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Ground Reference Maneuvers: Getting Good, Staying Good

We learn to fly an 'S' turn down a road, a circle around a barn or to fly parallel to a railroad track when learning to fly ... but why?We learn to fly an 'S' turn down a road, a circle around a barn or to fly parallel to a railroad track when learning to fly ... but why? Parallel course, rectangular course, turns around a point, and 'S' turns along a road, are all members of a family of maneuvers called ground reference maneuvers (GRM) and for sharpening your skills, you’ll be hard pressed to find better bang for the buck.

GRMs teach new pilots about their new perspective on the world, how to prioritize sensory information and tune their new vision. People who do not fly have not had the opportunity to view the ground from about 1,000 feet up and GRMs work faster (and better) to improve any pilot’s ability to precisely manipulate an aircraft, than nearly any other group of exercises.

1) Perspective. One of the many pilot skills that must be developed is the ability to judge distances while in flight. When you fly a traffic pattern's downwind leg, the pilot must judge the proper distance away from the runway. Too far out will interrupt other traffic; too close in will not allow enough room to make the base leg turn.
Practical Application: To build perspective, GRMs should be taught and practiced at the same Above Ground Level (AGL) altitude as your airport's traffic pattern. This way, pilots learn to recognize when they are too wide from, or too close to, an object on the ground. This basic ability will be utilized countless times in the future.

2) Priorities. The ground reference maneuvers teach pilots to divide attention efficiently. There are an infinite number of times in flight when the pilot must be considering multiple problems at once.
Practical Application: Any GRM will improve a pilot’s scan by forcing him or her to divide their attention back and forth both inside and outside of the cockpit. If you make a perfectly round turn-around-a-point, but lose 300 feet while doing it, you only focused your attention outside...

3) Vision. Pilots must learn to fly as if they could 'see' the wind. One of the most fundamental facts about flying an airplane is that it is not always traveling in the direction that you have the nose pointed.
Practical Application: All GRMs teach pilots how identify wind drift and skillfully out smart the wind with crab angles, and varying bank angles.

Think of the practice area away from your airport as the minor leagues, where you practice and perfect your skills. The traffic pattern is the major leagues. It is filled with converging traffic, both IFR and VFR, and both radio and non-radio airplanes.

BOTTOM LINE: Eighty percent of all mid-air collisions happen in the traffic pattern, so that is no place for a pilot who has not yet learned to judge distance, divide attentions, and compensate for drift. Never disrespect the primary maneuvers. Taught and practiced properly, they offer basic pilot skills that will help prepare you for the big leagues ... and keep your skill sharp after you’ve arrived!

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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