Photo: G450 Synthetic vision, from Eddie's aircraft.
On its surface, the idea of having an awareness of your situation would seem to be as natural as the act of flying itself. That is to say, it isn't natural at all. If you endeavor to collect all the relevant information about your environment, accurately interpret that information, act on it, and recheck the data to see if it adjusts according to your actions; well, you will have good SA. But it certainly isn't something you will be able to master your first day on the job. Good SA is a learned skill. So let's get started:
What follows comes from the references shown below. Where I think it helpful, I've added my techniques and a few comments in blue.
When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. . . . I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.
Captain Edward Smith quoted in 1907.
He was the Captain of Titanic when it sunk in 1912.
From: CRM Leadership & Followership 2.0, Antonio Cortés
Photo: Two F-100Ds over South Vietnam, from US Air Force, (Creative Commons).
From the day the military started flying more than one airplane in close proximity to another against an enemy doing the same, it became obvious that unless we knew what we were doing, we could end up hitting each other. Fighter pilots practiced varying levels of situational awareness, starting at "1 v 1." When it became obvious having a wingman comes in handy there was "2 v 2" and things progressed from there until you had the proverbial "fur ball."
Even flying "1" with no "v" at all we figured out that having the pilot with his or her head on a swivel kept things safe. As the skies got more crowded and the airplanes got faster, we developed talk about situational awareness and the need to have a 3-D picture of your part of the world in your head at all times. I had a pretty good understanding of SA from a pilot's perspective in the US of AF starting in 1979 and things only got better as more and more pilots understood the importance of good SA. Here's my story from 1984: Flight Lessons / B-707 Engine Failure at V1.
But then something terrible happened . . .
Figure: Model of SA in dynamic decision making, from Endsley, figure 1.
. . . in the early 1990's the pseudo sciences got involved and turned a straightforward concept into graphs, tables, and charts like the one shown here. A lot of good has come from the human factors world that we can see daily in our cockpits in the form of greatly improved avionics. The problem comes when these academics get involved with flight procedures. No matter, we will try to extract some good from this.
[Endsley, pg. 5.] The [1995 model of SA] consists of several key factors:
All straight forward except the word "projection." There is scientific evidence that parts of the brain's cortex include the ability to anticipate, so that's what we'll use in place of projection.
For "working memory" we can think of our conscious memory.
There is scientific evidence that our brains can store and retrieve information behind the scenes of our conscious thought in a way that can be useful. I would call this intuitive thought. More about this: Normal Procedures & Techniques / Decision Making.
Let's call this muscle memory and be done with it.
Advisory Circular 120-51E, Appendix 1, ¶3.a.] Situation Awareness Behavioral Markers
[Airbus Flight Operations Note, pg. 1] The main components of situational awareness are:
Of all the sources out there, Airbus seems to do the best job of cutting through the theory and producing something a pilot can use. It still suffers, I think, from confusing awareness of airplane controls (systems and automations) with the environment. They are not your environment, they are tools available to you to control your situation in the environment. That leads me to . . .
Figure: A pilot's situational awareness model, from Eddie's notes.
The easiest way to think about the environment is that you are part of an airplane and that everything that surrounds that airplane is the environment. The environment includes the air around you, extraterrestrial space above you, the ground and water below you, and all the other obstacles you wish to avoid. Weather and other aircraft can certainly affect your environment as can the puppeteers pulling the strings from behind the curtain: air traffic control. Your task as a pilot is to manipulate your aircraft through the environment without hurting yourself, the airplane, or anyone else.
Figure: The Three Equilibrium Systems, from U.S. Army Aeromedical Training Manual, Figure 9-1.
A pilot's situational awareness requires an accurate perception of the environment and the aircraft. If you want to improve your situational awareness, you need to ensure the channels of communications from your sensory inputs are unimpeded:
More about this: Abnormal Procedures & Techniques / Spatial Disorientation.
Photo: Dopamine pathways, with Eddie's edits, from the National Institute of Health.
Not all of your inputs will be valid, it is up to the gray matter in your head to sort the wheat from the chaff:
You must always devote at least one pilot to flying the airplane and when situational awareness begins to break down, it is usually wise to dedicate that pilot to the task of keeping the airspeed, altitude, and heading where they need to be. A few thoughts:
Figure: Dividers, from Eddie's collection.
The navigation imperative can be as simple as "get us out of this valley" to as complicated as "where in the heck are we?" Fortunately this problem has gotten easier over the years.
