When ATC instructs me something like "There is a Skyhawk on your 2 clock, 7 miles, 6500". I am not able to spot the target at least half of the time after several ATC reports its position until ATC says "not a factor" or gives me a new heading or altitude assignment.

I am wondering if there is any effective ways to get the aircraft spotting skill? Or knows my limit that it is nearly impossible to see it if it beyond a certain range and give up searching. When entering busy airspaces, the aircraft looking is taking a large portion of cockpit time.

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    $\begingroup$ "When entering busy airspaces, the aircraft looking is taking a large portion of cockpit time." Looking out should take a large portion of your time wherever you are! $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hulme
    May 4, 2016 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Don't spend too much time trying to find a small aircraft 7 miles away, you could miss something much closer ATC doesn't see. Look in the general direction for a second or two, then pick up your outside scan again. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    May 4, 2016 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ Also remember that when ATC says 2 o'clock, they mean relative to your track, not your heading. Usually is difficult to spot something small like an aircraft from 7 miles. You are trying to see something 40 feet wide from a distance of 35,000-ish feet away, plus it's moving and probably white. Don't get discouraged, just keep an eye out and report if you see it, don't see it, or more importantly saw it but lost it. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    May 4, 2016 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ Also helps to know where to look with respect to the horizon: right at it, just above, just below, for aircraft height with respect to your aircraft. In my airplane, I just had a GPS moving map unit installed that displays ADSB-Out info from other airplanes. The couple of times I have flown with it, it was way easier having a clear heading to look towards, and then scanning back and forth and up and down a little. Might be USA only requirement, but I don't anticipate flying much elsewhere. Canada and Bahamas for vacations would be about the extent of my foreign travel. Bermuda - oneway! $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Apr 9, 2018 at 18:17

3 Answers 3


(Daytime flying only. Peripheral and night vision is different and I have zero practice of night flying.)

The highest resolution part of the eye is the fovea, and it's surprisingly narrow. If a small, slow-moving object is outside this area it probably won't be seen. If you scan from say 20 degrees left of an object to 20 degrees right of it you will also miss, because the eye tends to jump in steps and we only see a small fraction of what is actually in front of us.

So I was always told to gaze steadily, in ten degree steps, for a few seconds at each area. A grid of search areas both above and below the horizon should be checked. You'll only recognise an object when your fovea is virtually on it.

  • Only look for a second or two at each are because any longer and the vision "bleaches" and you are even less likely to recognise anything in that region; just keep moving on to the next.
  • The narrow 10 degree steps are that size because that's the region of acceptably sharp vision. (I suspect it differs between individuals)
  • This was what I was taught for general lookout, though I suppose it should apply to a specific search area given by ATC too.

Apparently these tips were all derived from RAF training for this sort of thing, but I don't have any notes on that. In any case I suspect it's more practice than bookwork anyway.

One of my gliding instructors liked the spotting game. One point for every aircraft I spot before him. He had one dodgy eye and of course still won by an appalling margin... (I've also heard some play this game for beers, though frankly none of my instructors would ever be able to drive home.)


A lot of it is about disciplined scanning:

  • Don't move your head, move your eyes

  • Scan up and down, left to right, like a lawnmower; be methodical

  • a difference of 1000 feet at 10 miles is about 1-degree, which is the angular diameter of the moon which is the width of 1 finger held at arm's length; so for example, if it is at 6500 7 miles away and you are at 4500, then it is about 3 moons/fingers above your horizon

If you missing stuff, the most likely reason is that you are looking around randomly, instead of lawnmower scanning

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    $\begingroup$ If your windscreen is liberally coated in bug spatter, amending the procedure to include moving your head (like an owl) can be effective in tunning out the spatter. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    May 6, 2016 at 10:27

Even if you never spot the plane being pointed out to you, the act of scanning to find the traffic will improve your safety factor. If the plane you are looking for does become a factor, you will see it sooner if you are looking for it than if you are not.

I guess the point of my answer is that you should not stop trying to spot planes that are called out to you, even if you aren't very good at spotting them because it still makes everyone more safe.


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