Pick a Point

The outside picture gives comprehensive guidance for VFR maneuvers.

You’re on your Private Pilot checkride and established in a steep turn. Everything is perfect. You’re spot on your altitude and the bank angle is pegged at 45 degrees. It seems easy. You’re thinking: “I’ve got this!” Then the nightmare happens. Your scan moves down to your heading indicator and you realize you’ve already blown past the heading by 20 degrees. A good reference point could have prevented the dreaded pink slip.

It’s easy to get stuck inside the cockpit, staring at the instruments as if you’re wearing blinders to the outside world, particularly with the pretty screens in glass panel equipped airplanes. You may become fixated on the instruments to maintain heading, airspeed and altitude. But looking outside gives you the whole picture, literally. The horizon serves as the ideal reference for attitude. It takes a fraction of a second to determine whether the nose of the airplane is pointing down or up, or whether it is on the horizon. Another great benefit of keeping the eyes outside the cockpit, TIS, TCAS and TAWS aside, is that you can see if there is any traffic or a potential hazard in your path of flight.

Picking and using a reference point is much easier than trying to keep track of a tiny number on a round gauge or glass panel. The reference point helps you maintain a straight path. Unless you’re experiencing a severe crosswind aloft, the propeller should point right at your target. A prominent target also helps with timing at the completion of a steep turn. You are already subconsciously aware of the rate of turn as you watch the world go by through the windscreen, and as you come around you can see the target in your peripheral vision. Anticipating the end of the turn this way is much easier than watching the heading indicator.

With the exception of ground reference maneuvers, a good aiming point should be located in the distance, preferably at the horizon. The best type is a prominent mountain or structure of some kind – something that is hard to miss. This type of reference point is helpful for maneuvers such as steep turns, stalls and slow flight, and can also help keep you straight in the legs of the traffic pattern. A prominent reference point at the horizon can also be used for Chandelles and Lazy Eights, but in this case one wingtip should point to the reference point at the beginning and the opposite wingtip at the completion of the maneuver.

Targets for ground reference maneuvers are generally easy to find. The key is to find a shape that suits the maneuver. If you’re doing turns around a point, try to find a round shape, such as a water tower. For S-turns, find a long, straight line, like a freeway, railroad tracks or power line that you can use to align your wingtips at the completion of each turn. Eights-on-pylons provide the biggest challenge for finding reference points. Optimally, you need two points of similar shape and size, at a distance that allows two circular turns around each point and a short segment of straight and level flight between each turn.

Whether you’re practicing maneuvers or just flying around, reference points are great aids. While instruments give you more detailed information about flight conditions, the view outside the airplane tells you everything you need to know about your progress through the maneuver, without interpretation or scanning. Spend most of your time looking outside, but always keep your eyes moving to verify the outside picture with the gauges on the panel. You may need small corrections to pitch, power, bank and yaw to maintain the perfect track. But looking outside will prevent the dreaded overshoot that could get you a pink slip on a checkride or make you drift into the path of another airplane at an airport with parallel runways.

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