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Fly by the Horizon It is your Friend

By Robert Wright


Robert Wright

Most flight students and many pilots getting a flight review have heard their instructors say on more than one occasion, “Get your head out of the cockpit,” or, “Don’t forget your scan” or other instructions designed to refocus attention from the panel to the surrounding environment. The primary concern is safety and the avoidance of other aircraft. Nothing is going to jump out of the panel and sock you in the eye, so why spend all your time looking at it? Nonetheless, in spite of these repeated admonitions, many pilots spend way too much time with their heads in the cockpit, obsessively tweaking their altitude and heading and thereby jeopardizing their own and others’ safety. They frustrate themselves and take much of the fun out of flying by making it seem like work.

These same individuals will end up 20 degrees off course or 200 feet off altitude in the process of tuning a radio, or find it very difficult to take off and achieve Vy in anything less than three or four minutes of bobbing the nose up and down with wings wobbling off level while glued to the airspeed indicator, trying to pin it to the desired airspeed. Turns in the pattern or elsewhere may also produce significant unintended altitude deviations when attention is focused on the airfield or some other ground reference. Achieving best glide or a 500-foot climb or descent rate also becomes an exercise in chasing a needle. Others come to flight training with no sense of spatial orientation. They have difficulty visualizing their position in space and become tied to the instruments as the means of determining their position in the air.

Unless you’re in instrument meteorological conditions, the problem may be not using a horizon reference. Get in the habit of flying by horizon reference. Start with the takeoff. There’s a reference over the cowling to the horizon, which will give you Vy or Vx or very close to it every time without looking at the airspeed indicator. Get the reference point established and remember it. Left-turning tendency? Look at the nose position on the horizon. If the nose is sliding left, use more right rudder and don’t forget to keep the wings level relative to the horizon. It’s easy and also allows you to scan for traffic.

The same procedure works for climbs and descents at an established rate of climb or descent with an appropriate power setting. Best glide the same way. Needless to say, when you level off to cruise, having reached cruise speed then adjusted power, your focus should be on the horizon setting it at the point above the glare shield which establishes level flight. After a little practice, this becomes such a known point that no reference to the attitude indicator is necessary except for any slight adjustment needed to compensate for loading or speed changes. After you believe you have the references fixed in your mind, cover the instruments and see how close you come to your target.

View from left seat of Tecnam P2002 Sierra

Turns and ground reference maneuvers become much easier if you enlist friend horizon to help you. Before tackling steep turns, do 10- through 30-degree turns paying attention to the nose reference on the horizon at each angle of bank and how it changes from left to right in a side-by-side aircraft. Establish level flight by horizon reference and slowly bank left and right watching how the horizon position changes. Let your instructor or copilot advise you as to whether you’re staying level and when your bank angle is at 10, 20, and 30 degrees.

Imprint the horizon picture at each angle in your mind because these are the turns you’ll be doing almost 100 percent of the time. Try to correct deviations quickly. A steep turn is a rarity for the careful pilot except as a training exercise. With practice, keeping these turns level and establishing correct bank angles by horizon reference will seem easy.

Then come steep turns. By now, you’ll be so used to banking level by horizon position that as soon as that horizon line slips slightly up or down on the nose, you’ll be instantly correcting it. As a result only a slight correction will be necessary. Steep turns, which are so devilishly difficult for some, will seem easy.

Left bank
Watch the position of the nose in steep turns.

How, you ask, does all this relate to ground reference maneuvers? Fortunately we humans have good peripheral vision, and contrary to birds, unblocked forward vision. Pity the birds – they have to turn their heads to see forward, and only with one eye, but they still fly better and scan better than most of us. Ground reference maneuvers require reference to an object or track on the ground while maintaining an altitude position, speed, and a constant scan for traffic. It’s an exercise in multitasking, the most common of which is flying the pattern.

Many pilots have difficulty maintaining proper altitude with a tendency to lose altitude in turns, particularly when distracted by ground reference issues. However, if you’ve learned to fly by the horizon, your peripheral vision will keep you aware of the relative position of the horizon without the necessity of looking straight over the nose. You’ll sense when you’re gaining or losing altitude and correct appropriately with little diversion of attention from the other tasks. In other words, you’ll achieve a better, and hopefully constant, sense of your position in space.

Let’s not forget headings. There’s no need in visual flight rules conditions to be continually looking at the compass or directional gyro. Incorporate heading into your horizon reference by picking a point on the horizon which lines up with your magnetic course and keep it lined up with the nose. Now relax and scan wingtip-to-wingtip 10 degrees up and down from the horizon, and enjoy the view.

None of this means you’ll never verify by periodically looking at your instruments as your scan crosses the nose. However, verification is a long way from focusing on the instruments and making them your primary reference. Finally, once horizon flying becomes second nature, developing a constant scan pattern naturally follows.

Robert Wright is a certificated flight instructor at Chesapeake Sport Pilot, located in Stevensville, Maryland. Photos courtesy Karen Helfert.

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