Situational Awareness

in Aeronautical Decision Making

In addition to learning to make good aeronautical decisions, and learning to manage risk and flight workload, situation awareness (SA) is an important element of ADM. Situational awareness is the accurate perception and understanding of all the factors and conditions within the four fundamental risk elements (PAVE) that affect safety before, during, and after the flight. Situation awareness (SA) involves being aware of what is happening around you to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future. Lacking SA or having inadequate SA has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error.

Situational awareness in a helicopter can be quickly lost. Understanding the significance and impact of each risk factor independently and cumulatively aid in safe flight operations. It is possible, and all too likely, that we forget flying while at work. Our occupation, or work, may be conducting long line operations, maneuvering around city obstacles to allow a film crew access to news events, spraying crops, ferrying passengers or picking up a patient to be flown to a hospital. In each case we are flying a helicopter. The moment we fail to account for the aircraft systems, the environment, other aircraft, hazards, and ourselves, we lose situational awareness.


To maintain SA, all of the skills involved in SRM are used. For example, an accurate perception of pilot fitness can be achieved through self-assessment and recognition of hazardous attitudes. A clear assessment of the status of navigation equipment can be obtained through workload management, while establishing a productive relationship with ATC can be accomplished by effective resource use.

Obstacles to Maintaining Situational Awareness

What distractions interfere with our focus or train of thought? There are many. A few examples pertinent to aviation, and helicopters specifically, follow.

Fatigue, frequently associated with pilot error, is a threat to aviation safety because it impairs alertness and performance. [Figure 14-7] The term is used to describe a range of experiences from sleepy or tired to exhausted. Two major physiological phenomena create fatigue: circadian rhythm disruption and sleep loss.

Many helicopter jobs require scheduling flexibility, frequently affecting the body’s circadian rhythm. You may be flying a day flight Monday and then at night on Tuesday. Your awareness of how your body and mind react to this variation in schedule is vital to safety. This disruptive pattern may result in degradation of attention and concentration, impaired coordination, and decreased ability to communicate.

Physical fatigue results from sleep loss, exercise, or physical work. Factors such as stress and prolonged performance of cognitive work result in mental fatigue. Consecutive days of flying the maximum allowable flight time can fatigue a pilot, mentally and physically. It is important to take breaks within the workday, as well as days off when possible. When you find yourself in this situation, take an objective, honest assessment of your state of mind. If necessary, use rest periods to allow rejuvenation of the mind and body. [Figure 14-8]

Fatigue also occurs under circumstances in which there is anticipation of flight followed by inactivity. For instance, a pilot is given a task requiring a specific takeoff time. In anticipation of the flight, the pilot’s adrenaline kicks in and situational awareness is elevated. After a delay (weather, maintenance, or any other unforeseen delay), the pilot feels a let down, in effect, becoming fatigued. Then, upon resuming the flight, the pilot does not have that same level of attention.

Complacency presents another obstacle to maintaining situational awareness. Defined as overconfidence from repeated experience with a specific activity, complacency has been implicated as a contributing factor in numerous aviation accidents and incidents. When activities become routine, a pilot may have a tendency to relax and not put as much effort into performance. Like fatigue, complacency reduces a pilot’s effectiveness on the flight deck. However, complacency is more difficult to recognize than fatigue, since everything seems to be progressing smoothly.

Since complacency seems to creep into our routine without notice, ask what has changed. The minor changes that go unnoticed can be associated with the four fundamental risks we previously discussed: pilot, aircraft, environment, and external pressures.

As a pilot, am I still using checklists or have I become reliant on memory to complete my checks? Do I check NOTAMs before every flight or only when I think it is necessary? And the aircraft: did I feel that vibration before or is it new? Was there a log book entry for it? If so, has it been checked?

Complacent acceptance of common weather patterns can have huge impacts on safety. The forecast was for clearing after the rain shower, but what was the dew-point spread? The winds are greater than forecast. Will this create reduced visibility in dusty, snowy areas or exceed wind limitations?

While conducting crop spraying, a new agent is used. Does that change the weight? Does that change the flight profile and, if so, what new hazards might be encountered? When things are going smoothly, it is time to heighten your awareness and become more attentive to your flight activities.

Advanced avionics have created a high degree of redundancy and dependability in modern aircraft systems, which can promote complacency and inattention. Routine flight operations may lead to a sense of complacency, which can threaten flight safety by reducing situational awareness.

Loss of situational awareness can be caused by a minor distraction that diverts the pilot’s attention from monitoring the instruments or scanning outside the aircraft. For example, a gauge that is not reading correctly is a minor problem, but it can cause an accident if the pilot diverts attention to the perceived problem and neglects to control the aircraft properly.

Operational Pitfalls

There are numerous classic behavioral traps that can ensnare the unwary pilot. Pilots, particularly those with considerable experience, try to complete a flight as planned, please passengers, and meet schedules. This basic drive to achieve can have an adverse effect on safety and can impose an unrealistic assessment of piloting skills under stressful conditions. These tendencies ultimately may bring about practices that are dangerous and sometimes illegal, and may lead to a mishap. Pilots develop awareness and learn to avoid many of these operational pitfalls through effective SRM training. [Figure 14-9]

Figure 14-9. Operational pitfalls.

Figure 14-9. Operational pitfalls. [click image to enlarge]

51l0aN891BL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Are you ready to start your journey learning to fly helicopters? Learning to Fly Helicopters, Second Edition, provides details on the technical and practical aspects of rotarywing flight. Written in a conversational style, the book demystifies the art and science of helicopter flying.


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