It’s tempting to focus inside on the enticing instrument panel, GPS, iPad, and other devices at your disposal, all in an attempt to gather information throughout your flight. Cross-checking what you see outside with your instrument panel is good practice. Glances at your airspeed, attitude, and altitude should be incorporated in your scan, but visual flight requires keeping your eyes focused outside most of the time, watching for traffic, and keeping the aircraft under control using the visual cues available. While the attitude indicator is critical for instrument flight, you don’t need it in visual conditions to ascertain when you are straight-and-level, or to recognize when you stray from that. You can do this solely using outside references.
Glancing at instruments to confirm your eyes are not deceiving you facilitates better scanning. Developing the habit of comparing instruments against what your eyes are telling you and maximizing the time your eyes spend looking for traffic will make you a safer pilot.
While attempting to fly straight ahead, point the nose toward a reference in the distance and fly toward it to maintain a straight path. Next, take a look at each wingtip. Are they each in the same position in relation to the horizon? If not, you’re in a turn!
To maintain altitude, use the nose as a reference. From the nose up to the horizon, in many primary trainers, a few inches of ground is showing. Once you determine what that looks like from the pilot’s seat in your aircraft, you will be able to return to that point even after climbs and descents.
Throughout your flight, remember that trim is your friend. Each time you change the aircraft’s attitude, think to yourself “pitch, power, trim,” and make those adjustments as needed.
Once you’re comfortable looking outside to maintain straight and level flight, you may want to use those same references to practice a 360-degree turn. First identify a landmark off the nose in the distance as your starting and ending point. Then raise one wing to enter the turn, choose a reference on your windscreen (like that squashed bug you meant to clean during preflight) and set it on the horizon to maintain altitude, and lastly roll out of the turn as you approach your landmark.
Not only will looking outside give you a sense of your airplane’s position and attitude, it will reduce your reliance on your instruments and enhance the safety of your visual flight rules (VFR) flights as you scan for traffic.
The view is beautiful, so look out!