Features  / 05.10 /

Control Issues?

Master situational awareness and you’ll be master of the sky

A crucial precursor of aeronautical decision making and good judgment, situational awareness (SA) is often briefly defined in textbooks and then assumed to be continually practiced. All pilots, from the beginning student to the airline professional, are expected to possess it, but little practical guidance is given as to how to develop it to a fine edge. It is easy to tell pilots that they should exhibit greater SA, that they have lost it, or that they need to pay more attention, but such an approach is hardly helpful, particularly if these statements come after an unpleasant event. As the well-known excuse goes, “I knew exactly where I was when I ran out of fuel.” The key to success is learning how to bridge the gap between theory and practice, as well as being able to identify loss of SA, regain it, and make it a constant part of your flying.

Defining SA Situational awareness is the perception of surrounding elements in a timely manner, an understanding of their implication on the flight, and prediction of how they might affect the flight. The definition may seem self-explanatory. However, SA is a more complex and thorough undertaking than the simple definition suggests. SA encompasses at least the following: internal factors—state of pilot and aircraft, and mission objectives; external factors—weather, air traffic control influences, other traffic; position—current and predicted; and time—how much is remaining?

There are three successively complex stages of SA: Stage 1—Basic perception of events—what is happening? Stage 2—Understanding of events; how and why it has happened and what is the nature of the problem? Stage 3—The use of that understanding to plan ahead (see "Stages" at left).

Checklist for SA Develop the ability to pay attention to the right thing at the right time. It is as easy to say to a student “pay attention” as it is useless. He will only feel admonished and will have learned nothing from the advice. Instead, teach a pilot to decide correctly where to direct his attention. There is nothing better than chair-flying scenarios or flying in a simulator, and explaining workload demands and tasks along the way. The idea is to give the student the ability to manage his attention span, from tasks requiring seconds to accomplish to keeping the big picture of the flight in mind. Start from small tasks and work up to asking him more complex questions. If the student focuses too long on something, bring it to his attention and show that other tasks need his attention too. And don’t expect this to sink in quickly—examples will need to be shown and the student will have to go through many scenarios before he develops the ability to constantly manage routine
demands in a proactive way.

Observations must be correctly perceived and interpreted. All subsequent actions are useless and possibly even more harmful if one does not have the right understanding of the problem. One of the most tragic examples of misinterpreted information followed by erroneous
action is the 1989 British Midland 737-400 accident. During the climb the airplane’s right engine failed, but the crew, because of a rushed and insufficient analysis, shut down the left engine. Immediately after the failure, smoke began to fill the cockpit, which (because of bleed-air system configuration on early 737s) was interpreted as proof that the right engine had failed, since the right engine normally provided bleed air to the air-conditioning system. However, the airplane that day was a newer version of the 737, which had a different bleed-air system that fed bleed air from both engines to the air-conditioning system. In addition, the crew failed to consult vibration monitors (which would have identified the malfunctioning engine) as they were notoriously unreliable on earlier versions of the 737. The captain attempted to glide to the nearest airport while restarting the right engine, but ran out of altitude. The airplane landed short of the runway and hit an embankment, resulting in 47 fatalities.

Develop the ability to multitask. Easy—all we have to do is pay attention to several things at the same time and do them simultaneously! Multitasking is a complex skill that needs developing. Multitasking really entails paying snippets of attention to several things in such a rapid-fire cycle that it appears we’re doing them simultaneously. How much time you will have to devote to a task largely depends on your ability to accomplish it, as well as on its complexity. There are things you can do to make the situation more manageable, such as engaging an autopilot, asking ATC for help, and deciding to delay certain tasks as necessary.

Work to enlarge your spare capacity. This is really the key to successful SA when things start going bad. If you can’t fly the airplane, deal with the issue at hand, and have enough spare capacity to analyze the problem and plan a resolution, you’re little more than a passenger. As we all know, flying the airplane is crucial but not the end of the story. One must correctly analyze the situation, often in confusing and time-limited circumstances. Take your time, don’t jump to conclusions, and be sure you understand the nature of the problem at hand. Then (while the airplane is on autopilot, if you have one), start thinking what to do. This is where spare capacity becomes truly necessary. One must fly the airplane, perform the appropriate checklist, and think what to do next. Depending on the nature of the problem, it might take all of your capacity to deal with the situation—so the more
capacity you have, the better your odds.Required spare capacity is acquired through practice, practice, and more practice.

Losing SA When you’re not the person in the hot seat, it’s easy to notice someone is losing SA. Noticing it when you’re by yourself is not as easy. These are some of the symptoms that indicate something’s starting to go amiss.

1. Narrowing focus—This happens when things start to get busy and you begin neglecting some tasks completely. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and happens to a greater extent with increasing workload. At one airline, the pilots call out passing altitudes every 5,000 feet on the descent, precisely so they can detect a loss of SA. If SA is being lost, these callouts are usually the first things the pilot omits.

