Client Testimonials

Situation Awareness

(Extracted from the book "Airmanship")


What is situation awareness?

It is as old as the hills. I remember chatting to an old pilot who used to fly Constellations and DC-8s in the 1950s and 1960s. He related his first diversion landing into Beirut on a very dark night as a first officer. He had lost the plot but fortunately the more experienced captain knew what he was doing. The next morning he was shocked to see a large hill close to the airfield – he really had no idea it was there. In fact the thought occurred to him that he could easily have done a visual circuit straight into that hill. Then he said casually, ‘Boy, in those days you had to keep an eye on everything going on around you and think ahead at all times.’ That will do for me as a definition of situation awareness:

 

‘Knowing what is going on around you and being prepared for what might happen.’

 

It is a skill that can be developed and requires people to understand what is happening around them, so that they not only monitor and keep track of what should be happening, but are also able to identify any threats to the safe and efficient progress of the operation. Although there is a lot to keep an eye on, and it requires a bit of skill, in principle situation awareness is really quite simple. Just monitor what’s going on, understand what is happening, think ahead to what is likely to happen, anticipate and prepare accordingly. There are six main areas of which pilots need to be situationally aware: Systems, Task, Environment, Aircraft position, People, Time.

 

Why is situation awareness is lost?

I think there are three direct causes for loss of situation awareness:

 Reaching capacity

As already stated the brain has limited capacity – a finite ability to manage several tasks at the same time and process information. When this capacity is reached, a situation that can only be described as seizure takes place; in fact the brain does not even have any resource left to reboot. It is not a comfortable experience. You are not able to think or to grasp any information that you receive, and even simple things are beyond you. People around you are carrying on as normal and appear quite relaxed. They look at you with doubt and sympathy, and have a look in their eyes that says, ‘How thick can you be?’ similar in many ways to when you are extremely inebriated and everyone else is stone cold sober. Because life is dynamic, things are changing constantly, so when you have reached capacity you are not able to track or to comprehend what is happening around you, let alone be able to think ahead and plan. Thus situation awareness quickly breaks down.

Being ‘switched off’

Occasionally referred to as ‘mind in neutral’, this of course is the opposite situation and occurs when you are in the land of the fairies. You appear to be operating but in fact your brain has shut down. Expressions such as ‘the lights are on but nobody is in’ and ‘out to lunch’ are apt descriptions. I think it is caused by either unintentional meditation or when you allow your mind to daydream and think of other things. Clearly the chances of maintaining situation awareness in this state are slim. Having a quiet nap is of course the ultimate example, but make sure you are wearing sunglasses so no-one notices.

Misperception

The final reason why situation awareness is lost is when you misinterpret what you see, hear or feel. There are many optical illusions in the world, some of which we are aware of but many of which we are not. Even when we know something is an optical illusion we still can’t believe it, and I recommend Edward H. Adelson’s work for evidence. Furthermore, if we are concentrating too deeply on one thing it is very easy to completely miss other things that are happening. Why we misinterpret things is difficult to explain. One obvious cause is that we have preconceptions and see or hear what we want to see or hear, but why we see things that are different to reality is a bit of a mystery because cameras do not have the same problem.

 

How to recognise loss of situation awareness?

Here are a few indicators that might mean a person has lost situation awareness, and I will relate them to the above causes.

Reaching capacity

Rapid eye movement.

Mumbling.

Contradicting themselves.

Hyperactivity.

Anxiousness.

Glaring.

‘Goldfish’ look.

Being ‘switched off’

Non-responsive.

Inactivity.

Staring at space.

Misperception

Saying or doing the wrong thing.

Overconfidence.

