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Editor’s note: This article, from the June 1968 issue of Air Facts, discusses a discipline just as relevant today as it was 55 years ago. Author, Richard Collins, discusses the skill involved in looking for air traffic, the importance of memorizing checklists, and the possibility of being more “random” with crusing altitude selection.


By: Richard L. Collins

Air Facts

“A New Flight Skill” orginally published in the June 1968 print version of Air Facts.

If a flight begins with a smooth take-off, and progresses right on course and altitude, followed by a gentle descent and a perfect landing (with the wheels down), it’s a good flight by a skillfull pilot. At least it appears that way. In this modern time, though, with increasing traffic, increasing collision hazard, and an increasing number of mid-air collisions, the smoothest most talented aviator in the world can in truth be a pretty lousy pilot if he doesn’t hold up his end of the see and be seen concept.

See and be seen gets pretty short mention in modern flight instruction and in flight testing, but there is a certain amount of technique involved. If it can’t be called technique in the truest sense of the word, maybe it could be called awareness – awareness of where mid-air collisions happen most frequently and awareness of some of the common weaknesses in airplane spotting and flight planning.  First a true story to illustrate that seeing airplanes has more to do with motivation and the time spent looking than it does with experience or acquired skill. When we moved to this metropolitan area 10 years ago, the move was from a place with less air traffic. More traffic would normally suggest more vigilance, and with this in mind it was mentioned to Ann that $1 would be paid for each airplane she spotted first. Within a few days she had to be convinced that the offer was all in good fun for it only took that long for her to run up a $125 airplane spotting bill. Most were miles away, and some alleged airplanes turned out to be birds, but the fact remained that she was able to find them out there somewhere.

The lesson is: 1, Don’t bet with your wife, and, 2, If a pilot spends enough time looking, he will see a lot of airplanes, and his chances of trying to share a given piece of air with another pilot at the same time will diminish.


Figures back up the notion that development of skill in seeing and avoiding other traffic is something worthwhile. From 1950 to 1965 the average number of mid-air collisions per year was just over 15 with most years fairly close to the average. In 1966 there were 28 mid-air collisions, in 1967 there were 27, and in 1968 there were 9 in the first third of the year. Just think, all the hysteria over collisions last year because of the two spectacular airline/general aviation accidents which only involved a total of four airplanes. The other accidents, of which you heard nothing unless one of them happened in your area, involved 50 airplanes! Something which affects 50 general aviation airplanes as seriously as a mid-air collision is worth working on.


There is one myth we would like to do away with before going any further. Most people think that when you have a mid-air collision, boom you have had it. If it is any comfort, only about half the mid-air collisions have been fatal to the occupants of one or both participating aircraft, and about 25% of the people in the colliding airplanes have been done in. The latter percentage came from an interpolation, is approximate, and would only reflect the results of collisions between general aviation airplanes of like size. So, even if we do everything wrong and have a mid-air, there’s still hope.

It’s better not to have one, and a good way to start working on avoidance is to know where most collisions happen.

Most happen near airports and a lot of these happen in the final approach area. In almost every collision at least one of the aircraft was climbing or descending. Student pilots are the most collision-prone pilot group, probably because they spend more of their time around airports, and because they direct more of their attention to things inside the airplane. In virtually every collision both pilots could have observed the other aircraft soon enough to avoid the accident had they looked in the proper place at the proper time.

Where don’t pilots look?

When flying in the traffic pattern, attention tends to be directed almost entirely toward the runway of intended landing. Probably 60% or 70%, or even more, of the eye time is directed toward the runway – on downwind, base, and final.

It is true that a runway is like a baseball – you have to look at it to hit it – but, things being as they are, it is a good idea to develop a plan for dividing attention between the runway and the airspace around the airport – checking for other aircraft on downwind, for other aircraft on wide or close base leg, and for other aircraft on final, including straight-in approaches.


When flying in the traffic pattern, attention tends to be directed almost entirely toward the runway of intended landing.


