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Situational Awareness


For several years now, the flying of perfectly good airplanes into the sides of mountains has littered safety seminars in aviation circles. The expression for it is Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT). This column, however, isn’t about it. Rather, it’s about why it fundamentally happens. The reason has to do with Situational Awareness (SA); or specifically, its lack thereof.


In general terms, SA is defined as the “perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the understanding of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed.” As definitions tend to be, this latter one is all- inclusive. Expressed more simply, SA can be easier defined as: “knowing what’s going on around you.”


SA is part of our everyday lives. No more a place is its relevance and importance more exposed than in the driving of an automobile. Lacking SA as a driver can result in any multitude of transgressions: failing to stop at a Stop sign, speeding, missing a turn en route to a destination. Worse can be those occasions wherein SA is so lacking that a high price ends up being paid by the pedestrian or cyclist whose presence the motorist failed to appreciate.


In piloting terms, having SA factors down from “knowing what’s going on around you” into knowing yourself (as pilot), knowing your aircraft, knowing the environment in which you are flying, and knowing the type of operation you are conducting. The better your SA, the better (and safer) will be the outcome of any flight you undertake.


Making every pilot’s SA better is the challenge of the aviation industry. By improving it, all those accidents with, as their common denominator the lacking of SA, will diminish. Imagine the benefits of improved SA: fewer CFITs, fewer mid-air collisions, less blundering of VFR into IFR conditions, no more landing on a wrong runway (or a taxiway), no more running out of fuel. Regrettably, these things crop up in incident or accident reports all the time. And the lacking of SA is a causal factor every time.


Most any risk management seminar will list, as a means by which to improve SA, a number of recommendations. “Think ahead” would be a first such recommendation. In other words, what will your flight conditions be in ten, twenty, or thirty minutes from what you are experiencing at that moment? What will the weather be? What will the winds be? What will your fuel situation be?


A second recommendation would be to identify threats. For instance, the winds are not as favourable to your flight as you thought they’d be. What, then, are the consequences on your fuel situation? Or, you’re flying VFR and unfavourable weather is building up directly in your route. Do you go around the weather, or do you divert to an alternate airport?


Avoid loss of SA by minimizing cockpit tasks. If you’re on your own, avoid overburdening yourself. Don’t, for instance, let yourself get distracted by trying to re-boot a recalcitrant iPad, or fiddle with a temperamental volume control on your headset. If you’ve got a passenger, don’t let them be chatty when you’ve got a high-workload task to accomplish, like an IFR descent to a decision altitude.


As any good instructor may have taught you from the start, always fly defensively and don’t be complacent. In other words, fly as if something could, at any moment, go wrong. No matter how good things may seem to be going, always be scanning for places to put your aircraft should the engine quit.


If you start your flight when you’re already tired, that weariness could bite you. A fortified SA will come a lot easier when you’re mentally sharp. Don’t fly tired. Don’t fly stressed about things that are going on in your life. If you do, you’re not doing yourself – or any passengers for whom you are responsible as pilot-in-command – any favours.


As the definition of SA states, be prepared for unexpected variables, and be prepared for change. Always assess the conditions of the flight: weather, engine parameters, traffic around airports. Being prepared to change plans necessitates that a high degree of SA is present. Otherwise, the process of making the change – assuming you recognize its need in the first place – could result in a less than stellar outcome.


Lastly: be confident in your instincts. If something is giving you a bad vibe, trust the inner voice telling you so. That’s having good SA.