Team Building Ideas from the Clouds


I realized three team building ideas from almost flying in the clouds.

When we practiced a formation flight breakup at the end of one of our helicopter missions, seeing the procedure work proved to be one of our better team building ideas.  It’s one thing to trust your colleagues, quite another to see your procedure work so well.

Seeing was believing, transforming my trust into faith and confidence. This was one of the best team building ideas that I have ever witnessed.


Team building ideas

Image Courtesy SSG Brian Barbour USANG

The Scenario

In my “hot wash” blog, I discussed a scenario in which we had 5 helicopters flying in tactical formation to conduct a mission. Imagine now, that we are on the return trip home, in close formation, flying at several hundred feet in altitude.

There are clouds ahead and the visibility is getting worse. Typically, not a big concern when flying an agile helicopter, but when flying in formation, things are different.

Here’s why:

You know the accordion effect you experience when driving at the back of a long line of cars on the interstate? Slow down, speed up, then slam on the brakes?

When flying formation flight, not only is this an unpleasant experience for those in the back, it is also extremely dangerous. When you slow a helicopter, the nose comes up. When the nose comes up too much, you can’t see in front of you.

In the air, there is no such thing as a fender bender; mid-air collisions simply are not something to experience.

This means that instead of the usual agility and flexibility we had when flying alone, formation flight requires we fly as if we were piloting a lumbering jumbo jet.

We had to make much slower, methodical turns so that the helicopters on the inside could slow down, while those on the outside would speed up.

Flight Lead must maintain a steady pace so that the rest of the team knows what to expect.

Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC)

The Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions (I-IMC) breakup was not only a standard operating procedure, but also so important that we reviewed this contingency prior to EVERY formation flight.

Each of us had to know our roles, because we depended upon each other to do the right thing without hesitation. In our scenario, somehow, Flight Lead does not foresee the danger ahead and punches into the clouds. Suddenly, all five aircraft are in the “soup.”

  • What next?

We had to be informed and prepared, and a critical point we had to know was the highest peak in the surrounding area. As I recall, we used 7500’ when flying in Korea to ensure we were above the tallest mountain.

NOTE: Fortunately, I-IMC never happened to me, but I remember one return flight where the conditions were getting progressively worse. At first, the flight slowed, then slowed some more, then Flight Lead decided to divert to the rice paddies below. We shut down, waited a while for the clouds to break, and then continued on our way.

When it is a safety issue, it makes sense to put things on hold.

The IMC Breakup Procedure

If our flight did enter the clouds, Flight Lead would announce “going IMC” and continue to fly straight ahead while climbing to base altitude – assuming echelon left formation:

  • Helicopter 2 – turn 20 degrees left; climb to base altitude + 500’
  • Helicopter 3 – turn 30 degrees right; climb to base altitude + 1000’
  • Helicopter 4 – turn 40 degrees left; climb to base altitude + 1500’
  • Helicopter 5 – turn 50 degrees right; climb to base altitude + 2000’

We practiced this procedure and within seconds, each of us could see the distance and separation. Within a minute, the air traffic controllers no longer saw one blip on their radar, but five aircraft at different altitudes, heading in different directions.

For use, this served as one of those team building ideas that proved to be a great confidence builder!

Team Roles

Lessons Learned

Here are three team building ideas I discovered:

  1. Be sure everyone understands why you have a particular procedure. You may not have to contend with an in-flight emergency, but there should be no guessing, especially when it comes to safety.
  1. Team leaders need to maintain a steady pace. That way the rest of the team knows what to expect so that they can keep pace. No abrupt maneuvers. Safety first.
  1. When possible, demonstrate the value of your procedures. In my example, everyone witnessed how we moved to safety within a minute of executing our breakup procedure.

For more on why teamwork is so important, check out these articles:

At the heart of great teamwork are your leadership culture and each members’ interpersonal communication skills.  Check out thus FREE eBook, Relate and Communicate, for more communication insights.