A carelessly quick 180-degree head swivel is not going to save you from that aircraft approaching from behind the wing.

CAA Aviation Safety Advisor Carlton Campbell, says the three most important things a VFR pilot can master are lookout, lookout, and lookout.

“Although other skills, like great radiotelephony, are really important,” he says, “nothing, nothing, replaces the mark 1 eyeball to physically identify the risks beyond the windshield.”

Involve the body

An effective lookout requires more than just sleepily gazing at what might be directly in front. Rarely does an aircraft come in close proximity with another from directly in front. The danger comes more often from underneath, or from the sides.

“That means getting active,” says CAA Standards Chief Advisor, Marc Brogan. “Move your whole torso around. Lean forward – particularly if you’re turning

“Be awake to the design features of your aircraft and how they can damage your scan.”

A ‘key lesson’ from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission’s examination of the Feilding mid-air collision in 2010 was that, “Pilots need to … ensure that their scans cater for any blind spots in the cockpit, either by moving their heads to look around any obstructions or by manoeuvring their aircraft”.

The low wings of a Piper Warrior are going to block your view of aircraft flying below, but possibly toward, you.

In high-wing aircraft, there’s a considerable blind spot created by the wing during a turn. To partially overcome this problem, again, you should lean forward to look through the side of the windscreen, moving both your head and body for a better view.

When descending in low-wing aircraft, make shallow turns to compensate for your blind spots so that lower flying traffic can be seen. On descent and climb-out, make gentle ‘S’ turns to make sure no one is in the way.

“You need to be dynamic in your scan to be assured of identifying where all other aircraft are, that are sharing the airspace,” says Marc.

Involve the brain

The brain needs to be as engaged as the body.

“You need to be looking out for something,” says CAA Flight Examiner Guy Brooking. “A passive and quick sweep of your head from side to side is not ‘looking out’. The brain doesn’t really register anything meaningful outside the cockpit window.

“You have to look in one sector, focus on that sector, then look at another sector, focus on that, and so on.

“A scan, properly done, should be in 20 degree blocks with about two seconds spent on each block, and take about 18 to 20 seconds.

“The lookout must be built into all activity needed during a flight, and must be continuous, not just when you are about to enter a turn.

“Instructors need to drive this home to their students, and one of the best ways to do this, is to make sure they are modelling a good lookout at all times, not just when they are actively teaching something,” says Guy.

Tech is great, but…

“There’s no doubt in-cockpit tech is a huge boon to aviation safety, but it should be treated only as a back-up to a physical lookout. It should never replace it,” says GA Flight Examiner, Mark Woodhouse.

“There are aircraft which, for instance, don’t have ADS-B OUT, or the other aircraft might have it, but it’s switched off. So don’t assume that all other aircraft in your airspace will ping out an identifier.

“And the more you rely on cockpit tech for your situational awareness, the more degraded your lookout skills become.”

Lookout – on the ground

There’s no doubt that the quality of lookout can be affected by workload, or insufficient sleep the night before the flight, or a number of other seemingly unrelated factors.

FAA Advisory Circular AC90-48E Pilots’ role in collision avoidance says, “Proper scanning requires the constant sharing of attention with other piloting tasks, thus it is easily degraded by psychophysiological conditions such as fatigue, boredom, illness, anxiety, or preoccupation”.

To make sure your lookout has to be shared with as few other tasks as possible, prepare as much as you can before the flight.

For instance, clean your windscreen (for the very practical reason that you won’t mistake an approaching aircraft for a windscreen bug) and make sure you have sunglasses (to cope with sun strike, a common cause of proximity events). Understand whether rotary ops and fixed-wing ops at your destination aerodrome integrate into the circuit or operate in separate areas, confirm the direction of the circuit, or whether there’ll be gliding ops the day you arrive, or any likely IFR flights.

“In this way, you’ll have to attend to only truly unexpected events, and not to things you really could have prepared for, ahead of time,” says Mark Woodhouse.

In the Vector article “Uncontrolled doesn’t mean you” (March/April 2018) CAA Air Transport Inspector, Chris Nicholls (B-cat, flight examiner), said he’d add preparedness for the circuit of unfamiliar aerodromes, to that list.

“Just 15 extra minutes on the ground before departure is worth bucketloads in safety. Look at the AIP. Check the runway vectors. What’s the surrounding topography like? Give a local a call and have a chat about what you can expect.”

More information

FAA Advisory Circular AC90-48E Pilots’ role in collision avoidance(external link)

ATSB Limitations of the see-and-avoid principle(external link)

Vector Spring 2023 “Things that jeopardise your lookout”

Vector July/August 2009 “See and Avoid”(external link)

Posted in Pilot performance flying practice and professionalism;

Posted 56 days ago