Next, a commercial for people who make boom microphones (none of them advertise in Air Facts, so there is no conflict of interest). These are not only cockpit conveniences, they are good collision avoidance devices. Why? Because every pilot observed, including the author, tends to look at a hand held microphone when addressing it. In a crowded pattern at a controlled airport, this can take up a lot of looking time. So can finding the microphone, and replacing it after the transmission. It would be less expensive to learn not to look at the hand-held mike when talking, and to pick it up and put it back without looking at it, but, it would be easier to buy a boom mike.


Checklists need to be memorized, and run while observing the airspace around the airplane. That last minute check – GUMP for gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop – really needs a “T” in it somewhere for traffic. Possibly the word could be expanded to GUMPT. If you can think of something for ION to stand for that could be added to the end to make the pre-landing check spell GUMPTION, something which goes a long way in an airplane.

One important thing which can help in the looking process is to descend to pattern altitude well before reaching the airport. That way you will be spotting aircraft in the pattern on your level rather than trying to see them against the ground, which is the most difficult backdrop for airplane spotting. It’s better, if terrain and obstructions permit, to be at pattern altitude two or three miles from the airport.

With it in mind that a lot of the collisions happen on final, this is a place to triple the scan. Often, a low wing airplane lets down on top of high wing airplane. So, up and down are good places to look. Most modern light airplanes fly final at about the same speed so there isn’t a lot of overtaking. Something suggested once before which still seems like a good idea is to fly a slightly offset final approach. If our final is 10 degrees offset to the right, we would all have a pretty good chance of seeing one another before reaching the terminal point of our relative flight paths. There is the possibility that all three of us could have chosen a final offset 10 degrees to the right, but that seems remote enough.

Several of the final approach accidents have happened with one airplane established on final, and the other airplane turning final. It’s a hazard to be aware of.


Enroute, it is possible to plan flights to avoid areas of high traffic concentration. True, under present rules you can fly through a busy terminal area so long as you stay over 2,000 feet above the surface within five miles of the controlled airport, and so long as you maintain VFR. Why bother to exercise that right, though, when it is really easier to give the busy places a big berth unless headed for them. It is also good to fly at lower altitudes when within, say, 30 or 40 miles of a congested terminal area. By lower we mean 3,000 feet above the surface, or less.

When VFR cross-country at lower altitudes it is good to be aware of any airport along the route, as even a small-time airport means traffic, climbing and descending traffic.

Airplane out side window

When VFR cross-country at lower altitudes it is good to be aware of any airport along the route, as even a small-time airport means traffic, climbing and descending traffic.

Airways should be avoided. Omni navigation can be very effective VFR without flying along airways. Even between two omni stations where there is an airway, it’s possible to set the outbound heading five degrees off the airway, and then the inbound to the next station will be five degrees off when you switch over half way between the stations. It’s best to avoid flying right over the omni station, too, as that is a great congregation point. A fellow we were flying with yesterday had had his first near miss the day before – right over the Pottstown VOR. When omni navigating just wander off course a mile or so before reaching the station, and watch out for the other guys who are navigating precisely. Also, enroute, forget about detailed flight logs and computers. The average time-over, ETE to the next station, and ETA calculation takes almost a minute of the pilot’s undivided attention. That’s three miles and 180 mph.


On altitudes, if below 3,000 above the surface why not try Air Fact’s Automatic Altitude and Heading Separation system? It’s simple. Just paste one of the accompanying stickers in the center of your altimeter with rubber cement, and then match the 100 ft. pointer with the heading flown when less than 3,000 ft. above the surface. If you don’t want to try the sticker, just imagine a compass rose over your altimeter, and, for instance, when flying west fly at 750, 1,750, or 2,750 or more over high terrain. Northwest would be 875, 1,875, or 2,875. Southeast, 1,375 or 2,375. It’s easy to imagine the altitude for a given heading with a bit of practice.

VFR altitudes

FAR 91.159 describes VFR cruising altitudes while flying at 3,000 AGL or above.

Above 3,000 feet above the surface the rule says VFR traffic should fly odd or even plus 500, according to the direction of flight. That’s good, and it keeps level VFR traffic away from level IFR traffic, but it also congregates all the level VFR traffic at a very few altitudes – usually the first odd or even 500 above where the bumps stop. It doesn’t seem like it would hurt anything to be a bit on the random side and fly odd or even plus 600, or plus 400, just to spread things out. An airplane is only six or eight feet tall, and a little vertical separation can mean a lot.

