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Looking is not the same as seeingLooking is not the same as seeing

The visual scan examined

It was a beautiful, clear day and the two airplanes, which had left the same airport headed for the same fly-in, were being flown by friends. The Cessna 182 had taken off first; the much-faster Lancair amateur-built aircraft left a few minutes later. As they were closing in on their destination, both in a slight left turn, the pilot of the Cessna suddenly felt a hard jolt as the Lancair bumped into the left side of his fuselage just behind the rear seat. Neither had any idea the other was that close.
Visual Scan
Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

Fortunately, the angle of the impact kept the Lancair’s propeller clear of the Cessna. The Cessna had a badly buckled fuselage, and the Lancair’s empennage was crumpled, but were still flyable. Both aircraft landed safely. Most incidents like this don’t have such a happy outcome. However, most midair collisions and close calls share common causes and, in almost every case, are totally avoidable.

Eyes up

Collision avoidance is the most dramatic of many reasons to develop an effective visual scan. The first step to an effective visual scan is keeping your eyes up and focused outside the cockpit. Too many pilots spend too much time with their heads inside the cockpit, where video-game-like glass or iPad screens are the big attraction in newer aircraft. However, we can’t blame new gadgets for a general lack of awareness that seems to infect part of the pilot population. In some ways, it’s as if some of us have forgotten how, or why, to look out of a window.

Why we look out a window has no single answer, because there is so much that is important to us going on outside our airplane that it is difficult to even summarize. What can be said, however, is that, although the scenery is often breathtaking, the importance of the information conveyed by much of what we see far outweighs its beauty.

In the incident, the passenger in the left rear seat, a nonpilot, had watched the Lancair closing on them in the turn for some time. It hadn’t occurred to her to tell the pilot. Lesson number one: When flying passengers, ask them to keep an eye out for traffic and report anything they see. There is no such thing as having too many eyeballs looking around outside.

The art of seeing

Before we get into enumerating all the wonderful things that can be seen through the windows of an airplane, let’s define the difference between looking and actually seeing. Looking is a generalized act where the vista around the airplane is visually appreciated. It is, however, not dissected into the small details that make it useful to a pilot. Seeing, on the other hand, takes in the entire vista but does so in tiny chunks. A pilot’s eyes don’t sweep across the terrain; they focus on given details and cover the ground by going from detail to detail. Every aspect of the vista is seen and mentally inspected for information that can help the person in the left seat do that pilot stuff. Most pilots are looking but many don’t realize they aren’t actually seeing. Some of that is simply because of the way the eyes and brain work.

The FAA has a marvelously useful fact buried in one of the PowerPoint presentations routinely included in flight instructor refresher courses: “At 5 degrees off the point of focus, 20/20 vision drops to 20/100.” What it means is that, if we’re staring at something and depending on peripheral vision for anything useful, we’re working with severely degraded vision at the edges. We’re not mining the area on either side for valuable informational nuggets. Essentially, the same thing is happening when we’re moving our eyes across our visual field in an uninterrupted movement, focusing on nothing in particular. We need to focus on something to actually see it. This is why the FAA suggests that we scan the sky for traffic in small segments, about a heartbeat at a time.

What to look for

In general, as soon as we’re off the ground, our focus should include these elements:

Other aircraft. Whether it’s takeoff, cruise, or landing, our eyes and our brains should act like radar units seeking aerial objects that might compromise our well-being. Further, we should train our eyes and minds to send out the proper signals should another aircraft appear—which, in most cases, includes turning toward the aircraft’s tail, not the nose, unless it’s closing from behind.

Places to land. Inasmuch as engines can fail anytime, anywhere, part of our visual scan should include looking for the a) most accessible and reachable spots and b) the best spots, in that order. On takeoff, our choices are limited, but we have to be constantly looking for new ones as we gain altitude and speed and our choices expand. Don’t expect your brain to be capable of making destination decisions after the engine quits. When the propeller stops propelling, most brains stop thinking. The decisions have to be made ahead of time. At altitude, pilots should be continually playing the game of “If the engine quits right here, where do I go?”