 

What you should do when you have lost it

 

  1. Recognise the fact and let relevant people know as soon as possible.
  2. Stop what you are doing but don’t allow yourself to wallow in a confused state. This does two things: first, it releases capacity; and second, it prevents you stumbling into an unknown situation. If you can hand over control then great, otherwise let go of the controls if possible or hold them in a neutral position.
  3. Dismiss stressors. Often what is contributing to your loss of situation awareness is stress, such as being late and rushing, or trying to do too many things. Re-prioritise. Tell yourself that you will just have to be late or the passengers will just have to be disappointed, or you will not be able to achieve your ATC clearance. Safety is much more important at this point.
  4. Contain the situation so that the problem does not get worse. This might mean level the wings, maintain height and orbit, or climb to a safe altitude, and again if possible hand over control – and almost always engage the autopilot. Set a sensible attitude and power setting.
  5. Slowly start regaining situation awareness, which means taking things one step at a time. At each step verify that the information is correct. For instance, check your airspeed and verify that it is consistent with your attitude and power setting. Check your height and cross-check with standby instruments and QNH setting. Then start confirming your position, again cross-checking with whatever aids you have available. Use the resources that will help you.
  6. Do not make any decisions until your situation awareness has fully returned.
  7. Before doing anything, think ahead, anticipate and plan, so that you are not immediately back where you were, having lost situation awareness again.

 

How do you maintain it?

When you have situation awareness then you know what is going on around you. If you want to maintain it, then keep your mental ‘APU’ running continuously:

Anticipate

Think ahead, and use your imagination and experience to identify what might happen in the near future. Expect the unexpected.

Prepare

Do something about it if possible. Obviously you can’t be prepared for everything, but there are simple and easy things you can do to make sure you are not caught out, or have to manage several things at once. Have Plans B, C and D ready if necessary.

Update

Continuously update your situation awareness. Track and monitor all the things you need to be aware of, and the progress of any activity.

 

The following table lists the areas that crews should be monitoring as required, which does not mean constantly, but they should have an idea of the status or condition of each of these elements at all times. Although there are a lot of items listed, not being aware of what is happening in any one might be distracting, or the start of an error chain.


 

 

Systems

 

Task

 

Environment

 

Aircraft Position

 

People

 

Time

Engines

 

Commercial

 

Weather system

 

Diversions

 

Flight crew

 

Endurance

APU

 

ATC

 

Runway condition

 

Other aircraft

 

Cabin crew

 

Slot times

Flying controls

 

Clearances

 

Precipitation

 

Height

 

Passengers

 

Time zones

Autopilot

 

Navigation

 

Cloud

 

Speed

 

Engineering

 

Local / GMT

FMS

 

Procedures

 

Forecasts

 

Direction

 

Dispatch

 

Circadian

Nav Aids

 

Checklists

 

Turbulence

 

Acceleration

 

Refuelling

 

Planning

Flight instruments

 

Start

 

Lightning

 

Location

 

Loadmasters

 

FTL

Alarms

 

Take-off

 

Icing

 

Attitude

 

Ramp handling

 

 

Fuel

 

Climb

 

Wind

 

Ground vehicles

 

ATC

 

 

Pressurisation

 

Descent

 

Wind shear

 

Buildings

 

Security

 

 

Trim

 

Cruise

 

Visibility

 

Equipment

 

De-icing

 

 

Wheels

 

Hold

 

Glare

 

Taxiways

 

Cleaning

 

 

Brakes

 

Approach

 

Temperature

 

Runways

 

Catering

 

 

Flaps and slats

 

Landing

 

Pressure

 

Energy

 

General public

 

 

Radio

 

Go around

 

Terrain

 

 

 

Knowledge

 

 

Cabin atmosphere

 

Diversion

 

Habitation

 

 

 

Skills

 

 

Fire

 

Taxi

 

Noise

 

 

 

Attitude

 

 

Electrics

 

Weight

 

Birds

 

 

 

Fatigue

 

 

Hydraulics

 

Parking

 

FOD

 

 

 

Hunger

 

 

Bleed air

 

Passenger loading

 

Wake turbulence

 

 

 

Thirst

 

 

Refuelling

 

Cargo

 

Political

 

 

 

Motivation

 

 

Alarms

 

Security

 

Commercial

 

 

 

Health

 

 

Anti-icing

 

Cabin service

 

Legal

 

 

 

Bladder state

 

 

Heating

 

Cabin security

 

Security

 

 

 

Fitness  (incl  drugs

/

 

Pneumatics

 

Legalities

 

 

 

 

 

alcohol)

 

 

Doors

 

Documentation

 

 

 

 

 

Awareness

 

 

Lighting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disorientation

 

 

IFE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mental state

 

 

Cargo bays

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relationships

 

 

Misc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture

 

 

 

 

 

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