2. Complacent or lazy behavior—Maybe the pilot is really being lazy, or just slow to pick up on the clues around him, taking his time assembling the mental picture. Either way, appropriate attention is not being paid.

3. Acting distracted—Reaching for a switch, then pulling his hand back or looking harried. If making a radio call, a pause or a correction. Confusing or contradictory statements. Not following standard operating procedures. When a pilot is distracted and unsure of his actions, these will be the symptoms:

Signs that SA is being lost at Stage 2 are incorrect analysis of the problem, possibly because of interpretation problems (Stage 1) or insufficient knowledge or experience, and an inability to move beyond Stage 1. The pilot sees something went wrong but then seems unable to put it in context and doesn’t grasp the full implication. Using a variation of our low voltage example, the problem was correctly analyzed, the checklist was done, but there is a lack of urgency to decide what to do next.

A sign that SA is being lost at Stage 3 is a lack of updating. While an emergency may have been dealt with successfully, and a plan was thought out and implemented to deal with it, a new change goes unnoticed or unincorporated. It is crucial that the analysis and revision process never stops.

Regaining SA Chances are we all have lost SA at some point and are likely to lose it again. There is no shame in feeling overloaded, out of the loop, or harried. In fact, it is beneficial to feel these symptoms as they are a warning sign that the situation is slipping beyond our grasp and we should do something about it.

Once you have come to the realization that you’re not as aware as you should be (you’re aware that you’re not aware, existentially), breathe a sigh of relief that you caught the situation before it got out of hand. Then do everything you can to assemble the overall picture and get a sense of what’s going on. So, where to start?

Chances are you were overloaded to begin with. If you can, reduce or delegate the workload. If possible, have the autopilot do the flying while you tackle the problem at hand. If you’re not equipped with an autopilot, take the time to slow down and make sure you have control of the aircraft before trimming it for hands-off flight and continuing on. Have air traffic control vector you or give you miles to the airport rather than figure it out yourself. Ask ATC for ATIS rather than tune and listen yourself on the number two comm, and anything else you can think to pass off. Next, give yourself more time. Assuming you’re not on fire or otherwise pressed for time, don’t let ATC or anyone rush you as you methodically go through your procedures and formulate a plan. Have ATC make your job easier by navigating for you for a minute. Have an idea of how much time you’re working with (how long the procedures take to accomplish), how much fuel do we have until we have to land (how much fuel do I want to land with?), and how long to get to the airport? Finally, look at the big picture. Once you’ve regained a grasp of the immediate situation, relax a bit and take it all in. Seek more and more info on your surrounding events and environment. When you’re back to feeling in control, evaluate and update your plan, if needed.

If you apply these strategies on every flight, you will see a gradual increase in SA. This will further enhance your multitasking abilities, which in time will lead to greater spare capacity. And having more spare capacity will enable you to pay more attention to more things, enhancing your SA in a constant, circular process like one big, beneficial snowball. And the more you feel safe and in control, the fewer surprises you have to worry about, and the more relaxed you can be. That ultimately means having more fun with your flying.

Miroslav Nikolich spends a lot of time over the Pacific in a Boeing 747-400 with a major airline, and is also a flight instructor with a background in aerobatics and jet warbirds.

Defining SA

Internal factors—state of pilot and aircraft, and mission objectives

External factors—weather, air traffic control influences, other traffic

Position—current and predicted

Time—how much is remaining


There are three successively complex stages of SA:

Stage 1: Basic perception of events—what is happening?

Stage 2: Understanding of events—how and why it has happened and what is the nature of the problem?

Stage 3: The use of that understanding to plan ahead.

Let’s use a low-voltage annunciation in a typical single-engine airplane to see how a pilot thinks at each of the three stages of SA. The low voltage light comes on:

Stage 1: “Uh, oh. Low-voltage light is on. Can’t be good.”

Stage 2: “Uh, oh. Low-voltage light is on. Can’t be good. Let’s do the appropriate abnormal checklist. We probably only have 30 minutes of battery power left.”

Stage 3: “Uh, oh. Low-voltage light is on. Can’t be good. Let’s do the appropriate abnormal checklist. We only have 30 minutes or less of battery power left. We should advise ATC that we will soon lose radios, and need vectors to the nearest airport. Reduce all unnecessary electrical loads. If nighttime, retrieve flashlight and plan for a dark-cockpit approach and landing. Accomplish passenger briefing before intercom power goes out and select desired flap setting (if required) before all power is lost.”

It’s obvious that Stage 3 SA is what switched-on pilots practice and how they make it look easy. But developing that ability to multitask, plan ahead, and act competently is not as intuitive or rapid as it appears. The process of making yourself a switched-on, aware pilot who won’t get caught by surprise will take significant self-analysis, study, and practice.