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Lookout!

Lookout!

I had a pilot colleague make an interesting observation about my flying recently.

My colleague was looking across the cockpit at me whilst I was flying an approach in what are standard conditions in the area of the world I fly in – less than 3000m visibility in haze and pollution. He commented that I look out of the window more than many pilots he flies with. I thought this interesting, as I have always believed that the nice big windows are put where they are by the aeroplane designers for a reason. That reason is for the pilots to look out from – for traffic avoidance reasons sure, but for me, it is more that the information the multitude of instruments and technology are telling me, can often be confirmed by a single look out of the window. A glimpse of the mountains will confirm the terrain awareness picture, a short sighting of the traffic we are following backs up TCAS and visually looking at the CB cell off the right of the nose allows me to better understand the radar picture. In other words, lookout is for me much more than making sure there is not another aeroplane occupying the same space that I am about to occupy; it is a situational awareness generator.

His comment got me thinking about lookout, not only in large passenger aeroplanes like the one we were in, but also the question of what are we teaching young student pilots about the importance of the simple act of looking out of the window? We are spoilt in Australia – it is still the lucky country in many respects. Not least is the fact we are still blessed with clear, clean air and blue skies. We are also fortunate that our early flying training is conducted in these conditions, and often consists of many hours in the circuit and training area with things to actually look at out of the window. This allows us to develop a habit pattern of looking out of the window for traffic etc at an early stage of our training.

One aspect of many younger pilots I fly with is that they have joined a large airline through cadet schemes offering minimal basic training before hopping in the seat of an airliner as a second officer. These young men and women then learn their craft through simulators and experience on the line – and with experience on the line comes a reliance on technology such as terrain awareness systems, TCAS and even ATC to provide them with situational awareness. Additionally, these pilots are flying in areas of the world where the clean, clear air of Australia simply doesn’t exist – visibility under 1000m is common (why do you think so many airlines do basic training in Australia?) and is par for the course. So lookout becomes something that is often simply not done, or not done effectively or correctly.

Lookout brings with it more situational awareness. Think about the circuit. In order to effectively know where the rest of the traffic is we do many things at once. We listen to the radio for others to broadcast their intentions and position and for ATC to give clearances based on their intentions. We then combine this with knowledge of where we expect the aeroplanes to be to conduct a lookout to confirm our mental picture of the circuit. But we also lookout to ensure that other traffic is actually where they say they are, or that there is no other traffic that we don’t know about. The same goes for in a large airliner. I look out the window to increase my awareness of what is happening now and what is about the happen to my aeroplane. On an RNAV departure I look in the direction of turn to make sure that the EGPWS terrain picture makes sense, that the TCAS traffic we are behind is visual in the area I am expecting it, and also to make sure that there is nothing there that I am not expecting. Even if there is nothing to see but haze, I have confirmed in my mind that I am not going to hit anything. Obviously on a completely IMC departure lookout is not useful at all and can detract from a pilots awareness of what the instruments are telling him or herself – so common sense must be used. However, it is amazing how much more relaxed a pilot can be flying through the night across the equator with a full moon – in those conditions the cells on the radar can be visually seen, confirmed and avoided. Dark night trips are not nearly as much fun.

I know there will be people out there who decry my calling for more effective lookout as a blast from the past, or as clinging to old practices in a world that has moved on from the days of when simply looking out of the window could save your life. I disagree. Lookout for me remains an essential part of flying an aeroplane safely. It is a confirmation that all is well with your instruments and technology that we all now know and love.

On your next flight, as you are departing, simply flying around, or on approach, pass a critical eye over your lookout. Think about what it is you are actually doing when you look out of the window. Are you day dreaming of the weekend? Or are you actually thinking about where your aeroplane is taking you? Ask your instructor to watch your lookout – be critical about when you do it, where you look and what you look for. It may seem pedantic but once an effective lookout becomes habit, you will never give it a second thought. Fly safe!

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