Lookout, See and Avoid – 15 Tips for Safe VFR Flying

Sight is a rather important sense in aviation, especially when flying VFR, or at any time you are landing. It’s also our main method of avoiding other aircraft. Combined with radio communication, sight helps us to avoid getting too close to other aircraft. But some aircraft don’t have radios, or may not be on the same frequency, and some of those reckless pesky birds may not be following any rules of the air – so we have to use our peepers effectively.

“Yeah but I already look outside”, I hear you announce defensively. The Big Sky Theory pretty much guarantees that we are hardly ever going to conflict with another aircraft – but it only takes one time to ruin your day.  Let’s talk about a few ways to increase your target acquisition.

1. Clean windows

Before you fly, clean those windows and canopies.  Why look through dirty surfaces? It’s best to wash off any dirt and dust with water first, before using an approved cleaner.  Clean soft microfibre rags are often the tool of choice. It also makes sense to clean the windscreen after flight – whilst those tasty bugs are still soft and easy to move.  My top tip (passed on by a helpful aviation engineer) is to clean windscreens in an up and down manner, and to NEVER clean across the window, nor to scrub circular swirls.  This technique means that light will not streak around the windscreen or canopy, which is especially bad when flying into the rising or setting sun. Think Karate Kid painting the fence – up and down Daniel-San.

2. Hi-Vis Vests.

Don’t wear them when flying. As well as the melting nylon/polyester fire risk, they happen to reflect strong amounts of yellow/green/orange/pink light. Which means you get distracted by strong reflections, and your eyes focus will also tend to be drawn back.  There’s a reason your cockpit dashboard is normally black.

3. Rest

If you aren’t well rested, then your eyes are not going to work efficiently. Being simply tired, or hungover, or even heat stressed and dehydrated, will not work in your favour. Good quality sunglasses will protect your eyes, but do spend money on quality. Cheap plastic knockoffs might look cool, but they won’t protect you, and will in fact open up your pupils to allow more damaging UV rays into your eyeballs. Top Tip – protect your balls.  Especially when above cloud, or spending time on the beach or the ski slopes.

4. Carrots

Yes almost all of us know the joke about carrots being good for eyesight – and I’ve never seen a rabbit wearing glasses. This was actually a rumour spread during WW2 to disguise Britain’s success in radar technology – so the word spread about RAF pilots eating carrots just to keep Germany happy. My Specsavers representative actually tells me that apples are better for your eyes. He must own an orchard.

5. Getting to the Runway

Taxying is taxing, especially in taildraggers, or for those pilots that need cushions to see over the nose. Clear under the nose, never assume that the taxiway is clear, weave if required. Your propellor can draw blood, metal and trees.  BEFORE you line up on the runway, then really really really look back on finals, just in case there is another aircraft diving at the threshold. Too many pilots are too busy completing their checklists, or fiddling with GoPro cameras, or transmitting on the radio, when a simple longing loving glance may save your life.

6. Empty Field Myopia 

Flying can be boring, especially for my students who tire of my Dad jokes. In these boring times, it’s likely that your eyes can unknowingly relax, and reduce focus to only 2-3 metres away, especially in featureless skies.  Consequently you can be staring outside, but without any result.  Occasionally concentrating on a feature on the horizon, or even glancing at your wingtip, can help draw your focus out further.

7. Blind Spot  

Your puntum caecum is that spot where your optic nerve joins the retina, and in that area are no light sensing cells, so you are effectively blind right there.  Your brain can help interpolate to fill this void (the other eye helps) so it’s not immediately noticeable.  It’s located about 15 degrees to your side, and about 1.5 degrees below your horizon. We can beat this with an effective scan.

8. Effective Scanning Technique

Without mentioning geometry and Pythagorus Theorum, just believe me when I tell you that an object that is on a collision course, will remain stationary in your angle of view. It’s relative size will increase, but very, very gradually, and depending on the closing speed it can rapidly bloom into a noticeable size in the last few seconds. This may not be enough time for you to see the object, analyse the danger level, and then react accordingly. If this other aircraft happens to be hidden behind your blind spot, then you may never see it.  The good news is that aircraft that will miss you, will be moving across your line of sight and are easier to notice.  Scan by breaking the view (sky and ground) up into a number of sectors, and stare into each area for a few seconds, before shifting your gaze into another area.  Whilst its human nature to simply look well ahead when we walk, when flying you must look well above and below the horizon, because aircraft can indeed fly high and lower than you.  No matter how fast your aircraft is, there is almost always someone flying something even faster – so exercise those neck muscles and really look around behind you occasionally. 

