Collision Avoidance Starts With Awareness

?Fish Finders? Are Great Aids; but the Savvy Pilot Relies on His Eyes

Back in the late 1970s, I was privileged to drive Battle of Britain hero Bob Stanford Tuck from Rhode Island to Boston to catch a flight back to his home in England. Almost 40 years after his last combat in a Spitfire, Tuck astounded me with his eyesight -- identifying species of distant birds "judging by the wing flap."

For some, spotting "bandits" is a God-given talent. As the saying goes, "Anatomy is destiny," and fighter pilots with the keenest eyes were the ones who scored highest -- and survived longest. In today's techno-rich airspace, collision avoidance is enhanced by avionics. But you still can't beat a clean windshield and a good pair of Mark I eyeballs.

Even if you aren't blessed with the eyes of a fighter pilot, there are ways to enhance your ability to spot traffic, even if your panel does not include electronic collision avoidance equipment. It starts before you even take off. If you have your radios set and your GPS programmed before you reach the runway, you'll spend that much less time in the vicinity of the airport with your head inside the cockpit.

Next, never forget that traffic is your responsibility, even if you're on an IFR flight plan, as long as the weather is VMC. Especially in the middle part of the country, you can still hear a lot of pilots flying high-performance airplanes VFR up in the low teens, so stay on your toes. And if you're one of them, ATC flight following is the next best thing to IFR for traffic alerts.

Passengers can be pressed into service for traffic spotting. Besides the extra sets of eyes, it engages their attention, lessening the chance of anxiety or airsickness. With children (or adults who behave like them), you can make a contest out of who can spot the most airplanes the soonest.

Finally, there is your own scanning technique. Sweeping your eyes across the horizon is not the best way, since it takes us a few seconds to focus. A better plan is the so-called "block" method. Divide the sky into blocks of area, each spanning roughly 10 to 15 degrees, and the same division above and below the horizon. Stop and focus on each block for a few seconds as you move up and down, and left to right across the windshield. Some suggest skipping from far left to far right, then working toward the middle. The key is to pick a block and stop, focus, then move on. Bear in mind, also, that an airplane on a collision course will not appear to move at all, but rather will "mushroom" in your field of view as it gets dangerously closer. Since our vision is most sensitive to relative movement, that means that the most dangerous target is the one that is least apparent.

And if you find yourself bored with the whole thing, you can always pretend every airplane you see is a Messerschmitt.