lead and the target area. He can scan for threats, warn lead if he spots any and might even be able to immediately suppress them.
If you have a #3, he will in turn be able to cover #2 in the same manner. #4 covers #3 in a 1nm trail and by the time #3 comes off target flight-lead should be able to be back behind #4 to cover him.
Using this tactic a flight of four can keep up constant attacks on a target area while still being covered at all times.
While scanning an area or holding over a fix it is of course possible to stay in close formation. This however is rather boring for your wingmen and means you have only one targeting pod for recon.
Instead you can push out your flight to different altitudes. #2 holding 1000ft below flight lead, #3 2000ft and #4 3000ft. This way everybody can fly his own holding circle on alt hold and scan visually or via TGP. One person should however be dedicated to visually scan for threats while everybody else is scanning for ground targets.
The holding formation for AA taskings. One plane/section flies towards the threat, while the other plane/section flies away from it. On command everybody turns 180°. This way you can be stationary and always have a sensor pointed down range.
Your phases of flight will be centered on certain waypoints and your life will be a lot easier if they are located close to or above prominent terrain features. Do not hesitate to define new waypoints for your flight as the situation changes.
In the heat of battle wingman can always be lost and depending on your aircrafts equipment it might not always be that easy to find one another. Having a rally point well inside safe airspace where everybody can regroup if necessary makes any loss of visual contact at least salvageable.
The hold position should be just within safe airspace and allow your flight to either search the target area via TGP or scan the contested airspace via radar. You should aim to have terrain features nearby, which in case of sudden attack allow you to dive into cover.
The initial point. This is where you start your attack run on a ground target. You might need to reassign these during your mission. They should give you a long and straight and unobstructed run towards the target. The IP can of course not always be within safe airspace, but the aim should be to reduce the time above hostile territory.
Once you have identified enemy ground units make sure to share the coordinates of all units that will be attacked with everybody in your flight and assign unique names to them, like TGT1, TGT2, etc.
Communication is a deep rabbit hole by itself if you want to do it semi-realistically. With a few key phrases however, we can make our AA and AG work a lot more coordinated.
Running in – I have passed the IP and I am approaching the target to deliver weapons
Covering – Answer by the following aircraft to the “Running in” call of the first. Stating you are in 1nm trail and able to cover his approach
Clear – I have pulled away from the target and am out of immediate danger. The area is clear for the following aircraft to announce “Running in”
Commit – The engagement starts and we are now maneuvering relative to the threat
Assign – Tell your wingmen who is targeting which target. Usually Target assignment left to right is sufficient. Meaning the left most aircraft in your formation takes the threat furthest to the left and so on.
Plan – Quickly state your intentions. For example “Shoot 20nm, short skate east”
In reality lead is usually the one expending ordnance and the wingman is the one covering him and returning with his bomb load. In DCS we want to make sure everybody has some fun and gets something other to do than simply fly in formation. Easiest way to do this is to give as many targets as possible to your wingman. Since you are already busy navigating and leading your flight, switch it around once the shooting starts. Assign your wingman to attack a target, fall into 1nm trail and cover him.
If you have a four ship flight and not enough targets to keep you busy dispatch one section to a different target area so they have something to do as well.