As your checkride day draws near and you polish your flying skills and aeronautical knowledge with your instructor, you may notice your CFI reminding you to remember your “clearing turns” before each maneuver—and for good reason. Suggesting that the airman certification standards emphasize traffic awareness and collision avoidance would be an understatement. Nearly every task you’ll be required to perform during the flight portion of your practical test mentions collision hazards as a risk factor to consider, also adding “clear the area” as a specific skill requirement. And don’t rely on the designated pilot examiner to remind you of this important responsibility, just as your future passengers will not prompt you to look for traffic.
While you might find it surprising that only half a page of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge is devoted to collision avoidance, Advisory Circular 90-48D covers the topic in much greater detail. However, neither document describes the actual mechanics or specifications of performing clearing turns other than suggesting raising or lowering a wing prior to turning, while verbalizing—during training flights—that you’re checking for traffic. The reason is that a “clearing turn” is not a maneuver—it’s simply the act of looking for traffic.
Some pilots cling to “old school” methods, suggesting that “proper” clearing turns require at least two 90-degree turns in opposite directions, or a 180-degree turn. This mentality suggests that a clearing turn is a maneuver with its own standards of completion. The trouble with this idea is that attention given to performing a maneuver-style clearing turn can cause a distraction from the objective: looking for traffic. Pilots who perform clearing turns as a maneuver frequently become so engrossed in completing a beautifully coordinated and altitude-, bank angle-, airspeed-, and heading-controlled maneuver that they forget completely about looking out the window for traffic—either before, during, or after the clearing turn is completed. In addition, upon completing the clearing turn, any thoughts of continuing to be traffic-vigilant often cease, since the clearing turn has been completed.
A VFR pilot’s primary responsibility is to see and avoid other traffic, and this requires continuous alertness and vigilance. In short, a VFR pilot’s head needs to be on a swivel—before, during, and after any flight maneuvers. It’s a continuous process. Looking for and being alert for traffic while flying an airplane should be as spontaneous and natural as looking all around you and over your shoulder while walking down a busy highway. Examiners evaluate applicants’ effectiveness and overall vigilance in clearing the area. This includes looking before turning in either direction, then raise or lower a wing, as appropriate, to confirm the area is clear. Announcing, “Traffic check!” would win bonus points. In this manner, an effective clearing turn might require a turn of only a few degrees in either direction—whatever is needed to assure a traffic-free area. If your aircraft is equipped with a traffic advisory or collision avoidance system (TAS, TCAS, or ADS-B display)—as many training aircraft are these days—also include a check of that system prior to commencing any maneuvering.
Pilots need to be especially vigilant while operating near airports, during traffic pattern operations, when performing training maneuvers, while taking off or landing, or on the ground whenever crossing any runway or taxiway. Use all of your resources: Keep all strobe lights and anticollision lights on day and night whenever on a runway or in flight, and ask your passengers to speak up if they spot any traffic. Adhering to traffic pattern and communications standards at towered and nontowered airports also improves your chances of avoiding a dreaded midair collision.
Another area for concern is with pilots who recently completed an instrument training course. After spending so much time under the hood (view-limiting device) simulating instrument conditions, an insidious erosion of traffic scanning and collision avoidance skills may go unnoticed. Unless this trend is recognized and reversed soon after the instrument training is completed, it can easily become a permanent bad habit. Remember, the majority of midair collisions and near midair collisions occur in good VFR weather conditions during daylight hours, even if you happen to be flying on an instrument flight plan.
Bob Schmelzer is a Chicago-area designated pilot examiner, a retired United Airlines captain and Boeing 777 line check airman. He has been an active gold seal flight instructor since 1972.
Manned balloon flight has been around since brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier flew a tethered hot air balloon in Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Ever since, people have looked to this as a unique way to see the Earth from a different perspective. Until 1974, the FAA didn’t require balloon pilots to be licensed. These days, the agency does require a certificate, and the add-on is easy to get. Go to an FAA-approved Part 141 course and you can finish after eight hours in the balloon and a week on location.
After that, you can use your certificate to do balloon tours and explore local areas. Popular spots in the United States for balloon pilots include Palm Springs and Napa, California; Colorado’s Rocky Mountains; the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Arizona; Lake Tahoe, Nevada; and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Balloon enthusiasts also attend events such as the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, held in New Mexico in the fall. The event includes exhibits, competitions, and education.