9. Maneuvering and Attitude flying. 

Real pilots fly by setting Attitudes, and you can only do that by looking outside and referencing your cockpit coaming with the horizon, and setting it to various memorised placements, and then setting the matching power (and also trimming). Luckily looking outside often is in our interest, so increase your effectiveness by really looking extra good, just before any turns. Exercise that neck, clear the area, then look out the front whilst you set the desired attitude.  Climbs and descents also mean we are pointing our aircraft into areas of reduced visibility, so exercise small turns and level offs to clear under your aircraft nose. Yet another top tip is to really look down extended finals, whilst you are still on base leg on the circuit, just in case traffic is inbound – on every circuit.

Bonus Tip: Head on, both aircraft turn Right.

10. Listen out

This article is about Lookout, but listening out effectively to your radio, will increase your Situational Awareness, and will draw your eyes into a more sensible direction to spot the traffic. It is easy to be mistaken however, as those other pilots can accidently give an incorrect position report. Or you may actually spot a different aircraft, and assume that it’s the one you are worried about, and then not spot the other closer aircraft.

11. Birds

Our feathered friends generally occupy airspace below 2000ft AGL but have been known to fly much higher. They are also drawn to areas of food and water, so watch out for lakes, rubbish dumps, fishing trawlers, or even roadkill (I’ve seen dead kangaroos on the runway which by all accounts can be regarded as delicious). Larger aggressive birds can turn towards you, and then suddenly realise that you are much larger than them. Nine out of Ten Birds agree that they can dive faster than they can climb, so they often pull their wings in for the ‘gravity assist’ and dive away. I recommend pulling above birds rather than trying to fly below them when possible – especially for Ostriches.

12. Sunscreen

Look after your skin and use a protective lotion with a high SPF. But be careful of placing any too close or above your eyes.  When you rub your eyes or sweat runs into them, that sun cream really stings when it gets into your eyes. Not a great recipe for safe flying.

13. Nighttime

Cones are for daytime colour vision, and Rods are for Black and White and movement.  It takes around 30 minutes for your eyes to be effective at night – and it can all be ruined by one flash of light. Red filters on your torches and instruments help protect your night vision.  Trying to look directly at an object at night doesn’t work very well – you must look to one side.  Dial your instruments down dimmer when possible, to improve your outside view.  If you are unlucky enough to be caught in a lightning storm, then turn those lights up bright, because you may be temporary blinded.  Keep your spare torch fully charged and within easy reach.

14. Passengers 

Consider briefing your passengers to alert you of other aircraft. They are less likely to be staring at the GPS or engine instruments and can help spot traffic. Ideally, they can alert you in a professional manner, eg “Traffic Right Two O’clock Low, 1 mile, no confliction”, but even a finger pointed and a worried “Aircraft…” may be enough to save your bacon.  Promise your passengers a free drink for every aircraft they spot before you – after you land of course.

15. Glasses 

Get your eyes checked, wear your glasses and keep them clean. You look smarter.

Visual flying is fun, and should be stress free. At least 50% of flying is about enjoying the view. Maximise your lookout effectiveness and increase your flight safety – and maybe your pilot buddies will owe you some free drinks.

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Flying Instructor


Michael Jorgensen is a specialist formation instructor and Australia's premier air to air formation action photographer, based in Sydney, Australia. Jorgo has a wealth of experience, stemming from his career as a military fast jet pilot, and heavy air-to-air refuelling tanker pilot flying for both the New Zealand and British Air Forces. Find out more

Jorgo has 23 posts and counting. See all posts by Jorgo

4 thoughts on “Lookout, See and Avoid – 15 Tips for Safe VFR Flying

  1. Awesome briefing Jorge. Just a comment about cleaning the windows is that any smears left over after horizontal sweeps of your cleaning rag might hide a wire if you’re flying at low level, whereas vertical sweeps won’t.

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