While cruising at FL370 last week on our way to Chicago, (ORD) my first officer asked me a question that stuck with me long after the flight had ended. Aware that I was also a designated pilot examiner in the general aviation world and knowing how important clearing turns are in accomplishing the various checkride maneuvers, he asked me how many flight hours I thought I had accumulated over the years just doing clearing turns? Interesting question.

Well, I had never really thought of that. Probably because clearing turns are something pilots do without regard to the time it takes to complete them. I think this was the first time in over thirty-one years of airline flying that a question about clearing turns had ever come up. However, as a pilot examiner I am frequently asked a variety of questions regarding clearing turns, usually from either aspiring pilot applicants about to take their checkrides or from CFIs responsible for preparing their students to become the safest pilots possible.

Typically, their questions are more like, “What constitutes a proper (or acceptable) clearing turn for the checkride?” Or, “How often do I need to accomplish a clearing turn during the checkride?” These questions are usually centered on their desire to determine what I will need to see during the checkride to be a “happy DPE” and therefore PASS the applicant for behaving like a safe pilot.

But whenever I hear questions like these, I can’t help thinking that the person asking the question is maybe missing the point. What I think they really ought to be asking is, “What must I do as a pilot to virtually eliminate the risk of a mid-air collision?” That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Otherwise the clearing turn is just a placebo to make us feel good that we are being good, traffic conscience pilots. Something like, “Look at me! I’m a safe pilot! I’m making a clearing turn!”

How can I tell when a pilot has really gotten the point of clearing turns? It happens when the pilot stops acting as if a clearing turn is a separate maneuver or task that needs to be periodically accomplished in order to be safe. Instead, they begin thinking more in terms of traffic awareness as a continuing part of the entire flight, from the beginning of taxi to the engine shutdown at the end of the flight.

Does this mean a really safe, traffic aware pilot is making clearing turns all day long? No way! When was the last time you ever saw an airliner making a clearing turn? So does that mean the pilots up front are not concerned with traffic avoidance? Or maybe since the pilots are not taking a checkride, clearing turns are no longer necessary? Again, NO WAY!

What it really means is that to be clear of traffic, a pilot needs to be continuously aware of their surroundings both on the ground and in the air at all times. This means LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW, whether the aircraft is turning or not. In fact, unless you’re in solid IMC conditions, there is no excuse for not looking out the window practically every few seconds to continuously scan for traffic. Remember, a pilot’s primary responsibility while in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) is to SEE AND AVOID TRAFFIC.

I am disturbed during checkrides whenever I observe applicants who, while accomplishing clearing turns, (presumably for the purpose of assuring that there is no threatening air traffic in our vicinity) are completely absorbed inside the cockpit by their attempt to make perfect clearing turns while spending ZERO time looking out the window for traffic. And as soon as the turn is completed the applicant begins the assigned maneuver. This is what I call, “going through the motions” of clearing the area. Instead, we really should be turning our heads and eyes and looking out the window for traffic before, during and after clearing turns. Without using our heads and eyes during the clearing turn, why bother? We might as well put on the hood and log some simulated IMC while we’re at it, right?

On a checkride, I do need to see a pilot take the FAA mandated actions (clearing turns) necessary to ensure a traffic-free area prior to accomplishing the required maneuvers for the test, but I will always give extra praise to the pilot who demonstrates that he or she has truly gotten the message about clearing turns and traffic avoidance by turning their head and eyes throughout the entire flight and NOT just “going through the motions” of a few clearing turns. So, the next time a pilot asks me how many hours I have while accomplishing clearing turns, at least I’ll know what my answer ought to be: My TOTAL time as a pilot.
Bob Schmelzer is a LEFC instructor, a Chicago area designated pilot examiner and a United Airlines Boeing 777 captain/line check airman. He has been an active flight instructor since 1972.