Blinded by the Sight

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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.

Comments (35)

Good point -- I think we've all had a 'been there, done that, changed the underwear' moment.

I think that the secret sauce to successful 'see and avoid' is knowing WHEN to look. Not where, because that's a complex problem, but a screaming 'look NOW, buster!' that makes the pilot aware that the threat is there right now.

The humble electric fork-lift on rubber wheels in a large warehouse is silent and proven deadly. So, OH&S experts came up with the always on flashing light & loud beeper. The nearer it gets, the brighter the flash and the louder the beeping, and the greater our awareness. Accidents declined.

In the air we already have the flashing strobe, and it does help some. What we need is some 'gizmo' that triggers the equivalent of the loud beeper. I visualize a series of sensors (shielded from our plane's own strobes) that are sensitive to the pulsing of a strobe light. Sure, it will also trip for a tower/obstacle strobe, but it would be way better than nothing.

Also, what about a very low power whine/beep transmitted by our number 1 Com radio on a common guard frequency -- 121.5 would work in the USA. The closer any plane gets to you, the louder the racket. Time to look outside.

There may be much better and cheaper solutions, and I'd love to hear them. But whatever we do, pilots have got to have a better, passive way of knowing to be real alert, right NOW!

Posted by: Laurence Burrows | November 1, 2010 2:15 AM    Report this comment

It's YOUR fault if you're flying on the vertical. See & avoid works wonderfully when pilots fly at recommended level altitudes and NOT AT ALL when someone is doing aerobatics at 5000'. Basically you're a flight hazard for both the vertical maneuvering and also your watching the horizon and not for other aircraft. If you cannot see out of an Extra 200, YOUR not looking.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 1, 2010 7:23 AM    Report this comment

Got a question: did the "head on" Cherokee have any lights on (especially landing light) which would have made it more visible while it was coming right at you? I'm continually amazed at the number of pilots who absolutely refuse to operate with all the lights that could make them easier to be "seen-and-avoided".

As for parachutes Paul, check out "midair collisions" on Utube. Some are so violent that a baggage compartment full of chutes wouldn't help. Just recently a Piper Pawnee and a Cirrus collided. The flaming Cirrus (no survivors) descending under its fully deployed BRS canopy is graphic proof that a parachute's just another risk management tool, not a "silver bullet".

Posted by: Don Eck | November 1, 2010 9:27 AM    Report this comment

No, no light on the Cherokee that I saw. As for mid-airs and personal parachutes, there's no reliable data on this because they are so rare. I would not use YouTube as my datapoint.

We review between 100 and 200 accidents a month for Used Aircraft Guide. Mid-airs are down in the under 2 percentile, but, surprisingly, many are survivable. I can't say most because I haven't sorted the data that way. The reason for this is that many are same direction paint-swaps in the pattern and even the head on or quartering hits aren't always perfect enough matches to destroy both aircraft.

All that said, I'll still take the parachutes, I think. (Required anyway.)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 1, 2010 9:49 AM    Report this comment

The 15-year-into-the-future solution is the much talked about/not yet defined ADSB-In. That way, anything squawking will be seen by your in-cockpit equivalent of super TCAS. Of course, costs for this future equipment is anyone's guess right now. So for now, as long as all aircraft are running with a working mode C transponder (still an issue even in controlled 30 mile veil Class B airspace), a TCAS type of equipment is your only protection in uncontrolled airspace, other than see and be seen. And I agree that the aerobatics are a large part of the issue-while at unusual (for most) attitudes, your mind just can not process the normal scanning techniques that work in something close to straight or level flight. Was this an area specifically noted as for aerobatics? Or just plain uncontrolled airspace? Perhaps you need to look closer at normal traffic movement/airports in the area, and pick a location less likely to be on the normal VFR uncontrolled flight paths......

Posted by: jonathan swingle | November 1, 2010 10:12 AM    Report this comment

I'm not sure you should be inferring blame on the Cherokee. He would have been in half planform when you started your dive. As aerobatic pilots we have a higher responsibility for clearing traffic than those cruising at altitudes per the hemispheric rule. I also think is unrealistic to expect everyone to be flying around with their landing light on all the time. I tried this for a didn't seem to make a big difference in traffic avoidance and required landing bulb replacement every other month...and those things aren't cheap. Strobe lights seem to help the most for target aquisition, but avoidance gets tricky if you can see the position lights. The reality is that the big sky theory is more than a theory. It has saved us all from a firey death at least once. ADS-B provides some promise once it's cheap enough and the mandate is in place. But even then there will be aircraft legally operating without it and no strobe lights, so the big sky theory will be still be saving some of us.

