Frequently when working with students, I find that with all they are trying to recall and apply, there is a key skill that is overlooked. It is visualization. After years of flying, it’s something I do unconsciously and it is something I’ve heard few instructors (including myself until now) address. But it is absolutely an essential part of training and critical to safe flying.
Not long ago I was at the hold lines with a student. He had finished his runup and was ready to take the runway for departure. Two aircraft were in the pattern. One plane was on midfield downwind and one was on a 5 mile final. Since we were at a non-towered field, each of these planes had made at least 2 radio calls during the time we had been taxiing out. Yet my student, intent on his checklists, had really not paid attention to the calls. When he was ready to take off he looked at me and said, “Is there any traffic?”
“I dunno, have you heard any calls?” I replied.
He said, “I heard a plane in the pattern. Wasn’t there another one?”
“What are you going to do?” I responded, trying to not answer for him and to get him to find his solution.
He turned our 172 left to look down the final approach course and he saw the landing light of the plane on long final. He then looked right and saw the other plane in the pattern, preparing to turn base.
“I totally wasn’t paying attention to the radios.” He confessed.
Any time you are in the plane, on the ground or in the air, always keep your ears tuned to the radio. But more than that, visualize what you hear. Do you know that Piper Cub is on base? Do you hear the plane on long final? Is it a Cessna 152 or a Embraer Phenom 100? Knowing and visualizing their speed helps you know and predict spacing issues that may arise.
The lesson is to always stay alert and to visualize your flight environment. If it seems challenging, don’t worry! You will get more proficient with this over time. But start now. Doing so will help keep you and your fellow pilots safe.