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Training and Safety Tip: Master the sky

Before your next flight, play a game of chess. You don’t have to be good at it, or win. In fact, you’ll probably get more out of it if you get roundly trounced.

Consider this: Chess trains your brain to pay attention, to think ahead, to not ignore action on the sidelines, and to remember past moves. How does this play out in aviation?

Picture yourself entering the pattern at a nontowered airport with a popular fly-in breakfast. There’s a Bonanza turning final, a Cirrus 12 miles out, and a Cessna 172 on downwind. The other player’s bishop is threatening your knight—his queen isn’t a factor yet but warrants paying attention to—and his rook is blocking your planned move. See? Flying resembles a game of chess.

As the pilot chess master, you need to keep track of all the pieces and how their current moves—and probable future moves—affect you and your aircraft. You do this by building up an ever-evolving mental 3D picture of the environment around you. That’s situational awareness. Your mental picture includes the airplanes sharing the sky with you, and any operating on the ground below. And to help you construct this mental picture, there’s some awesome technology at your disposal.

First and foremost is the humble radio. At least, it’s first and foremost if you use it with a chess master’s cunning. At towered airports don’t content yourself with just listening for your N-number; and at nontowered airports, don’t just content yourself with broadcasting your actions. Instead, turn all the radio chatter into moves on your mental 3D chess board. Picture where each aircraft is, what each is doing, and what their intentions are.

ADS-B is another powerful tool to help increase your situational awareness, but be careful about over-reliance on the technology. Don’t treat it like some sort of alarm system. Instead, as with the radio, take the information it provides and add it to the mental picture that you are building of the aviation environment around you. For example, “There’s another aircraft approaching from the southeast and I haven’t heard them on the radio yet, but they could get to the airport at about the same time when I do.”

And who knows? Maybe working on your situational awareness will up your chess game, too; and in no time, you’ll be master of both.

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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