November 17, 2011
By Larry Brown
With its bubble canopy, the visibility from the cockpit of an F-15 is awesome. But you still can’t see directly underneath the jet. My instructor taught me that if you are in a sustained turn for more than approximately 180 degrees, then it is probably time to do a belly check. In a right turn where you are looking right, you quickly roll your wings to the left, look left, and then roll back right, look right, and put on the Gs to continue in the original direction of your turn.
During a beautiful day over the Pacific Ocean somewhere near Okinawa, I was in a four-ship of F-15s going up against four F-4 Phantoms in a dissimilar air combat training (DACT) mission. Once the “furball” started, I got a kill shot on one of the F-4s. Because I had made at least 180 degrees of turn to get to where I was, I knew it was time to do a belly check. I expected to see nothing but sky and ocean. Instead I got an eyeful of the belly of another F-15 in a hard turn, at the same altitude, converging on my position. A quick yank on the stick put me in an 8.5-G climb. Two seconds later it was over and we were clear of each other.
I still do belly checks even in light aircraft. Put yourself in a low-wing Piper on downwind in a left-hand traffic pattern approaching the base leg. Once you start the left turn your visual scan will generally move among three things: looking left at the runway, to looking straight over the nose, to scanning your instruments. After rolling out on base, most people continue to look to the left at their primary reference of the runway. What should you do? As soon as you roll wings level on base you should turn your head and take a look to the right. Don’t worry. You’ve been watching that runway for 90 degrees of left turn and it won’t go anywhere anytime soon. But the right is where the final approach course is, and other potential traffic, and was your belly side during the entire turn to base. For any of the other three pattern turns you should do the same thing.
Things are slightly different in my high-wing Cessna. During a left-hand turn, the fuselage blocks my view to my belly side on the right, and my left wing blocks my view to the left. I can’t see the runway numbers during the early part of the base turn. Instead of contorting my body around the cockpit trying to look left to see, I include a scan of the final approach course during the first part of the turn. Once I roll out I still do a belly check and continue on my way. Doing belly checks may be a hard habit to start if you aren’t used to it, but once you make it part of your routine it won’t be a waste of your time.
Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,600 hours total time during his 32 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40.
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