When I began my flight training several years ago, my first instructor told me something that I thought was common sense and that he didn’t need to tell me: Keep your eyes outside. I remember asking myself where else I would keep my eyes if not outside and wondering why he thought it necessary to give me that little piece of advice.
Of course, as I progressed through the first few lessons and began to learn about V speeds, standard rate turns, and all the other stuff that comes along with looking at instruments, I realized why my instructor had told me to keep my eyes outside: so intent on watching the RPM and altitude, waiting for the white arc before putting in flaps, or trying to find things on my paper sectional, I often neglected the visual part of VFR flying.
I depended way too much on my instructors to be the lookouts. As my lessons progressed, however, I learned that I had to keep my eyes not only on the instruments but also outside, and two experiences solidified that in my mind. When people ask me if I’ve ever experienced anything scary while flying, I always tell them the following two stories.
In the winter of 2014, my instructor signed me off to fly the Piper Warrior I had been training in from the airport in Bridgeport, Connecticut (KBDR), across Long Island Sound to the practice area so that I could go through the ground reference maneuvers that I had learned. I was at around 1000 feet AGL circling a storage shed when that irritating voice yells into my ear, “Traffic 1:00, 1 mile, same altitude.”
I looked out and saw the plane – a Cessna 172 – but it looked to me as if it was actually climbing. My thought was to keep my eyes on it, but to remain at my present altitude. I continued to circle the shed, but the voice kept yelling in my ear.
As I came around to where I could spot the other plane again, I noticed that it was coming at me quickly and at an angle – it was close enough that I could actually see the face of the man flying it. In that split second that it took my brain to recognize the danger, I saw that he was descending, performing a slip to drop quickly, and so I pushed the throttle forward and pitched the nose up as I continued to circle.
My heart pounding and sweat rolling off my forehead, I climbed more and circled back around, but I did not see him again. Too nervous to continue what I had planned, I flew across Long Island Sound back to KBDR and landed. Explaining what had happened out there to my instructor and to a couple of other guys who worked at the airport, one commented, “That old man needs to have his license taken away.” They had obviously seen him take off.
I don’t know who “that old man” was or where he was going, but I learned from that experience to keep my eyes not only on the ground when doing ground reference maneuvers but also on the sky, and to take that annoying voice very seriously.
On another occasion, I was with an instructor practicing in the pattern at the Delaware, Ohio, airport (KDLZ). It was getting close to exam time, so we were going over all the takeoffs and landings one last time. Two other small aircraft joined us at this non-towered field to do the same thing we were doing. As my instructor and I turned downwind for runway 10, the plane ahead of us was turning base just as the third landed.
The pilot and instructor on base must have thought, as my own instructor and I did, that the plane that had just landed would continue down the runway and take off again, as had happened four or five times already. But no, this did not happen. The pilot and student who landed traveled down the runway and came to a stop. The plane ahead of us turned final, announcing that he was doing so, and my instructor and I waited for the plane on the ground either to take off or to taxi clear.
Eventually I said something like, “I don’t think he’s going anywhere, and that other plane is going to land.” We called out to the other planes, but neither heeded our warnings. Just as the landing plane set its wheels down, my instructor and I both let out a yell that echoed like thunder throughout the cabin of the Warrior (or at least in our headsets). Luckily for everyone, the first of the two planes immediately and quickly taxied off the runway as the other plane came to a halt about halfway down the runway. I extended the downwind to give both planes enough time to get clear of the runway and to do whatever they needed to do, called base, and then called a one-mile final.
With my eyes glued to the runway and taxiways, making darn sure no one was around, I landed, continued down the runway, and took off again. This was a case in which I actually was looking outside and witnessed the carelessness of two other pilots – both planes carried instructors and students. Luckily the collision that my own instructor and I were envisioning did not happen, but the whole situation could have been avoided if pilot #1 had remembered that there were others in the pattern and had cleared the runway, and if pilot #2 had been paying attention to the runway and had executed the proper maneuver and performed a go-around.
Since then, I have noticed in my own flying that I tend to keep my eyes fixed to the runway as I’m coming in for a landing – possibly more than is necessary considering that I should also be looking for birds, other traffic, or any other airborne distractions that could affect my landing.
There are several other smaller mishaps that I could include in my repertoire of stories for when people ask me about scary happenings. But these two, in my mind, illustrate very well the true importance of situational awareness and keeping my eyes outside. I can’t explain why the other pilot was coming straight at me over Long Island Sound, why I didn’t take evasive action as soon as I heard the traffic warning, or why the two pilots in Delaware were simultaneously distracted and disconnected from the gravity of their situation. But I guess that at this point explanations are not really necessary. What is necessary is the memory of those situations – what happened, how I felt, and the lessons that I learned (or at least was reminded of) when I experienced them.