Posted by: Douglas Helton | November 1, 2010 10:12 AM    Report this comment

I have TCAS on my airplane and I have found it to be a lifesaver in at least two incidents where it would have been at least close if not a paint exchanging moment. I also had another close encounter over a northern airport in VFR and we were both talking but he did not have a transponder.

If all airplanes were equiped with TCAS and transponders it would really help. however that is expensive but what is your life worth?

If you really want to be safer install a TCAS.

it is amazing with the big sky concept there are so few mid airs but I think the statistics still talk about 10 or more a year and some in the middle of nowhere.

I wonder if ADS-B will be able to help this problem?

Posted by: BILL LAWSON | November 1, 2010 10:16 AM    Report this comment

you are on a collision course with a bike, car, pedistrian, or airplane, and that (whatever) is visible in your windshield, it will only grow larger and not move to the right/left - up/down. The brain picks up motion quite readily. Try this: Hold a pen out at arms length - just so that it is within your peripheral vision. Then slowly bring it closer to your face. Try moving the pen left to right and you'll notice how these movements are more apparent to your brain. Thing is, something moving in your windshield left/right or up/down are NOT on a colision course. Only something that slowly grows larger is. I like to make frequent and minor course changes every few minutes. My first CFI was an F86 Korean war vet. I guess I learned that from him.

Posted by: dennis fisher | November 1, 2010 11:00 AM    Report this comment

The faster you fly the more likely you will overtake some one. Concorde only has to look/worry about planes directly in front of it; planes off to the side or behind it will never be a collision concern. In contrast a hot air balloon would be concerned about collisions from all 360 degrees.
Most of us fly at speeds closer to the balloon than Concorde, thus we need to look at 300 degrees or so for collisions (we can’t see behind us anyway.)
As I recall, the current best avoidance method is to scan a 10 degree section for a second or two, then move to the next section. 300 degrees in 10 degree sections is 30 sections; at 2 seconds apiece means you only look where you are going ONCE a minute. Add some gauge looking and it gets worse.
When we look at how the eye sees, we learn that it sees movement MUCH easier than non-movement. Unfortunately the plane on a collision course will have no movement and be all but invisible until the last few seconds.
When I add all this up, the answer is “Big Sky’ is what is saving us-but don’t stop looking.
As a side note, the rule about everybody flying at the same altitudes (Every 500 feet) actually make the “Big Sky” that much smaller and thus much less safe.

Posted by: Robert Zylstra | November 1, 2010 11:10 AM    Report this comment

...I'll still take the parachutes,I think (Required anyway)... Really! If you are taking dual who is the non crew member. Not suggesting you do without, just reading the regs. differently.

Posted by: GENNARO AVOLIO | November 1, 2010 12:05 PM    Report this comment

91.307(c) "Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crewmember) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds a bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon, or a nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon."

I seem to recall the "crewmember" language was added in the 1990s to clarify issues over requiring parachutes for spin training. We can argue about the flyspecks of language, but I view myself as an occupant, not a required crewmember, thus the parachute is required.

The jailhouse lawyering could be an interesting discussion to have with yourself if something serious breaks and you have to ride the wreck to the ground sans parachute.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 1, 2010 1:11 PM    Report this comment

I believe we all have had one of these moments. How often has ATC called traffic and we never saw it? I have added an Zaon XRX to my flight bag (to supplement areas where TIS is not available on the G-1000). It is no means a cure-all (I have had a glider swoop by, that probably had no transponder), but if it helps me avoid a mid-air, why not? Sure, the equipment is expensive, but that cost is probably negligible if you have suddenly been demoted to a passenger, after a collision.

