Jul 18, 2022

It is a pilot’s job to maintain an overall awareness of the aircraft they are flying, its physical location in space and all factors relating to the safety of the flight at all times. One of the techniques they use to ensure this level of safety is Situational Awareness (SA). The pilot uses highly developed situational awareness skills to keep passengers, ground crew and themselves safe along with ensuring the integrity of the aircraft and other aircraft sharing their airspace.

What Exactly Is Situational Awareness?

Pilot With Flight AttendantsThe concept of situational awareness has been around for many many years. It is a common term among those in the aviation industry but can also be applied in other industry sectors such as the military, healthcare and maritime transport.

In aviation terms, whether you are flying or controlling the aircraft, attending to passengers, or maintaining an aircraft, system situational awareness is all about having an accurate understanding of three things. They are the current situation, the changing state of the situation and the anticipation of future developments or variations in the situation.

Narrowing it down to pilots, situational awareness on its most basic level is about having an overall mental picture of what is happening around you in terms of where the aircraft is, where it is supposed to be, and being prepared to act accordingly if anyone or anything around you is likely to affect this. This applies to all stages of flight, including before, during, and after.

Three Levels Of Situational Awareness

Leading researcher and Former Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force, Dr Mica Endsley, defines the three key levels of situational awareness in aviation as:

  • Perception. What’s happened? Noticing, scanning, and gathering data.
  • Comprehension. Understanding what’s actually happening by paying attention to a wide range of information sources.
  • Projection. Anticipating future states using the previous two observations to plan the most favourable future course of action. What might happen?

Why Is Situational Awareness Important In Aviation?

Piloting Modern planeHuman error in the aviation industry can carry some pretty severe consequences, including loss of life. Understandably, considerable effort is required to minimise or avoid the likely hood of these errors. Situational awareness is an important part of this process because the more the pilot accurately anticipates the situation, the more efficient they will be in responding to unexpected occurrences.

Without complete and accurate situational awareness, a pilot’s decision-making will be severely hindered. This makes SA one of the most important intellectual skills aviation professionals require. Paying attention to situational awareness leads to better decision making, error prevention, and improved overall performance. Conversely, lack of situational awareness can lead to potentially disastrous consequences, including loss of aircraft control, unexpected weather conditions and airspace infringement or controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) etc.

7 Factors Affecting Situational Awareness

In the aviation industry, mistakes can cost lives. In order to avoid these kinds of catastrophic mistakes, it is crucial to be aware of and actively manage any factors that might affect situational awareness or indicate that it has been compromised. 7 of the main factors that affect the integrity of situation awareness are:

  1. Workload. Having too much to do and too little time can lead to overloading, meaning sensory perception is limited or strained, resulting in unnecessary mistakes. Interestingly the opposite – underload, which leads to boredom and difficulty remaining alert or maintaining attention is also a significant risk factor.
  2. Stress. High-stress levels affect a person’s ability to process information efficiently. Observations, interpretations, and decision-making can be affected, leading to an increase in the likelihood of avoidable human error. Actively managing stress, whether it be short or long-term, is very important for all aviation industry workers.
  3. Fatigue. Similar to that of a driver in a car, pilot fatigue can lead to distraction which leads to slower reaction times and poor decision-making. A pilot must maintain constant vigilance when monitoring all automated systems, flight controls and instruments.
  4. Poor Communication. Incomplete or inaccurate communications severely impact the ability of everyone involved to make the right decisions.
  5. Physiological Factors. Alcohol, diet and hydration, illness, injuries and/or medications can affect a person’s information processing abilities, alertness, attention span and reaction times. Pilots should always prioritise their health and well-being.
  6. Lack Of Experience/Training. If you are an experienced pilot with a high level of training, you are more likely to automatically execute the appropriate corrective actions when an unexpected situation occurs. This is why flight training includes a lot of repetition particularly in things like stalls, engine failures and forced landings. Having encountered the situation before, means you can more easily anticipate what is going to happen and take the correct action.
  7. Cognitive Biases. As humans, we all have limitations. Sometimes this means unintentionally distorting the way we perceive situations. This can include inattentional blindness (looking but failing to see) and confirmation bias (a tendency to interpret information consistent with presently held preconceptions even in the light of contradictory information). An example of this would be succumbing to a visual illusion in flight.

Detecting Loss Of Situational Awareness

Captain And First Officer In CockpitKnowing what signs and symptoms to look out for can help identify and rectify the loss of situational awareness both in yourself and others. Six of the most common indicators of loss of SA are:

  1. Confusion. Uncertainty or uneasiness about the situation.
  2. Poor Communication. Giving or receiving incomplete, contradictory or vague information.
  3. Fixation. Becoming too focused on one task at the exclusion of everything else.
  4. Distraction. Not able to focus on anything, frequently switching attention.
  5. Non-Compliance. Purposefully deviating from standard operating procedures.
  6. Inability To Resolve Conflicts Or Contradictions. The information from two different sources does not agree or make sense; for example, expected checkpoints are not met.

How To Improve Situational Awareness

Situational awareness isn’t something that just happens automatically, it is a cognitive skill that needs to be constantly developed to reach its full potential. Pilots, in particular, need to build and work on maintaining their situational awareness skills continuously throughout their careers. Some ways to improve situational awareness skills are:

  • Learn To Predict The Future. This one involves always thinking ahead and designing contingencies to avoid being taken by surprise. Where the aircraft is now, where will it be in ten minutes, when you reach altitude, during descent and landing?
  • Identify Potential Threats. Constantly monitoring, detecting and recognising any factors that pose risks and how they will respond to your reaction. (e.g., mountains, wind changes)
  • Check Again…And Again. Sometimes years of flying experience gives you a feeling when something isn’t quite right – trust your gut – maybe things aren’t right. Always double-check, triple-check and check again, and always verify your perceptions.
  • Assume The Worst. Yes, it is likely that everything will be fine, but assuming the worst-case scenario means you are prepared to act accordingly if it becomes necessary.
  • Never Solely Rely On Expectations. Always check observations and expectations against other sources of information or with other crewmembers, regularly updating your mental SA picture.
  • Look After Yourself. Before flying, pilots need to avoid being over tired, eat and hydrate properly, get adequate sleep and manage stress levels.
  • Perform Constant SA Risk Assessments. Continually assess the situation as you fly and be prepared for changes to weather, traffic movements, equipment operating status or fuel systems. Make sure you are actively gathering all the information required.
  • Familiarise Yourself With The Systems. The easier you understand, use and can find the information you need, the better your situational awareness will be while flying. Be aware of all the services available to you.
  • Plan Ahead. Having an extensively thought-out plan means you have the bases covered with all the information at your fingertips and can potentially avoid task overload. This includes assigning responsibilities for handling problems or unexpected distractions and monitoring and critically evaluating your current performance (flight path, fuel estimation) based on your navigational plan.
  • Avoid Fixating On One Problem. Systematically direct your attention from the aircraft to the flight path to the people and things around you, repeating this pattern over and over again. Forgetting to scan the big picture is a common mistake when faced with extenuating circumstances.

Interested in improving your situational awareness skills by pursuing additional flight training? Get in touch with the professional team at Southern Wings, one of New Zealand’s original flight training aviation schools.

< Back to Blog