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Training and Safety Tip: Be on the lookout

Properly scanning for traffic while flying is more like duck hunting than scanning for traffic while driving.

Front-to-side scanning method: Start at the center of your visual field (center of the windshield); move to the left, focusing in each block, then swing quickly back to the center block after reaching the last block on the left and repeat the performance to the right. Graphic by Claire Urban.

Drivers keep their eyes in motion, scanning the road around them for other cars and potholes; hunters apparently stare at one patch of the sky for a moment, then move on to the next. This is also the best way to see and avoid other airplanes when flying. It gives your eyes time to focus, something they don’t do well in constant motion, and focus is key when it comes to looking for small objects—which is how airplanes that need to be avoided appear.

So, stare at one spot for several seconds, then move your eyes and lock onto another spot, then lock on to a third spot, and so on. These “spots” should be slices of the horizon of about 10 degrees each. And speaking of 10 degrees, keep your attention to the area of the sky that’s 10 degrees above or below the horizon. Other aircraft higher or lower than that aren’t a collision risk. Focus on the part of the sky where the threat is.

There are two different styles of this staccato scan. One style starts at the center of the windscreen and moves to the left one block at a time. When finished, you return your eyes to the center, and then work your way to the right. Then check your instruments and repeat. The other style is to move from left to right across the entire windscreen, and when done, check your instruments and return to the left and repeat. With both methods you “lock” your eyes on each 10-degree parcel of sky for two seconds to let your eyes focus on any objects in the block.

Don’t worry about anything you see moving—it’s not a factor. But pay attention to another aircraft that appears to be floating like a balloon: It is either heading directly away from you, or straight toward you, in which case it will arrive with mind-numbing speed. So, remember the nav lights: If the green light is to your right, the other airplane is heading away; if the red light is to your right, the other airplane is headed toward you— take evasive action at once.

Properly scanning for conflicting traffic is critical because, while rare, midair collisions have miserable survival rates. So, scan like a duck hunter to avoid becoming a dead duck.

Side-to-side scanning method: Start at the left of your visual area and make a methodical sweep to the right, pausing in each block of viewing to focus your eyes. At the end of the scan, return to the panel. Graphic by Claire Urban.

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is a widely published aviation writer and columnist. He is an FAA Safety Team rep and a rare "double" Master Ground Instructor accredited by both NAFI and MICEP. An AOPA member since 1983, he holds a commercial pilot certificate and has a degree in aviation technology. He was recognized as a Distinguished Flight Instructor in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards.
Topics: Training and Safety, Collision Avoidance, Situational Awareness
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