If you had a crystal ball and could see ahead in your flight, you would have the ultimate tool for situational awareness because the crystal ball could let you see the consequences of your decisions and any unforeseen effects from factors that may have changed. It could tell you that the holding pattern early in your flight was going to eat dangerously into your fuel reserves or that the changing weather would go below minimums at the destination. Unfortunately, the FAA would never certify such a device, particularly for IFR, so we have to resort to more human processes to make decisions.
Any sports fan has noticed that superstars have one trait that distinguishes them from others – their ability to think ahead and quickly anticipate. They know to make a break for the opposite basket while the ball is still being rebounded, because they can see it will make them open for a fast break. That ability to project ahead in time is vital to accurate situational awareness.
Some have defined situational awareness as knowing what is going on around you, but it really involves more than that. Situational awareness is the accurate perception of the factors and conditions that affect an aircraft and the flight crew. That requires knowing what happened in the past and anticipating how a change in any of these will affect the flight in the future.
In order to accurately perceive the factors and conditions of the aircrafts operation, a pilot must monitor the aircrafts performance, flight path, systems, weather and traffic situation. Obviously, the primary senses involved in those tasks are sight and sound.
In everyday life, humans depend on vision to obtain nearly three-quarters of the information around them, and flight is no exception. Attitude, altitude and airspeed are visual. Traffic and weather are primarily visual. Scanning the instruments for information about the flight, systems and navigation is primarily a visual exercise.
Sound is also important in safe flight. Hearing lets the pilot monitor the sound of the engine, radio comminications and aural annunciators such as stall horns and landing gear warnings. However, hearing tends to be less reliable than vision, particularly in an aviation environment. An examination of NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System reports shows that, in incidents involving situational awareness, most featured problems with information transferred by sound.
Consider the now-famous case of the air carrier 757 that became lost in dense fog after landing at a busy eastern seaboard airport. The ground controller misunderstood the airliners position report and gave directions that further confused the crew, who then proceeded to taxi onto the active runway.
The fog was too dense for the controller to see the airplane, and the 757 captain mentioned that they appeared to be on a runway. Thinking the 757 was on an inactive runway, the controller – who was working both ground and local control – issued a takeoff clearance to another air carrier jet. Fortunately that crew had been listening to the terse communications and chose to delay their takeoff until the exact position of all aircraft in the fog was ascertained.
Although the problem stemmed from audio miscommunication, it was the second crews monitoring of those communications that allowed them to maintain the situational awareness to decline the takeoff clearance.
Actively monitoring the ATC frequency can help on routine flights as well. When ATC issues instructions to preceding aircraft for a certain approach, you can assess your chances of getting the same approach. That lets you grab those approach plates ahead of time, brief them, and set up the radios before you get into the busy descent into the terminal area.
ATC can also help with positional awareness, especially when you get vectored off of the established route. Even if you keep the navaids tuned to the appropriate facilities and have a moving map, it still helps when the controller points out, Youre five miles from the marker, cleared for the approach…
During VFR conditions, knowing which runway is in use lets you better plan the descent and arrival into the traffic pattern.
The upshot is that monitoring communications allows you to better manage your resources instead of making assumptions that could be dangerous or rushing to accomplish tasks at the last minute.
Another important feature of listening to the radio is the ability to listen to hazardous reports from other aircraft. Several years ago, an airline crew was approaching the old Denver Stapleton Airport for landing. The flight was #3 for landing when the landing aircraft reported a significant loss of airspeed in the flare. A minute later, the jet ahead of them reported an even larger loss of airspeed in the flare.
The crew of the jet had been listening to the reports and decided the trend was unacceptable. They chose the most conservative response and initiated a go-around. Its a good thing they did. They entered into a rather fully developed microburst. Luckily their engines were spooled up, the aircraft had gained additional airspeed and altitude and the aircraft was in the climb configuration when it encountered the microburst.
The aircraft still lost a significant amount of altitude and airspeed, but survived the encounter because of the pre-emptive recovery on the part of the crew. Without a doubt, this crews situational awareness and sound decision-making averted a major disaster.