Crew Communications. When the stress level goes up we have a tendency to latch onto the first solution that comes to mind and start to tune out alternate ideas. An especially willful captain with a good reputation can unknowingly shut off other crewmembers with better ideas, without them even realizing what has happened. A few techniques.
ATC Communications. The people on the other side of the radio can be very helpful when it comes to figuring out items of navigation ("Where am I?") and communication ("Who should I be talking to now?") but be careful when asking about aviating questions. Many air traffic controllers are private pilots who think they understand high performance aviation but may not. The pilots on AeroPeru 603 lacked enough air sense on their own, for example, but ATC only fed to that deficit. Their Boeing 757 was experiencing classic blocked static port symptoms and when the air traffic controller reported their transponder read out agreed with what the pilots saw in the cockpit, all concerned believed the altimeters were working. Of course everyone on the airplane died but the controller lives on.
Other Aircraft Communications. There is a brotherhood of aviators out there and that is especially evident when one of our brethren are in trouble. You will see this flying oceanic or in remote areas. The universal pilot interplane frequency in most of the world is 123.45. Keep a listening watch when oceanic or remote, perhaps you can come to the rescue of a fellow aviator.
Communications with Anyone Else.
There is a input/output loop going on with everything you as a pilot do. When it comes to basic instrument flight, we call this the control/performance technique. You monitor your performance instruments and make corrections on your control instruments, over and over again, to make sure your actions create the expected reactions. More about this: Normal Procedures & Techniques / Control / Performance Technique.
This loop occurs when it comes to situational awareness. The academicians call it a feedback loop and I suppose it is. As a pilot, however, feedback brings to mind an undesirable audio problem that I just assume avoid. When it comes to things I do in the cockpit versus things I monitor, I would like to call this an action / reaction loop.
Action. We continuously monitor the aircraft and the environment to ensure the airplane is behaving according to our wishes. When the airplane's performance is at variance and we anticipate the variation will increase or will remain at variance, we access our memories in an attempt to come up with a solution. That solution — the action — can be a mechanical input to a flight control, a button press into a computer, or a decision communicated to others on the flight deck or to the world at large.
Reaction. The airplane may or may not react as we anticipated. The variation may, in fact, increase. This can be due to a lack of our ability to affect the change, a problem with our perception of the problem, or it could be that the problem itself has changed. External actors, such as the weather, can be changing at an increasing rate. That in itself is detected with new sensory inputs and the action / reaction loop continues.
Figure: A pilot's situational awareness model, anticipation, from Eddie's notes.
There is physiological evidence that the inner recesses of the brain (between the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex) learn at a rate that is more efficient and deeper than your conscious memory knows. This subconscious memory rapidly checks all sensory inputs against a database of past experiences and gives you a "feeling" if something is amiss. In other words, it allows you to anticipate. More about this: Normal Procedures & Techniques / Decision Making.
This ability to anticipate is what gives you situational awareness. You must constantly be aware of your surroundings and your brain must constantly devote at least a portion of its attention to keep the brain anticipating, or situationally aware.
[Airbus Flight Operations Note, pg. 7]
E.g. Focusing on recapturing the LOC and not monitoring the G/S.
E.g. Applying a fuel imbalance procedure without realizing it is an engine fuel leak.
E.g. Expecting an approach on a particular runway after having received ATIS information and being surprised to be vectored for another runway.
If the airplane gets to some point in space and time before your brain does, you have lost situational awareness.
[Airbus Flight Operations Note, pg. 2] Situational awareness is not just a theoretical notion and is pertinent to most accident or incident cases. It is real, and its absence causes accidents. Research from the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) indicates that human factors is a contributing cause in around 70 percent of all incidents and accidents. Approximately 85 percent of incident reports include a mention of loss of situational awareness. Degraded situational awareness can lead to inadequate decision making and inappropriate actions. This is illustrated in [the table], which identifies causal factors involved in approach and landing accidents.
|Factor||% of Events|
|Inadequate decision making||74%|
|Omission of action or inappropriate action||72%|
|Non-adherence to criteria for stabilized approach||66%|
|Inadequate crew coordination, cross-check and back-up||63%|
|Insufficient horizontal or vertical Situational Awareness||52%|
|Inadequate or insufficient understanding of prevailing conditions||48%|
|Slow or delayed action||45%|
|Flight handling difficulties||45%|
|Deliberate non-adherence to procedures||40%|
|Incorrect or incomplete pilot/controller communication||33%|
|Interaction with automation||20%|
Causal factors in approach and landing accidents
The best way to learn good situational awareness techniques is to study mishaps where it all went wrong. Ask yourself what you would have done in similar circumstances and come up with a game plan should it ever happen to you. Here are a few to get you started:
Aeromexico 498 & Piper PA-28 N4891F, 1986. Just because you are on an IFR flight plan and just because you are in radar contact doesn't mean you can stop clearing the flight path of the airplane.
