By John Lorenz, photo by Nick Winchester
Not many of us would close our eyes, put a car in gear, and pull forward in a turn for any distance. Yet most pilots initiate a turn in the air before looking in the direction of the turn to clear it. Sure, the odds of hitting another plane are low, but a lot of good people spend a lot of good money on lottery tickets where the chances of a hit are probably lower, and sometimes they win.
We usually get away with not looking carefully to clear a turn because the odds are indeed long, but your passenger’s life should be worth, at a minimum, the effort of turning your head to take a peek. And since we operate in a three-dimensional environment, the traffic check should include looking for higher aircraft that are descending towards you as well as those below and climbing. Before a turn, lift the wing of a high-wing airplane or lower the wing of a low-wing airplane to check for traffic in all dimensions. I have a friend who gives me heartburn by flying up beside me in loose formation unannounced and cheerily waving hello — it’ll be a long drop to the ground if I ever turn blindly in that direction while he’s there.
Most pilots in high-wing aircraft start a turn without looking, and then try a nervous combination of leaning forward far enough bend their eyeballs around the leading edge of the wing and staring magically through the lowered wing as if they have X-ray vision. A better technique, and one that lowers the stress level (especially during a left-hand turn where the pilot’s view is most obscured with side-by-side seating), is to clear the airspace by raising the wing briefly but well above the horizon before starting the turn, and clearing the airspace you’re about to turn into. If turning more than 40 or 50 degrees in a congested area, it doesn’t hurt to interrupt the turn, raise the wing, and look into the turn again. High wing or low wing, such wing waggling also makes you own airplane more visible to others by exposing the broad surface of the wing to viewers instead of just its knife-edge, and the wing movement is eye-catching. Military types use such wing flashes specifically to call attention to their position when several aircraft are maneuvering together, and you know how much easier it is to see an airplane that you’re following in the pattern after it initiates the turn downwind to final.
This works for clearing turns prior to maneuvering, for course changes, and for turns in the traffic pattern. If flying a high-wing and doing a pair of 90-degree clearing turns before starting maneuvers, clear the airspace into the turn, then the scan forward and to the opposite or raised-wing side to clear the vista opened up by the raised wing during turn.
Meanwhile, most traffic-pattern mid-air collisions occur between two aircraft on final, one overtaking the other. The common scenario being the low-wing aircraft, with its minimal downward visibility, descending onto a high-wing aircraft that has minimal upward visibility. Avoid this classic midair by clearing the airspace over the final approach course while flying the downwind and base legs (add it to the million and one other pre-landing duties). If you fly a high-wing, check especially for traffic above you; if a low wing, check for traffic below. On base, diligently look one way to check for aircraft that may be on extended final or approaching straight in, and the other way for aircraft on short final and to make sure the runway is clear.
Maintaining a mental picture of the positions of other aircraft in the pattern through their radio calls helps immeasurably, but don’t rely on it exclusively. There are legal aircraft out there without radios, and how many of us have miscued the radio switches and only thought we were diligently transmitting our positions in the pattern? Then there are the clowns who don’t bother to use the radios they have.
The most efficient visual scanning technique requires conscientious effort: quick glances and sweep scans are worse than useless because 1) they don’t work, yet 2) they give a false feeling of comfort because you’ve done it. They won’t pick up a nearby aircraft unless it’s obvious, which means it has motion against the background or across the windshield, or that it’s real close. The recommended sector scan, stopping briefly and focusing on successive segments of airspace, is more likely to pick up an aircraft that blends with the background and/or that doesn’t have much obvious relative motion across the windshield. This is the dangerous traffic.
Finally, if you’re trying to point out another aircraft to someone else in the cockpit, give them a distance, direction, and elevation. It’s much easier to find traffic if you know whether to look for it half a mile or two miles out. The clock system still works for direction despite the brave new digital era. And it’s easiest to find traffic if someone tells you whether to look for it along, above, or below the horizon. “Twelve O’clock High” is more than just the title of a great movie.