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The concept of Situational Awareness (SA), goes back as far as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but where it really starts to show up in America is in the military, during WWI. For most of us, Situational Awareness was attached to human factors work being conducted in the 1990s, and it is still pervasive today in aircrew training.
There are several definitions out there, but the most widely accepted being, “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future” (Endsley, 1995)
In our everyday flying we would do well to maintain SA to avoid unwanted surprises that can range from, a minor inconvenience to a complete disaster. Case in point, virtually all CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain) accidents are caused by loss of situational awareness. This has been a bitter pill for many. How can a perfectly good airplane, under control of its pilot, fly into the ground? There are many great books out there that discuss Situational Awareness. One of my favorite authors on the subject is Tony Kern. He had dedicated a lifetime to improving aviation safety and has written several outstanding books.
One of the largest ingredients in maintaining situational awareness is to not let yourself become distracted. Distraction has been cited in a number of high-profile accidents that are almost too unrealistic to believe, but they are true. Don’t dismiss this threat. In our modern electronic world, it is easier than ever to become distracted.
Task saturation is another threat to situational awareness. When we get overloaded, we lose our ability to gauge what is happening around us. It’s like looking at the world through a funnel and the more we get tasked, the narrower our field of view. We also lose orientation with respect to time in these instances. Our natural perception of time can be completely distorted.
Complacency is sometimes referred to as the silent killer because it sneaks up on you. Sometimes complacency is systemic in the individual or it could be just a momentary lapse. Being lackadaisical, taking things for granted, or otherwise having an attitude that “bad things only happen to other people,” is a great way to end up a statistic. Never take for granted that you are hurdling yourself at very high speeds through the air and that is not a forgiving environment.
SItuational awareness is the bedrock of safe flying. Even if everything else is in place; good pilot, good equipment, and good systems, not having a handle on your situation will make all those elements null-and-void.
There is a lot more that can be said, but I wanted to keep it simple and dismiss with all the theory. We can all relate to the information above and it’s important that we avoid re-learning any of those lessons.
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