Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the accurate perception and understanding of all the factors and conditions within the five fundamental risk elements (flight, pilot, aircraft, environment, and type of operation that comprise any given aviation situation) that affect safety before, during, and after the flight. Monitoring radio communications for traffic, weather discussion, and ATC communication can enhance situational awareness by helping the pilot develop a mental picture of what is happening.


Maintaining situational awareness requires an understanding of the relative significance of all flight related factors and their future impact on the flight. When a pilot understands what is going on and has an overview of the total operation, he or she is not fixated on one perceived significant factor. Not only is it important for a pilot to know the aircraft’s geographical location, it is also important he or she understand what is happening. For instance, while flying above Richmond, Virginia, toward Dulles Airport or Leesburg, the pilot should know why he or she is being vectored and be able to anticipate spatial location. A pilot who is simply making turns without understanding why has added an additional burden to his or her management in the event of an emergency. To maintain situational awareness, all of the skills involved in ADM are used.

Obstacles to Maintaining Situational Awareness

Fatigue, stress, and work overload can cause a pilot to fixate on a single perceived important item and reduce an overall situational awareness of the flight. A contributing factor in many accidents is a distraction that diverts the pilot’s attention from monitoring the instruments or scanning outside the aircraft. Many flight deck distractions begin as a minor problem, such as a gauge that is not reading correctly, but result in accidents as the pilot diverts attention to the perceived problem and neglects proper control of the aircraft.

Workload Management

Effective workload management ensures essential operations are accomplished by planning, prioritizing, and sequencing tasks to avoid work overload. [Figure 2-19] As experience is gained, a pilot learns to recognize future workload requirements and can prepare for high workload periods during times of low workload. Reviewing the appropriate chart and setting radio frequencies well in advance of when they are needed helps reduce workload as the flight nears the airport. In addition, a pilot should listen to ATIS, Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), or Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS), if available, and then monitor the tower frequency or Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) to get a good idea of what traffic conditions to expect. Checklists should be performed well in advance so there is time to focus on traffic and ATC instructions. These procedures are especially important prior to entering a high-density traffic area, such as Class B airspace.

Figure 2-19. Balancing workloads can be a difficult task.

Figure 2-19. Balancing workloads can be a difficult task.

Recognizing a work overload situation is also an important component of managing workload. The first effect of high workload is that the pilot may be working harder but accomplishing less. As workload increases, attention cannot be devoted to several tasks at one time, and the pilot may begin to focus on one item. When a pilot becomes task saturated, there is no awareness of input from various sources, so decisions may be made on incomplete information and the possibility of error increases. [Figure 2-20]

Figure 2-20. The pilot has a certain capacity of doing work and handling tasks. However, there is a point where the tasking exceeds the pilot’s capability. When this happens, tasks are either not performed properly or some are not performed at all.

Figure 2-20. The pilot has a certain capacity of doing work and handling tasks. However, there is a point where the tasking exceeds the pilot’s capability. When this happens, tasks are either not performed properly or some are not performed at all. [click image to enlarge]

When a work overload situation exists, a pilot needs to stop, think, slow down, and prioritize. It is important to understand how to decrease workload. For example, in the case of the cabin door that opened in VFR flight, the impact on workload should be insignificant. If the cabin door opens under IFR different conditions, its impact on workload changes. Therefore, placing a situation in the proper perspective, remaining calm, and thinking rationally are key elements in reducing stress and increasing the capacity to fly safely. This ability depends upon experience, discipline, and training.


Managing Risks

The ability to manage risks begins with preparation. Here are some things a pilot can do to manage risks:

  • Assess the flight’s risk based upon experience. Use some form of risk assessment. For example, if the weather is marginal and the pilot has little IMC training, it is probably a good idea to cancel the flight.
  • Brief passengers using the SAFETY list:
    S Seat belts fastened for taxi, takeoff, landing Shoulder harness fastened for takeoff, landing Seat position adjusted and locked in place
    A Air vents (location and operation) All environmental controls (discussed) Action in case of any passenger discomfort
    F Fire extinguisher (location and operation)
    E Exit doors (how to secure; how to open) Emergency evacuation plan Emergency/survival kit (location and contents)
    T Traffic (scanning, spotting, notifying pilot) Talking, (“sterile flight deck” expectations)
    Y Your questions? (Speak up!)
  • In addition to the SAFETY list, discuss with passengers whether or not smoking is permitted, flight route altitudes, time en route, destination, weather during flight, expected weather at the destination, controls and what they do, and the general capabilities and limitations of the aircraft.
  • Use a sterile flight deck (one that is completely silent with no pilot communication with passengers or by passengers) from the time of departure to the first intermediate altitude and clearance from the local airspace.
  • Use a sterile flight deck during arrival from the first radar vector for approach or descent for the approach.
  • Keep the passengers informed during times when the workload is low.
  • Consider using the passenger in the right seat for simple tasks, such as holding the chart. This relieves the pilot of a task.