Airbus is working with air navigation service providers (ANSP) and airlines to test flying widebody aircraft in formation to save fuel and reduce carbon emissions. The idea is to mimic the efficiencies that migratory birds gain by organizing in their V-shape flocks. The planemaker says long-haul airliners can burn as much as 10 percent less fuel if they can harvest the wake energy of a strategically positioned partner. It’s launched an effort called fello’fly to see if it can be put to practical use. The company has tested the concept with its own aircraft and found it could cut fuel burn and emissions by tucking one huge aircraft behind another. It also understands the challenges of conducting daily operations this way.

“Flying two large passenger aircraft close together poses new operational challenges for the aviation ecosystem at large, requiring new procedures to be identified,” Airbus says in its description of the effort. The company has struck deals with all the major ATS providers in Europe as well as Nav Canada to develop those procedures. It’s also working with airlines to identify aircraft types that work well together and how to train pilots for such operations. To reap the wake energy rewards, aircraft separation will have to be reduced to about 1.5 nautical miles laterally. Special equipment will let the following aircraft find the lift benefit from the lead.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I hold my breath when I watch social media videos of civilian pilots doing impromptu formation takeoffs and flying, since they always make mistakes. Pilots, get training before attempting formation takeoffs, or just say no.

    Also, haven’t seen any non-ATP female pilots land on the runway center line, which is a training and skills problem. It works out for most airports large enough to have a control tower, but smaller airports can have narrow runways. CFIs: Do your job!

    • I’ve been in the aviation field for 30 years and have a hard time finding blatant examples of what I perceive to be bias against women, something that many here at Avweb insist does not exist. Thank you, James B., for providing me with such an obvious example.

    • What a completely ignorant statement James – I’ve flown with and met plenty of women pilots that are just as skilled as their male counterparts. My CFI was an incredibly talented pilot and was not ATP rated. Get over yourself and go back to whatever cave you climbed out of.

  2. As an avid cyclist I see the appeal of drafting or in this case formation flying.

    What I don’t know is how much it increases risk, and I would say that figure is greater than zero.

    Saving fuel is important but the risk of the extra 10% fuel is essentially zero. All you lose is the cost of the fuel.

    My guess is that the risk/benefit ratio is against this procedure.

    • Like Richard said, anybody who has flown any formation will tell you that it isn’t a smooth ride. The leader’s wingtip vortex is bumpy and chaotic. No passenger craft is going to want to stay in that condition for an entire ocean crossing. They won’t be able to carry enough sick sacks. They won’t be able to turn off the seatbelt sign, let alone offer inflight service.

  3. Just what I want to see, 150 hour copilots flying formation with another widebody. Although I disagree that formation flying is a rough ride if you are positioned properly. Glider tow is a good example, but I’ve flown formation in piston twins, turboprops, and Citations.

  4. Formation flying is one thing, but intentionally trying to position your plane in the right spot to stay in the wake of another wide body is likely to produce a rough ride. I have participated in several formation flying events with light single Cessna aircraft. I managed to find the wingtip vortex of a leading Cardinal, which quickly rolled me about 45 degrees to my left. Fortunately the bank pulled me out of the vortex, but it was a good illustration of what even a small plane’s wake can do. Don’t think I would like to try it in an airliner for several hours.