Posted by: Douglas Manuel | November 1, 2010 1:44 PM    Report this comment

Suffice it to say that "aerobatic" means flying in an unpredictable manner. Flying unpredictably means that you're a hazard to those of us who are flying level and predictably. If you don't watch out for predictable aircraft then you'd better buy the rest of us chutes as well...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 1, 2010 1:52 PM    Report this comment

and the serial number on the brakes of the pa-12that went by me were...... Oh yeah,been there, done that

Posted by: Duane Hallman | November 1, 2010 7:19 PM    Report this comment

Anyone who has flown for a while has had the always-startling experience of having the “big sky” suddenly shrink without the slightest warning into a frighteningly small universe containing only you and a flash of movement. The reality is that about the only pilots who are truly maintaining a continuous, detailed scan in all directions and altitudes are fighter pilots in a dogfight situation. And they can only keep it up for so long before exhaustion sets in. Having extra eyes in the cockpit with you is one of the best safety features.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 1, 2010 7:22 PM    Report this comment

After almost 20 years of operations at KVNC I am surprised we do not have more serious outcomes from the encounters like Paul and Greg experienced. Many pilots transit up and down the coast seemingly blithely unaware they are flying so near an active airport. Some even cruise through the traffic pattern from time to time. We have towered airports, non-towered airports,what some refer to as uncontrolled airports and out of control airports. VNC occasionally falls into the later category. I have Honeywell TAS which is a sort of TCAS. If the transponder is on it will see it. It is a life saver.

Posted by: Paul Hollowell | November 1, 2010 8:33 PM    Report this comment

By the way, we were well away from the airport--nearly 10 miles--and well inland off the beach routes. We do a clearing turn (wingover) after nearly every maneuver to stay in the imaginary box, which is over an uninhabited area.

I reject the idea that aerobatic flying endangers others. If that were true, we would have no airshows or performers because no one could practice. In a situation like this, you do the best you can--scan the area for traffic, pick the lines and fly. I'm not laying the blame on the Cherokee pilot, merely wondering what he did or did not see.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 2, 2010 5:02 AM    Report this comment

Aerobatic flying. Keep it up!

Posted by: Paul Hollowell | November 2, 2010 10:14 AM    Report this comment

"I reject the idea that aerobatic flying endangers others."

This case is a good example of how it does endanger others. When you're flying vertical through the airspace you have to realize that other pilots don't have full bubble canopies and transparent panels on the floor. The view out the Cherokee is very limited plus he has no idea what your next maneuver you will pull when you do pop into view.

We have NOTAMS when aerobatic boxes are hot, parachute jumps, and model rocket firings because it's so hard to see VERTICAL traffic in time to avoid it.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 2, 2010 11:20 AM    Report this comment

>>We have NOTAMS when aerobatic boxes are hot

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 2, 2010 12:42 PM    Report this comment

@Mark Fraser - dude, calm down. This sounds like a perfect "teaching moment": Paul's "partner" saw the problem and took steps - everyone aboard learned something and now Paul is sharing so that we can learn something. Also - last time I checked, the acro boxes and skydiving operations WEREN'T NOTAMed "hot". I've seen NOTAMs for professional airshows, but I've never seen anything more substantial than the note on a sectional or in the AF/D for skydiving and the local acro box.

Posted by: Roy Etter | November 2, 2010 12:44 PM    Report this comment

I suppose there are pilots who would have a transponder and strobe on top of everything 20' or more AGL. Personally, I think pilots who are practiced in "unusual flight attitudes" are far safer than the ALWAYS straight and level pilots. An experienced aerobatic pilot will do a lot better in the avoid part of see and avoid when there is only a second or two to react. And that's when it counts, because that very small speck closing at 12 o'clock level and 300 mph is extremely difficult for both pilots to see until the last few seconds. Who will respond more quickly, and with the right control input?

Posted by: Tom Mitchell | November 2, 2010 6:17 PM    Report this comment

"It's part of the risk you take when you fly, Mark"

No, the risk I take in open airspace is mitigated when everyone operates predictably. The rules at altitude make safer flight by giving traffic separation based on altitude and heading and visibility and speed. The rules are in place (as you said) because of the limits of the eyeball for see-and-avoid.

Anyone doing aerobatics is free to do so BUT is intersecting many flight levels and is responsible for visual separation before the maneuver. Pilots are also "free" to land opposite to traffic at uncontrolled fields too but the same thing applies: if YOU are the one doing the unusual then YOU are responsible for the added risk you introduce to the situation.

