Blinded by the Sight
Like most pilots, I have a short list of things I'd rather not hear in an airplane. Such as…do you smell smoke?; Is that oil on the windshield?; I know I put the gear down. Near the bottom of the list is, "I've got it!" followed by having the controls snatched away at 5000 feet and 160 knots.
That happened yesterday when my partner Greg and I were doing some Sunday aerobatics southeast of Venice in his Extra 200. I'd pushed over and accelerated for a reverse-Cuban when a Cherokee flashed by opposite direction low at 11 o'clock. As Greg pitched up and rolled left, all I saw was a flash of white. An over-the-shoulder look resolved it as a Cherokee heading southeast. It was high noon and the light favored neither airplane. How the pilot(s) could have missed a chrome-yellow-and-red airplane in half planform is puzzling. The same could be said of us, I suppose, although the Cherokee head on was harder to see. And I did scan during the down stroke before pulling.
It's possible the Cherokee didn't see us at all or saw us and misinterpreted our vector as passing under him. Maybe he didn't expect the pull. I don't wish to ignite another discussion the efficacy of see-and-avoid, but this little scare shows its limitations. It also reminded me of something we all know about: looking without letting the brain process what the eyes actually see. You can scan right across a target and just not resolve it well enough to process the first response—what is it I see?
In flying aerobatics, I'm finding a more subtle and difficult variant on this theme. The Extra can best be described as precision tool that not only doesn't suffer fools, but will in fact aggressively seek out and reveal the inner fool in even otherwise good pilots. Just as its your-thought-is-my-command handling rewards a skilled pilot with marvelous results, it will equally punish the ham-handed with pathetic maneuvers hardly worthy of the name.
This is all hand-eye coordination stuff, with emphasis on the eye, because if you can't see it right, you can't fly it right. An example: Hammerheads aren't especially difficult to do, but the measure of success is perfectly vertical up and down lines and to reverse the turn so you're exactly 180 degrees from the start reference—not 160 or 200, but 180. The Extra has one of those triangular guides on the left wing to help you establish vertical and 45-degree lines. Getting the vertical is easy enough, but in the vertical, a slight roll will put the recovery off—maybe far off—the 180-degree reverse.
Yet the visual cues are there. While all my bandwidth is devoted to just holding the vertical perfectly, the roll moment is visible as the horizon moves ever so minutely parallel to the guide's vertical reference. I see it; I don't always process it. So my hammerheads are 20-degrees off azimuth on recovery. On a good day.
Ah, but this practice stuff really works and you can learn to carve out some bandwidth to concentrate on the harder-to-see things, while letting the easy stuff run on autopilot. So my task is to nail the vertical automatically, then finesse the roll.
As for the traffic thing, the skilled scan, the learning to process what you really see, goes only so far. Which makes me glad for two things: Big Sky theory and parachutes.