In busy areas, stay away from 10,000 feet. There’s a law now that jets fly at 250 knots IAS, or less, below 10,000. So, when they climb they might tend to pause vertically for acceleration at 10,000 and when descending they might spend extra time around 10,000 in the slowing down process.

As far as looking goes, sit in your airplane on the ground some time and develop a looking system, which will take maximum advantage of the airplane’s visibility. Remember that for looking to be most effective, the eye must pause and digest everything it sees. So, if you pick a dozen spots to look and develop a scan, much like the instrument scan when you are flying instruments, then all areas should get good coverage. Don’t just look ahead and 90 degrees to each side. Look back, up, down, around, and forward.

There is some hardware to help. All airplanes do have blind spots, where we have to rely a bit on the other fellow to see us. On a high wing someone might let down on top, in a low wing someone might climb up from underneath. One or two of those strobe lights can be used to brighten things up and help attract the other fellow’s attention is he’s coming from our blind spot. The strobes are effective day or night and should be high on the “next accessory” list.

A transponder is another great aid, VFR (we all know how valuable it is IFR). Any time you are flying, the transponder should be on and set to 0600 if you are VFR, even if you aren’t talking to anybody. Radar will always give any transponder return they see as traffic to IFR aircraft they are handling. With it on 0600 it’s almost certain that you will be given as traffic to IFR aircraft, and they will be looking for you in VFR conditions.

Don’t rely too much on help from the ground in VFR traffic avoidance, though – whether flying VFR or flying IFR in VFR conditions. If you are IFR, or getting VFR traffic advisories, there might be traffic the radarman doesn’t see because it is not transponder equipped, or, because he is busy doing something else and doesn’t have time to study the dim blips and give them as traffic. VFR traffic advisories are really nothing more than a pain to the guy on the ground. If you are going VFR, just turn your transponder to 0600, don’t talk to anybody, and keep alert and watch for other traffic.

The sky really isn’t crowded. Rather it is practically deserted, at least that 38’ X 30’ X6’ piece of it we want to use 2% of the time is practically deserted. With a little attention to the see and be seen concept as a recognized flight skill it can remain that way.

Air Facts Staff
9 replies
  1. Martin WINGER
    Martin WINGER says:

    Why did Richard get angry with me when I implied Bob Hoover was a better pilot? They served different forms of aviation.

    Inspite of his talent he inside must have been a bit self conscious?

  2. Stephen Leonard
    Stephen Leonard says:

    Richard was a good writer and good teacher, but there’s enough in this 55-year-old article that is out-of-date that it should have been edited before publication. Transponders were a rarity in 1968, and I think 0600 was the original VFR code, but obviously no longer is. How many student pilots today have ever even seen a hand-held microphone? How many know what the term “omni navigation” means? (“Omni” is for “omnidirectional,” as in “VHF omnidirectional rangefinder”, or VOR, and even that may be alien to today’s students.)

    But he’s right. (1) Don’t bet with your wife, and (2) devote more time to looking for traffic. It’s disturbing how even when your ADS-B tells you exactly where that airplane is, you still can’t find the thing.

    • Robert Patlovany
      Robert Patlovany says:

      The thing about Richard’s article that is not out of date at all is your noticing that, “It’s disturbing how even when your ADS-B tells you exactly where that airplane is, you still can’t find the thing.” Your comment matches my experience for at least half my ADS-B collision alerts. The Air Facts “Automatic Altitude and Heading Separation System” (AAaHSS) never goes out of date because it’s based on the timeless, discovered by humans in the 1850s, mean free path formula controlling midair collision risk. The Automatic Altitude and Heading Separation System is exactly the same as the Altimeter-Compass Cruising Altitude Rule (ACCAR) that I analyzed as RP1000 in my 1997 Risk Analysis article proving that randomized cruising altitudes are at least six times safer than accurate obedience to the hemispherical cruising altitude rules. What is REALLY out of date is the hemispherical cruising altitude rules. These were out of date in 1963 when they first became FARs 91.159 and 91.179. The latter would have recreated the 1956 Grand Canyon midair collision. Dozens, if not hundreds, of midair collisions have been recorded since then by FAR obedient pilots that would have been prevented by pilots not even looking out the windows if they had been flying with Air Facts AAaHSS or ACCAR. While ADS-B obviously has limits to its effectiveness as we both agree, and aircraft with fully functional ADS-B have collided, the physics-based AAaHSS always works using timeless the eternally timeless mean free path formula harnessed to minimize collision target densities, thereby maximizing pilot safety.