The "if you don't it, stay on the ground" attitude is not welcome in shared airspace where everyone has paid a huge price to fly.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 3, 2010 7:49 AM    Report this comment

91.303 (d) says no areobatics within 4nm of an airway.
When I look at the Skyvector charts for Venice (KVNC) there are 2 airways that would preclude any aerobatics to the South East of VNC, The only reasonable place that I see for aerobatics near VNC is over the ocean 4 miles or so off shore to avoid the coatal cruisers.
If you are flying on/near airways there should be no unusual attitudes to worry about. If you are GPSing off airways everything is fair game.
Well off airways is where "unpredictable" is allowed and accepted by law.
So Paul, care to redefine your aerobatics box's location? ;)

Posted by: Robert Zylstra | November 3, 2010 12:42 PM    Report this comment

Ahh!! I see my error, I thought that the Low "G" airspace around VNS was 5 mile radius-it's closer to 7nm. With my bad info it made it look like the airways were less than 8 miles apart anywhere within 20nm of the airport.

The new correct info gives you a 2-3 mile box between the airways. That's plenty big enough-even for my sloppy aerobatics.

Over a swamp?? Remote enough?? Take a look at the airways over Nevada "The whole state is remote!!" but the airways are still there-That's where the issue of unexpected maneuvers are a concern.

Yeah, open water don't give much reference, so set up on a fishing boat or two :) You know the saying, "Fast, cheap or good, pick any two." Throw legal in the mix and it gets worse!

If we sue each other, can I be your lawyer and you be mine? The lawyers are the only one that win in a lawsuit, that-a-way we can both win!

Now if Aunt Jane has a problem with you doing legal and fun things, tell her to get a life.

Posted by: Robert Zylstra | November 3, 2010 8:35 PM    Report this comment

You have reinforced my recent decision to put TCAS in my L-39. I hope to have it out of the shop after a bunch of avionics upgrades in the coming weeks. It's not ready to fly, and getting things right with the FAA for the airworthiness certificate and operating limitations is the next step. I will be doing aerobatics in the MOA north of my home base, and at altitudes above 10,000'. With the Avidyne TCAS showing traffic on the Aspen displays, I hope I'll be aware of anyone near enough to be a problem before I start a vertical maneuver.

I should point out that even with TCAS in the Citation, and even with ATC calling out traffic, there have been times where the traffic must have been in cloaking mode - never saw it when it supposedly should have been easy to see. And I'm referring to RVSM altitudes when we're 1,000 ft apart with both airplanes in level cruise flight.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | November 3, 2010 10:08 PM    Report this comment

That should have said it's NOW ready to fly, not NOT ready to fly.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | November 3, 2010 10:09 PM    Report this comment

To Robert Zylstra

The acoustic detector would work very well.

For years on end people have said to scan better, but although they say they do, they don't, and then they claim the other pilot is the culprit.

The worst situation I've experienced, is when there is an airshow in the state, a lot of pilot buddies will fly a very loose formation to the show, and they are oblivious to any cross-traffic going somewhere else.

Most of the time, they can't even find their buddies in their too loose formation.

Well, I want to scan well, and I fly with buddies, too, so I want to practice seeing planes, even when I'm taking a walk on the ground. I often walk near the airport, and I can tell you, I always hear the plane in the distance first, then acquire it with my eyes.

If acoustically, your own plane's racket was thoroughly filtered out electronically, a microphone on the vertical fin, would detect the non-filtered noise. That would put the pilot's head on a swivel, and task him with finding the other plane.

But more so, we need more regulation! Cherokees are venerable old planes, light, with a small parts count, efficient, and keep on ticking. They, therefore, should be given the right-of-way, just like balloons!

