Visually scanning for traffic is an important skill, and it is often overlooked in training.
To find other planes in the sky get used to a simple search pattern called a scan.
The core of the scan is looking in small 10 degree segments within your view. Choose a small area of the sky and focus your eyes there. How small of an area? Imagine a 172 about a mile away. You need to focus within 3 or so wingspans of the plane. By focusing your eyes in such a small area , your brain can look to infinity and pick out planes at much farther distances than normal.
You can try this on the ground. Find a place where you have a decent view towards the horizon. Almost anywhere will work if you aren’t facing tall trees or buildings. Take a lot of time and focus your eyes into the distance in a very small area. It helps if you look towards airports or cities. If you do this long enough, when a plane comes by you will see it where you otherwise might never have picked it out of the background.
Expanding the Search
It doesn’t really help if you are only looking for traffic in one part of the sky. So we need to scan in a pattern.
There are two basic patterns to use and it is up to your preference to decide which one you like.
- Start looking to your left and scan each 10 degree section for 3 seconds or so before moving on to the next until you have scanned all the way left to right.
- Start scanning in the center of your vision and then work your way out to both sides until you have scanned the whole area.
The important thing is to be looking for traffic. This will already put you ahead of many pilots who are not scanning!
Flying high-wing aircraft? How do you see other planes while turning? You can’t! This means that you MUST lift the wing before beginning a turn. So when you are about to turn left, bank to the right about 15 degrees and look to the left. Then begin your turn to the left.
Look at your cockpit structure. If pieces of the frame are blocking your vision then lean around them to look outside.
You should normally be scanning an area of about 60 degrees in front of you. Be aware, however, that a plane can approach at a very shallow angle right next to you. Be sure to look to the sides occasionally and make sure another aircraft isn’t getting too close.
Looking for other traffic can be tiring. You can reduce fatigue by maintaining an outside scan more than an inside scan because switching between looking near and far is one of the more fatiguing things to do to your eyes.
It is recommended that you spend one quarter or less of your time looking inside the cockpit.
Once you find traffic you need to react appropriately to avoid a collision.