On Lookout and helicopters

The importance of an effective lookout. We’ve heard it from day one in aviation, a constant through our flying training days and beyond. The dangers of mid-air collision, obstacles, and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) will always be there. 

These are not static threats however, but are always evolving. Take the proliferation of drones as one example. Our responses to these threats have evolved too: traffic alerting; TCAS, Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems; Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems; even synthetic terrain overlays. All are designed to enhance situation awareness and counter these threats. And while they are all amazing tools, their efficacy has unintended consequences: The human factor. 

“Technology driven complacency coupled with the ever-growing internal distractions of the modern cockpit are powerful forces.”

Technology driven complacency coupled with the ever-growing internal distractions of the modern cockpit are powerful forces. In recent months I have fallen victim to them not just once, but on three different occasions, coming uncomfortably close to (in order or appearance) a drone, multiple birds, and a microlight aircraft. On each occasion I took it as a salutary warning, and a lesson to go back to basics in dedicating more time to visual scanning outside the windscreen. But each time it happened again. Why? In a more in depth debrief to myself as to the reasons I have been repeatedly caught out I came up with the following 10 reasons, and one solid conclusion: Lookout should be a bigger deal for helicopter crews than for almost any other group in aviation.

So here’s 10 reasons why helicopter crews (in particular) need to be much more concerned about lookout.


1. Helicopters are much more likely to be flying visually than most of other airspace users.

Visual flying means just that. Eyes outside. The Mk1 eyeball is our principal sensor in building and maintaining a picture of the world around us.

2. Helicopters operate more frequently and spend more time manoeuvring low level in the obstacle environment. Lookout isn’t just about mid-air collision.

3. Helicopters frequently operate below or beyond radar cover. Those friendly controllers can’t watch you back if they can’t see you.

4. Helicopters tend to share their airspace with birds, particularly in coastal areas.

5. The threat from drones is especially relevant to helicopters, has proliferated, and will continue to do so.


6. Latest generation rotary wing aircraft are designed for more ‘hands-off’ flying, leading to a delegation of flight-path management to automated systems and a slowing of response times.

7. A proliferation of aides to traffic and terrain identification and separation, and even synthetic terrain overlays contributes to a sense of safety and complacency that the machine will give us a reliable picture of the world around us and warn us to any threats.

8. The ergonomics and tools of the modern cockpit mean much more information is presented and more cockpit systems management is required, resulting in less time heads up managing the aircraft flight path visually.

9. The quantity of information in the cockpit that can be interrogated and our desire to interact with it is a powerful source of distraction from the outside environment that is difficult to counteract.

10. The breath of resource represented by the Electronic Flight Bag and its interactive functions provides another new potential source of distraction to the external visual scan.

The first four on this list are nothing new. However, the rest demonstrate how the pace of technological change in the rotary wing cockpit, as well as in aviation more generally, has accelerated a changing risk profile in terms of lookout.

Proper scanning requires the constant sharing of attention with other flying tasks, thus it is easily degraded by such conditions as distraction, fatigue, boredom, illness, anxiety or preoccupation. We, as humans, are not good at resisting the effect of these. Often, the root cause of many non-critical distractions is poor workload management bringing our heads in at inappropriate times. After considering my recent three lessons in lookout, whenever I am drawn heads-in I am learning to discipline myself with the questions, 

“Do I really need to be doing this now?” 

“Can it wait?” 

“Is this the right time?” 

When you have tasks building up in your short-term memory, when you want to respond to questions or requests for information from other crew members, or when you want to get ahead of the aircraft, one of the hardest things to do is to sit on your hands, raise your head, and cast your eyes out of the window.

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