It isnt often you can point to a near-disaster and outline which actions taken by the crew directly broke the imminent accidents chain of events. Most of the time the pilots either dont realize how close they came or dont bother reporting it to anyone other than their flying buddies. But both the fog-bound crew that declined the takeoff clearance and the crew that initiated the go-around clearly showed that situational awareness maintained through active monitoring of the ATC frequency can direct break a building accident chain.
Unfortunately, human monitoring skills arent perfect. During periods of low workload, its easy to get lazy about monitoring.
On the other end of the workload spectrum, task saturation can also lead to a loss of situational awareness. Rapid-fire ATC clearances can cause tunnel vision as the pilot tries to change the aircrafts course, possibly re-configure the aircraft and dig out the new approach charts for the amended clearance.
Equipment problems, re-programming navigational boxes and getting the latest weather can create a work overload in the cockpit. If you havent managed the information well to begin with, didnt obtain the latest weather and didnt dig out the appropriate approach charts during a low-workload phase of flight, you are so far behind the aircraft now that trying to regain situational awareness is going to be an extremely difficult task.
When all else fails and you find yourself overwhelmed, you need to step back from the details of the tasks and reacquire the big picture. Take a delaying vector, ask for a couple extra turns in the holding pattern, lengthen out the holding pattern. Buy yourself time to re-organize yourself and reacquire the big picture.
But dont blame ATC for all of the pressure-related losses of situational awareness you may encounter. Time pressures induce nearly the same conditions, and they are often self-induced. Granted, time pressures can be induced by external factors, such as an emergency that requires immediate action, but more often theyre the result of the pilot being his own worst enemy.
Try to take shortcuts to maintain a schedule in the face of deteriorating weather or planning a trip at the limit of the airplanes fuel supply are classic examples. A more bizarre case involved the pilot who turned off the master switch of the rented airplane to save on rental costs and landed at night without the landing light on. He taxied into a ditch.
Situational awareness also requires evaluating the information at hand and drawing some conclusions about whats happening. Sometimes the warning signs are obvious. As in the case of the airplanes losing dangerous amounts of airspeed on final, the trends were quite clear because the crew had received training on important warning signs.
Sometimes, however, the message is a little more subtle or you may not have the knowlege to interpret what the warning signs mean. Flags briskly standing outright waving in a strong wind may be showing you a wind shear or the passage of a front.
Take a crowd of people looking at a plume of smoke rising from an industrial chimney and ask what they see. Ninety-eight percent of them will simply respond with smoke. A well-trained aviator might look at the smoke and see that there is a low-level wind shear, that a temperature inversion exists at a certain altitude, or that a weather front hasnt passed yet because the prevailing winds are from a certain direction. Its important to be shown the important information from these sources.
Also included in evaluating the environment is the problem of evaluating aircraft systems. While its certainly true that aircraft systems are not always reliable, the same is also true of warning systems. The gauges sometimes lie, which underscores the importance of cross-checking additional information sources and correlating the information.
For example, a blank engine fire light doesnt necessarily mean that there is no fire in the engine. There are cases of engine fires continuing to burn while the engine light remained blank.
An unlit annunciator light can be due to a short-circuit or a burn through. Simply looking at a gauge and believing what it says at face value is going to set you up for trouble someday. Always regard the gauges with some suspicion and seek out other information that would prove or disprove that gauge.
You have to actively look for these pieces of information. The smoke signals indicating the wind condition are almost always present, but you need to put practical meaning to the significance of that signal. One of the problems with current flight instruction strategies is that theyre aimed at passing a checkride rather than passing along insights important to safe flight.
Maintaining Situational Awareness
There are a number of critical cockpit management skills that will help you maintain your situational awareness. First of all, focus your attention on the important tasks and information at the right time.
As a matter of technique, for example, reconfigure the navigational equipment for the approach as soon as you start receiving those first vectors into a terminal area. On base leg, you know that the controller should give you a dog leg turn toward the final approach course. Scan the course deviation indicator more rapidly to make certain that you dont get blown through the course.