Checkpoints/courses. Navigation in little airplanes has become vide- game simple. As long as the games keep working, that is. Part of a pilot’s visual scan should include checkpoints and, while scanning the panel, keeping track of what heading on the wet compass holds that course. A thumb on a sectional is also a good idea. That way, if the glass goes dark for any reason (electrical failure, death of a satellite, zombie apocalypse), we still know where we are and where we’re going.

Weather. It should go without saying that we should visually keep track of weather, but often the severity of the situation isn’t seen until it’s too late. Bad weather is usually seen, but it is too often ignored or misdiagnosed. When in doubt, fly a one-eighty out.

Landing-specific scans

All the foregoing specifics still apply to landings, but some outside details gain in importance in the landing phase of flight:

Other aircraft. Whether at towered or nontowered airports, don’t assume that every pilot will obey the rules or do as told. Every runway is a magnet attracting airplanes like bees to honey, so we’re all converging on one another. Do audio scanning as well: Listen to what other pilots say so you know where to look, even when pilots aren’t behaving as expected.

Wind indications. The sock or wind tee are the primary sources of wind information, but they don’t often say much about the character of the wind. Are the trees next to the runway telling a different story? Do flags at the nearby mall disagree with the windsock? Is smoke being forced out of line by odd winds at altitude? Look around. Many alternate sources of wind information are available.

A runway point. The axiom about runway numbers—moving up (or away from you) means you’re low on glidepath; moving down (or toward you) means you’re high—is hyper-important landing information. It is available only through the visual scan.

Attitude. Unless flying in instrument conditions, looking outside tells us when a wing is low or we are letting the nose attitude change, affecting airspeed and, potentially, safety.

Alignment of the nose. Nothing on the instrument panel is going to help you make a crosswind landing. Boiled down to its basics, you keep the nose straight with the rudders and stop the drift with the ailerons. If that requires you to be cross-controlled, then you’re cross-controlled, but that’s not always the case. Regardless, your eyes are continually judging your aircraft’s nose against the runway, enabling you to respond to the slightest drift.

Airspeed and skid ball. Until the last few feet of final approach, a pilot’s scan should be side to side, judging the aircraft’s nose against the runway—but on the way across the panel, the scan picks up the airspeed and is looking for any speed-up or slow-down trends. When the eyes pass centerline during the scan, they also momentarily monitor the ball and look for unwanted yaw.

The eyes have it

The bottom line of these kinds of discussions is that safe, precise pilots who are always ahead of their airplane are the same ones who are actually seeing, not just looking. They are continually sucking in visual information and using it to put their airplane exactly where they want it to be. This is a good thing.

Tech tools

Visual ScanScreens can supplement, not supplant, your outside scan

Looking outside is always the first line of defense for seeing and avoiding other aircraft. But with the advent of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a growing number of general aviation pilots have access to cockpit displays of traffic. Incorporating this technology into your scan takes practice—and it’s critical to understand what the display is really showing you.

ADS-B receivers can deliver traffic information—including altitude and airspeed—to panel or tablet displays. But if the receiver isn’t paired with an ADS-B Out transmitter, you may only see part of the traffic picture. ADS-B traffic is only broadcast in a 15-nautical-mile-radius “hockey puck” around an aircraft reporting its position using ADS-B Out. If your aircraft isn’t transmitting, you may pick up traffic from another aircraft’s hockey puck 10 miles away but miss traffic close to you. Learn more about the benefits and limitations of ADS-B In and an upcoming mandate for ADS-B Out in certain airspace in AOPA’s online resource.

Even pilots with a complete ADS-B installation may take some time to learn to reference the traffic display effectively without reverting to head-down flying. Once you spot a traffic target on your ADS-B display, do you know where to look in the windscreen?

AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, compared the use of ADS-B in general aviation aircraft to the use of radar in the F–15. In both cases, visual scanning is an essential skill that can’t be replaced by technology. And just as F–15 pilots learned to pair their radar elevation and azimuth detection with canopy placement, McSpadden learned in his civilian flying to translate locations on the screen to locations on the windscreen. In the F–15, a target identified on radar as 20 degrees right and 10 degrees low would be underneath the compass and a fist width above the glareshield; in McSpadden’s Piper Super Cub, a level target 20 degrees left on an ADS-B display will appear in line with the inside of the CHT gauge and halfway up the cockpit cross bar. —Sarah Deener



Budd Davisson

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S–2A.