by Dr. John Beasley, M.D.
Aviation Medical Examiner
Professor Emeritus and Clinical Professor
Department of Family Medicine
University of Wisconsin – Madison
No, “SA” doesn’t stand for “Social Affliction” or some obscure medical condition that threatens your medical certificate. SA, for our purposes, stands for “Situation Awareness.” The idea for this article came to me while participating in a workshop conducted by Mica Endsley, PhD — former chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force. Ms. Endsley is an industrial engineer and nationally-known expert on SA. I learned a lot.
There are, as a gross oversimplification, three main components to SA. The first is perception, “What’s going on now?” The second is making some sense of this – comprehension, “Why does it matter?” The third is projection of future status. “What’s going to happen next?” In short: “What? So what? What’s next?” Knowing all these constitutes good SA.
When approaching my airport, I need to know my position relative to the runway, other traffic in the area, my status with air traffic control, and many other factors. I may note that my altitude and airspeed are decreasing as I set up on final. That’s the “What?” There might be other factors, such as verifying my fuel supply that I can ignore as not relevant at this moment. But perhaps my airspeed is a bit above flap deployment speed, so I need to delay deployment until I bleed off some more airspeed. That’s the “So What?”
As I am on short final, I note that the airspeed has decreased further and “What’s next?” Will I turn into a smoking hole off the end of the runway unless I add some power and lower the nose? What? So what? What’s next?
We need information to establish SA. An important concept is whether information processing is goal driven or data driven. When goal driven, we have some specific goal (i.e. flare for landing) that helps us collect appropriate data, such as airspeed and height above the ground. However, data may drive us too, as when another aircraft is approaching the runway, making it necessary to change our goal to making a go-around! We add power, retract the gear, and establish climb to meet our new goal. Too much stress or fatigue or other distractions may lead to what is called tunneling, where we focus on one cue (the airspeed) and potentially miss another – the pending runway incursion. We need to be both goal driven and data driven, as we gather information, make sense of it, and project the need for future action.
Interruptions, fatigue and other factors can impair our SA…a tragic example is that of Air France 447 where multiple alarms and conflicting computer indications led to the pilots being unaware of the basic attitude and power information needed to establish accurate SA. Even for us poor Mooney pilots, too much automation can be hazardous.
Last year I upgraded from my 35-year-old avionics to a much more modern system, and even after some 4 to 6 hours of instruction and perhaps 30 hours that were mainly VFR, I found myself to be still somewhat bewildered and distracted by the system. What button do I push to activate an approach? Why doesn’t the missed approach come up? Where is my ground track on the screen?” What does this blinking light mean? All of this detracted from my SA, and I had to be very careful to keep the basics in mind, and avoid tunneling.
At the other end of the spectrum is when we get inattentive or complacent and can lose our SA – the “fat, dumb and happy” syndrome. It’s easy to do on a nice, smooth CAVU day.
When we are flying, we need good SA, and we have to be careful to maximize our ability to establish SA by avoiding fatigue and distractions, and by being sure to use our technology appropriately. Especially at times of stress, we are vulnerable to tunneling and losing the bigger picture SA. And, distractions from technology can be a risk. For instance, looking at my GPS while on final approach is a really bad idea. I may lose track of my airspeed and miss the potential incursion if I don’t maintain SA.
For a full (and much better) description of these concepts and their implications for aviation, as well as other human endeavors, see Dr. Endsley’s book, “Designing For Situation Awareness.” Dr. Endsley has written on Training For Situation Awareness at http://www.pacdeff.com/pdfs/Training%20for%20SA%20Endsley%202000.pdf. There is also a good summary of SA at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situation_awareness.