Posted by: Ron Brown | November 4, 2010 2:59 AM    Report this comment

Never believe that ATC's presence will protect you. I recall a near miss in the jump airplane, climbing through 3500 and being distracted by ATC calling out a low level pipeliner off to our west a couple miles and waaay below us. When I looked up again there was a 182 at our level head-on just a couple football fields away. He never saw us at all. If you have never screamed at the top of your lungs while executing a near roll manuever in a 182 at slow climb speeds loaded with jumpers then you haven't really experienced the moments of sheer terror you have heard that flying can contain. ATC never saw the 182 and never called it out to us and completely distracted us with the no factor pipeliner. This was several years ago and the jumpers on the airplane still come to me today and remind me of the time I saved their lives. An aircraft coming directly at you is VERY hard to see until it's close. A climb attitude doesn't help. Also, I sincerely believe that flying unusual attitudes and intensive spin and stall training make any pilot far, far better at handling the airplane and in keeping one's head in those terror moments. Get some spin training if you're gonna fly. Not just a one turn sign-off. The real deal, 10 hours or more of spins and stalls. Then you begin to understand.....

Posted by: Willie Sinsel | November 4, 2010 8:23 AM    Report this comment

I fly my Extra 300L about 120 hours per year. Aside from the occasional 800 to 1500 nm flight to/from a contest, most flights are are local half-hour practice flights, two or three times per week, over farmland and out of airways. I use strobes. I pay attention. I always use a Zaon MRX-A (about $500 and worth every cent). And, I always use our local approach control for advisories. Most of the controllers know what I'm doing; if they don't, I tell them, and tell them that I want traffic called as "northwest", etc., NOT at "2 o'clock". They're happy to help and they are excellent. True, not all bug-smashers have (or use) transponders, but approach usually spots them anyway, and they're usually below 1500 AGL where I'm not.

Use the tools that are available to you. Get a Zaon or similar (there are at least two other brands available) if you don't have one. Work with the approach or center controllers. It doesn't matter how good you are with the stick and rudder, or how recently your parachute has been re-packed; as the saying goes, a midair can ruin your whole day.

Posted by: DOUG SOWDER | November 4, 2010 11:29 AM    Report this comment

Doesn't anyone remember from your early flight training that your eye has a natural blind spot. You can look right at something and not see it. There is a quick test that you can try with a spot on a piece of paper and in certain area's, the spot will disappear. Sorry, I forgot how to do the test but I definately remember it. J. Silva

Posted by: Jack Silva | November 4, 2010 11:40 AM    Report this comment

I'm with Zaon Flight Systems, and although I don't want to advertise our products in a blog, I do see that our products have been mentioned a few times in these postings. Anyway, for more information on our affordable PCAS systems (Portable Collision Avoidance System), visit our website at

Posted by: Kevin Van Drunen | November 4, 2010 11:51 AM    Report this comment

I had my first "moment" flying out of an aerobatic box once, ironic, since I had "cleared" the area before entering. On exiting, a Cardinal popped in front of me and I flew through it's wake before I could even register what had happened. Big wake up call for me. Yep..., Do folks ever look at "charts" anymore? I like to know what I'm flying over or through before I go. Maybe I just haven't been flying long enough to just "wing it". Thanks Paul, I always enjoy your commentary.

Posted by: James Yongue | November 4, 2010 1:07 PM    Report this comment

Thanks Robert,

My own moment was flying a Seminole VFR in Class G down a wide valley with several power stations and attendant smoke/vapour plumes. So, keeping clear of clouds, thermals, other traffic as notifed by Centre. I'm tracking 175 degrees to avoid a vapour plume (and to avoid overflying a power station because why add to risk?) when a R44 comes around the back of the plume tracking 005. We're both at the correct altitude, both clear of airways and airports, but Oh Boy!

After I got back to base I followed up with him. Like me, he had maybe 3 seconds to react: I dove, he climbed (which I expected having a little knowledge of helos). Big cleanup in both cabins later.

My point, we were both looking out on track, both observing 'best VFR practice', and still got within seconds of a mid-air because we didn't know WHEN to be scared (Class G, remember).

Posted by: Laurence Burrows | November 4, 2010 6:30 PM    Report this comment

Unfortunately most aerobatic practice boxes are only known about locally and not on the charts. It would be nice if they were charted, possibly as an alert area? I can't tell you the number of times I've been flying cross country and been surprised by someone doing aerobatics, the vast majority of the time far away but picked up in the scan (not a threat so there was movement), but other times by unpleasant surprise.

Posted by: Dave Stock | November 6, 2010 2:54 PM    Report this comment

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