AeroPeru 603, 1996. Part of good situational awareness is having an idea of what power settings and what aircraft attitudes will result in level flight. Idle and ten degrees nose low, for example, should not result in a climb. This 757 crew didn't have the advantage of a GPS, but remember that you can get altitude information from your satellite navigation system.
Air Blue ABQ-202, 2010. The primary lesson of this mishap is to always be aware of the terrain when circling, but an even more important lesson may be to keep the rest of the crew on the same team. Shutting down a junior pilot can kill you if that pilot knows where the mountain is and you don't.
Air Canada 143, 1983. Excellent SA in one area can be underminded by poor SA in another. This crew caused the airplane to run out of fuel by not loading enough in the first place. But they then displayed excellent SA while bringing their 767 glider back to earth.
Air Canada 797, 1983. A cabin fire demands the highest SA but the concept is simple: get the airplane on the ground as soon as possible.
Air China 129, 2002. SA begins with knowledge about the aircraft and ends with knowing where the runway is in relation to the terrain. This crew failed on both counts.
Air Transat 236, 2001. Keeping the engines turning is a fundamental part of airmanship and that requires at least a little SA devoted to the fuel gauges. It is easy to become distracted when other problems have your attention span, but looking at the total fuel on board deserves part of that attention.
Corporate Airlines 5966, 2004. A "dive and drive" approach is a recipe for losing SA at the last minute, and that's when you need good SA the most.
DA-900B SX-ECH, 1999. Even some of the most highly automated airplanes need to be hand flown with finesse now and then. Seven passengers were killed by a device meant to make the airplane easier to fly because the pilot didn't understand how to deal with it.
Executive Airlines N16EJ, 2000. There were two fatal flaws in SA from this crew, either one of which could have been survived separately but not in combination. First, they didn't order enough fuel. Second, they forgot to keep the airplane in coordinated flight after the first engine quit from fuel starvation.
Galaxy Airlines 201, 1985. Good SA is a crew event, even when the captain has a great reputation and is well respected by the rest of the crew, the rest of the crew needs to be included in all decision making. The captain violated standard operating procedures but the crew was only all too happy to devote themselves to assigned tasks all the way to their deaths.
GIV GMAC Teterboro, 2004. Even after using poor automation technique the pilots forgot to fly the airplane all the way to a complete stop. They failed to pull the power levers back after the autothrottles pushed them forward after landing. It was a problem they caused in the first place, but they also failed to save the day by simply flying the airplane.
Lion Air 904, 2013. Even flying the most modern airplane crews must adhere to the most fundamental rules of flight: never point the airplane in an unknown direction. The days of letting down through an overcast because you know you are over water and the airport is someplace ahead of you ended a long, long time ago.
Lufthansa Papa Whiskey, 2001. Good SA and CRM were evident when this crew discovered their flight controls were not wired as they should have been.
PC-12 N128CM, 2009. Sometimes the consequence of an airplane issue has more impact than you may know. In this PC-12, for example, ice in one wing fuel tank not only resulted in the other wing tank going down more rapidly, it also resulted in the opposite tank level going up. But of more obvious importance when discussing SA is the need to put a broken airplane on the ground as soon as possible, do not overfly viable alternates.
Swissair 111, 1998. A cabin fire demands the highest level of SA and that often means getting the airplane on the ground under your own terms at all costs. This crew could have made it, but delayed the landing at first to dump fuel (to be kind to their landing struts) and then to prepare the cabin (to be kind to their passengers). In the end all 243 on board were killed.
Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 2: Advanced Flight, Chapter 14.
Advisory Circular 120-51E, Crew Resource Management Training, 1/22/04, U.S. Department of Transportation
Aeromedical Training for Flight Personnel, Department of the Army Field Manual 3-04.301, 29 September 2000
Airbus Flight Operations Briefing Notes: Enhancing Situational Awareness.
Cortés, Antonio, CRM Leadership & Followership 2.0, ERAU Department of Aeronautical Science, 2008
Endsley, Mica R., Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making 2015, Volume 9, Number 1, March 2015, pp. 4-32.