Ground reference maneuvers train the pilot to accurately place the airplane in relationship to specific references and maintain a desired ground track. While vision is the most utilized sense, other senses are actively involved at different levels. For example, the amount of pressure needed to overcome flight control surface forces provides tactile feedback as to the airplane’s airspeed and aerodynamic load.

It is a common error for beginning pilots to fixate on a specific reference, such as a single location on the ground or a spot on the natural horizon. A pilot fixating on any one reference loses the ability to determine rate, which significantly degrades a pilot’s performance. By visually scanning across several references, the pilot learns how to determine the rate of closure to a specific point. In addition, the pilot should scan between several visual references to determine relative motion and to determine if the airplane is maintaining, or drifting to or from, the desired ground track. Consider a skilled automobile driver in a simple intersection turn; the driver does not merely turn the steering wheel some degree and hope that it will work out. The driver picks out several references, such as an island to their side, a painted lane line, or the opposing curb, and uses those references to make almost imperceptible adjustments to the amount of deflection on the steering wheel. At the same time, the driver adjusts the pressure on the accelerator pedal to smoothly join the new lane. In the same manner, multiple references are required to precisely control the airplane in reference to the ground.

Not all ground-based references are visually equal. Awareness of typical visual illusions helps a pilot select appropriate references. For example, larger objects or references may appear closer than they actually are when compared to smaller objects or references. Prevailing visibility has a significant effect on the pilot’s perception of the distance to a reference. Excellent visibility with clear skies tends to make an object or reference appear closer than when compared to a hazy day with poor visibility. Rain can alter the visual image in a manner creating an illusion of being at a higher than actual altitude, and brighter objects or references may appear closer than dimmer objects. However, if using references of similar size and proportion, pilots find ground reference maneuvers easier to execute.

Ground-based references can be numerous. Examples include breakwaters, canals, fence lines, field boundaries, highways, railroad tracks, roads, pipe lines, power lines, water tanks, and many other objects; however, choices can be limited by geography, population density, infrastructure, or structures. The pilot should consider the type of maneuver being performed, altitude at which the maneuver will be performed, emergency landing requirements, density of structures, wind direction, visibility, and the type of airspace when selecting a ground-based reference.

Ground reference maneuvers develop a pilot’s division of attention skill. A pilot needs to control the airplane’s attitude while tracking a specific path over the ground. In addition, the pilot should be able to scan for hazards such as other aircraft, prepare for an emergency landing should the need arise, and scan the flight and engine instruments at regular intervals to ensure that a pending situation, such as decreasing oil pressure, does not turn into an unexpected incident.

Ground reference maneuvers place the airplane in a low altitude environment with associated hazards. Pilots should look for other aircraft, including helicopters, and look for obstructions such as radio towers and wires. In addition, pilots should consider engine failure and have one or more locations available for an emergency landing. Pilots should always clear the area with two 90° clearing turns looking to the left and the right, as well as above and below the airplane. The maneuver area should not cause disturbances and be well away from any open air assembly of persons, congested areas of a city, town, or settlement, or herd of livestock. Before performing any maneuver, the pilot should complete the required checklist items, make any radio announcements (such as on a practice area frequency), and safety clearing turns. As a general note, a ground reference maneuver should not exceed a bank angle of 45° or an airspeed greater than the maneuvering speed. As part of preflight planning, the pilot should determine the predicted (POH/AFM) stall speed at 50° or at the highest bank angle expected during the maneuver to assure there will be a safety margin above the stall speed during the maneuver.