Don’t leave the ground without it!

Thinking Again About Situational Awareness Basics
Minnesota DOT Office of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2017 issue

After a long, cold winter, the urge to fly is nearly overwhelming. The longer days and more (actually warm) sunshine are exerting a strong pull on those who haven’t flown since this past fall. But before you climb into the cockpit and point the nose of your aircraft towards blue skies, you should take time to think once again about situational awareness (SA) basics.

In this article, the pilot is the one for whom this information is meant. However, SA can be applied to many other disciplines and activities. Situational awareness quite simply requires the pilot to be cognizant of what is taking place in his/her immediate vicinity inside and outside the cockpit, while having a good understanding of how his/her actions will impact the current situation and potential situations in the immediate and near future.

Noted SA researcher, Dr. Mica Endsley, defines SA as “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.”

Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tony Kern, a former B1B instructor pilot/check pilot, and author of the book “Redefining Airmanship,” published by McGraw-Hill 1997, says, “Airmanship failures cross all aviation boundaries. The evidence suggests that while some aspects of military flying may be more demanding than commercial or general aviation (GA), the types of errors remain relatively constant. Pilots suffer inadequacies in discipline and knowledge, lose situational awareness and make bad decisions.”

It is most likely safe to make the assumption that a great number of “airmanship” (lack of SA) errors occur with newer, less experienced GA pilots. Bear in mind, however, that the same types of errors are occasionally committed by very highly skilled and highly experienced pilots. That begs the question of why aviators continue to make decisions that are dangerous and quite often life threatening?

A number of SA researchers and scientists believe there are many variables that can have a significant impact on a person’s SA, thus causing a breakdown in the SA process at its most basic level. Some of these variables include distraction, channeled attention, task saturation, and complacency. Any one of these things can quickly become the weak link in a chain-of-causation. And that ultimately can – and too often will – lead to a significant failure in a pilot’s SA, leading further to potential disaster.

Researchers have also noted there are three important and common facts about SA. First, there are almost always a number of clues available to the pilot or his/her crewmember to recognize the loss of SA and initiate the recovery from that loss. Second, the loss of SA may occur gradually, but it can also occur all at once. Third, a loss of SA not only significantly limits the ability of the pilot to achieve the flight goals, but also becomes the overriding factor in most accidents.

Today’s pilots are not the flight control manipulators of the not-so-distant past. In fact, pilots flying with modern, full-glass cockpits are more systems managers and information processors. But it still remains the pilot’s duty to fly the plane while maintaining good SA. With that in mind, the question remains, ‘what can you do to reduce the chance of losing your SA?’

It seems like a no-brainer, but spending a couple hours with a flight instructor regardless of the ticket you hold, can be extremely helpful. The instructor can spot little things you do or don’t do that could perhaps lead to a loss of SA and a potentially significant problem in flight. Another thing you can do is practice, practice, practice. Practice what you have learned from experience, and from your time, with a flight instructor!

Make it a key item in your flight preparations and operations to use your “checklists” from start to finish. You may have done the walk-around a thousand times, but that one time you miss something that is broken, damaged or missing on your aircraft is the time that disaster may find you.

Always avoid complacency and distractions by following standard operating procedures. Bear in mind that although SA is complex, it is still up to you, the pilot, to fly your airplane in the safest, possible manner. It is your responsibility to improve your airmanship abilities as much as you are able to through honest desire and practiced discipline.

There are many articles and books about SA online and in bookstores. Simply go online and type in situational awareness, and you will find many.

To quickly sum up our discussion of situational awareness, it can be said that situational awareness is your accurate understanding of what is taking place with you and your aircraft in relation to the world around you, at this moment, and in the very near future. So, for your safety, as well as the safety of your passengers and people on the ground, make sure you have good SA whenever you fly, or drive.

Let’s work together towards zero aviation deaths in Minnesota and across the nation by making safety, including good SA, priority one, and don’t leave the ground without it.

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