  3. Robert Patlovany
    Robert Patlovany says:

    Air Fact’s Automatic Altitude and Heading Separation System in this June 1968 article repeats an idea from his father, Leighton Collins article in August 1963 Air Facts. Leighton mentioned:

    “… a Barometric Heading Indicator, or, this time, let’s call it a Safe Altimeter Indicator. Insofar as we know, the idea made its appearance in this country in a review of an Australian patent in Aero Digest, circa 1929.”

    Leighton complained that with the hemispherical cruising altitude rule,

    “… we are using only 70’ out of 10,000’ to cruise in and are throwing away the other 6,930’ as far as collision avoidance is concerned. This is the kind of thing you can expect from rampant bureaucracy because the primal instinct of bureaucracy is to grow, and maximum growth stems only from maximum control, and the first precept of control is to get everybody in line so they can be readily controlled. By concentrating traffic as much as possible the need for control is increased and the thing feeds on itself. Thus an empire built to control is created.”

    With the Safe Altimeter Indicator (like with the compass rose sticker rubber cemented to the middle of the altimeter glass),

    “… all aircraft in your area flying at your level are all flying parallel courses. Anyone flying the reciprocal of your heading will pass either 500’ over or 500’ under you. That separation will scale down to 250’ for an airplane flying a heading 90º from your heading. And the 250’ will scale down to zero for anyone flying your heading. In order for anyone to hit you they’d have to happen to be directly behind you if faster than you, or you’d have to happen to be directly behind them if you were faster, but mostly you’d be flying parallel courses rather than be on an overtaking-collision path. This overtaking possibility with the SAI seems to get pilots a little skittish, but the possibility exists in much greater degree with the present hemispheric system because, there, all overtaking aircraft are at your altitude, whereas with the SAI system only the one flying your exact heading is at your exact altitude.”

    Imagine that in 1929, the world had a technology that would have prevented the 1956 Grand Canyon midair collision with an automatic flight path offset for that closing angle of 20 degrees X 1000 feet / 360 degrees–or 55 feet. Subtracting half the height of both aircraft, they would have missed each other by about 40 feet (assuming landing gear extended, which they weren’t). That would have given Air Fact’s Automatic Altitude and Heading Separation System status as Technology Readiness Level 9. In contrast, the current hemispherical cruising altitude rule guarantee that the 1956 Grand Canyon collision would happen again and again, every single time you try to repeat that 20-degree closing angle at an easterly-odd 21,000 feet MSL. That gives the current system a Technology Readiness Level ZERO. It simply does not work for protecting aircraft from midair collisions. The TRL = ZERO for the current rule matches that of the Quadrantal Rule actually in effect (and being obeyed) at the moment of impact over the Grand Canyon.

    Thanks to the Air Facts editorial staff for finding Richard’s June 1968 article.

  4. Neil Sidwell
    Neil Sidwell says:

    Mr Patlovany – your EAA webinar a while ago on exactly this topic was a breath of fresh air, full of both theoretical research and practical evidence backing up your argument of the dangers inherent in the current system. The fact that the authorities in the USA, and my country of Australia, have failed to act or show any interest on this proves to me they are not truly interested in safety, but are instead happy to continue with the current system because it is easier, and cheaper, to do so.

  5. Donald Kozak
    Donald Kozak says:

    A good, dated article on “see and be seen” which probably does not get the attention it should during primary training. While I can see the merits in some kind of adjustments to the hemispheric rules, we all could teach and do more to eliminate problems within airspace cut out from those rules, at and below 3000 feet AGL. Rather than dutifully flying at 1500, 2000, or 2500 MSL, we all could set some offset and stick to it while cruising low. One of the main things instructors teach is (attempting) precision while hand flying. Whether heading or altitude, we teach to maintain a constant. Good for following an ATC directive, good for following the guidance of an IAP, not so good in thinking outside the box in collision avoidance.


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