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Training and Safety Tip: Perfect pictures

“Sit up straight,” mother scolded me as I was devouring mac ’n cheese at the dinner table when I was a small child. Little did she know at the time that she was teaching me a fundamental of successful flying. That fundamental is something called “sight picture.”

Photo by Chris Rose.

Sight picture is critical to mastering many aircraft maneuvers: takeoffs, turns, ground reference maneuvers, performance maneuvers, and—perhaps most important of all—landings. So the list includes just about every flight operation. And a key to a proper sight picture is posture.

Scratching your head because you can’t find “sight picture” in any of your FAA handbooks? That’s because the FAA usually calls it “visual reference,” but most CFIs use the term “sight picture,” a military term used in weapons training to describe how the fore and aft gunsights—and the target—line up to the eye. In aviation, we use sight picture as slang for the visual relationship between parts of the airplane and the environment. Sight picture is how far the cowling appears below the horizon in level flight, for you. Sight picture is where the horizon intersects the panel in a steep turn, for you. Sight picture is the shape of the runway on a stabilized approach, for you.

Seeing a trend here? Yes, sight picture is personalized. Your sight picture is different from your instructor’s, and your instructor’s is different from that of other pilots. To master sight picture, you need to be positioned in the airplane the same way each time, so that your sight picture is the same each time, and this is where posture comes in.

What matters is that you are consistently able to reproduce the proper sight picture. This entails more than just your body posture: it includes uniform adjustment of the pilot’s seat. Most training airplanes have seats that adjust fore and aft, and many feature vertical height adjustments, as well. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how mastering maneuvers would be challenging if your seat—and hence your sight picture—changed with every flight.

So, make note of the seat position that works for you and adjust your seat during preflight, so you have the correct sight picture.

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is a widely published aviation writer and columnist. He is an FAA Safety Team rep and a rare "double" Master Ground Instructor accredited by both NAFI and MICEP. An AOPA member since 1983, he holds a commercial pilot certificate and has a degree in aviation technology. He was recognized as a Distinguished Flight Instructor in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards.
Topics: Flight School, Student, Training and Safety
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