During the approach phase, you may find yourself not paying as much attention to other gauges in the cockpit. For example, while correct oil pressure is obviously important to the operation of the engine, it just doesnt warrant close scrutiny while on an IFR approach. Its a matter of prioritizing, and aircraft control and navigational awareness are the over-riding priorities. Hence, those are the issues that should receive most of your attention during that phase of flight.
Using the right resources is also important. Consider an instrument approach, for example. If the ILS is equipped with a compass locator, tune the ADF to the compass locator. The ADF needle always points at the NDB, which is co-located with the outer marker.
When the tail of the ADF needle falls to the 45-degree position, expect a turn onto the base leg. This is really important in airports surrounded by mountainous terrain because it helps you judge whether the controller has forgotten about you or is tied up with other tasks when its time for you to turn.
In one such accident in the L.A. Basin, an instructor pilot continued flying straight ahead on a vector and flew into rising terrain without querying ATC about an extended vector towards rising terrain. If ATC hasnt issued a base turn soon after the ADF needle falls below the 45-degree position, the red flags should go up. On the base leg, when the ADF needle shows within 10 degrees of the inbound leg, expect the localizer needle to start coming alive. The ADF is an under-utilized tool for maintaining positional awareness, especially among pilots used to moving map GPS.
Managing the cockpit is very important. If you are turning around in the cockpit trying to dig out approach charts at the last moment, your attention is focused on that bag, rather than on the aircraft, its flight path and the radio. Before you start the trip, organize your charts so they fold in a logical manner. Pull out all of the arrival and approach charts for your destination ahead of time. Use a clip and put those in a handy place.
Put a book marker in your binder for the alternate airport charts for just in case. Get ATIS as soon as you can so you can set up the radios in advance. Tune the radios in advance if you have those nifty flip-flop dual radios. If you have a passenger, involve them in the flight by asking them to hand you various charts and checklists (and pick up the inevitable dropped items). Anything you can do ahead of time to lessen your workload and distractions in the terminal area is valuable time well spent.
Stay ahead of the aircraft and the situation. If you hear ATC giving holding instructions to aircraft ahead of you, anticipate the same happening to you. You might consider slowing down. If you hear ATC slam dunking aircraft, its a warning to you to anticipate the same. You might consider slowing down, though sometimes this doesnt fit into ATCs traffic flow because the controller just wants to get you through his sector and handed off to the next controller.
The sterile cockpit rule evolved after a number of airline accidents in which air crews were pre-occupied with non-important tasks during a vital portion of the flight. Cockpit voice recordings revealed pilots who were engaged in extraneous conversations and not performing checklist items.
In the aftermath of these accidents, the FAA mandated the sterile cockpits, meaning pilots must abstain from any activity thats not directly related to the operation of the aircraft during critical phases of flight. Taxi, takeoff, initial climb-out below 10,000 feet, descent below 10,000 feet, approach and landing are all considered sterile cockpit phases of flight. In a general aviation aircraft, you should practice the same procedure (amending the 10,000-foot altitude requirements to perhaps 3,000 feet agl), and brief your passengers on this rule so they can be quiet during critical phases of flight. This will allow you to actively monitor the ATC frequency.
Manage distractions or they will manage you. Some distractions arent immediately vital to the flight and can be ignored. Some distractions arent immediately important but will need attention in the future. Some distractions need immediate attention, such as amended clearances from ATC in the terminal environment. Remember to aviate, navigate, communicate and in that order.
Some aspects of situational awareness can be taught. Certainly cockpit organization and error detection skills need to be addressed throughout all aspects of initial training. Initial training should also cover the subtle warning signs that we can derive from the flight environment.
Waving flags, drifting dust and smoke columns are pretty obvious examples. Flight instruction needs to show pilots the subtle pieces of information that can be derived, especially from signals that are sitting right in front of them. Luckily the learning process never ends in aviation.
-by Pat Veillette
Pat Veillette is an air carrier pilot and aviation safety researcher.