Situational Awareness

A Situational Awareness presentation by CASA

Video embedded from YouTube on 16 August 2012

Situational Awareness in Aviation?

Situational awareness is a term used to describe a persons awareness of their surroundings, the meaning of these surroundings, a prediction of what these surroundings will mean in the future, and then using this information to act.
This can be simplified down into three key words:

Look - Think - Act

In aviation, there was a growing interest in understanding how pilots maintain awareness of the many complex and dynamic events that occur simultaneously in flight, and how this information was used to guide future actions. This increased interest was predominantly due to the vast quantities of sensor information available in the modern cockpit, coupled with the flightcrew’s ‘new’ role as a monitor of aircraft automation. The term ‘situation awareness’ (SA) was adopted to describe the processes of attention, perception, and decision making that together form a pilot’s mental model of the current situation (Endsley, 1995). Today, SA is one of the most prominent research topics in the aviation Human Factors field.

Situational Awareness is a key part of the decision-making process. It is important that we have a full idea about what is going on, to make the best decision possible each time.

There have been many models used to attempt to describe this concept.

Situational Awareness Model (Endsley, 2005)1


According to this model, there are three levels of Situational awareness:

1. Perception of elements in the current situation

“The first step in achieving SA involves perceiving the status, attributes, and dynamics of relevant elements in the environment. The pilot needs to accurately perceive information about his/her aircraft and its systems (airspeed, position, altitude, route, direction of flight, etc.), as well as weather, air traffic control clearances, emergency information, and other pertinent elements”This means gathering all the information that is currently available to you. For example, a Pilot needs to get information from many sources, including inside the aircraft (instruments, fuel information, engine state, passenger welfare), and outside the aircraft (other aircraft, weather, navigation)

2. Comprehension of current situation

“Comprehension of the situation is based on a synthesis of disjointed Level 1 elements. Level 2 SA goes beyond simply being aware of the elements that are present to include an understanding of the significance of those elements in light of the pilot’s goals. Based upon knowledge of Level 1 elements, particularly when put together to form patterns with other elements, a holistic picture of the environment will be formed, including a comprehension of the significance of information and events”.This means using the information that has been gathered in step one to form a mental picture of the current situation. For example I am now flying in straight and level flight, there is an aircraft over to my left that is traveling in the opposite direction, I have used more fuel than I was expecting at this point, and my passenger does not like the turbulence we are experiencing

3. Projection of future status

“It is the ability to project the future actions of the elements in the environment, at least in the near term, that forms the third and highest level of Situation Awareness. This is achieved through knowledge of the status and dynamics of the elements and a comprehension of the situation (both Level 1 and Level 2 SA)”.This means anticipating what will happen next and using this expectation to make decisions. For example, I will maintain my heading to avoid the other aircraft, I will need to land at the next airfield to refuel so I can make it to my destination, and in the meantime I will climb to a higher level to lessen the turbulence so my passenger is more comfortable.

Factors Affecting Situational Awareness

System design - The ergonomics of a system are very important. If the information is presented in a user-friendly way, the individual will be able to gain the information they require more easily, improving situational awareness.
Stress and Workload - Stress affects our ability to process information. If we are in a high stress/high workload situation, we will not be able to process as much information. This could significantly affect our situational awareness. It is very important to actively manage stress, whether it be short or long-term.
Automation - An individual needs to keep themselves active in monitoring automatic systems. For example, in an aircraft, just because you have put the aircraft on autopilot, does not mean you can sit back and read a newspaper. You need to keep actively monitoring the flight instruments and controls. Automation can also be used in high workload situations to prevent mental overload, by removing the need for the pilot to control the aircraft.
Physiological Factors - Factors such as illness and medication can have a drastic effect on information processing, and therefore on situational awareness. Pilots should use the IMSAFE model to monitor their health and well-being.
Preconceptions - Often when we have a a preconception about what is going to happen, we try and match information to this idea, insteed of seeing what is actually going on. If we do not have a full level of situational awareness, this can lead to carrying out incorrect, and potentially harmful actions. Some examples of this would be succumbing to a visual illusion, or not following an air traffic control clearance correctly.
Abilities/ Experience/ Training - If you have trained for a situation, you are more likely to execute the correct actions when it occurs in real life. Also if your training is current, it is more likely that this will be an automatic response. This is partly because you know what the situation looks like and can anticipate what is going to happen. This is why in flight training, we repeat exercises where a critical response is required, such as Stalling and Engine failures.

An Affected Situational Awareness Example

Video embedded from YouTube on 16 August 2012

How do you know if you’ve lost SA?

The following are common events identified in accidents that have involved a loss of situation awareness. If you answer yes to more than 4 items on the checklist, you could be losing situation awareness.

  • Ambiguous information

Do you have information from two or more sources that do not agree?

  • Confusion

Are you uncertain or uneasy about a situation?

  • Primary duties

Are all crew focused on non-flying duties?

  • See and avoid

Is there too much heads-down time with nobody looking outside for conflicting traffic?

  • Compliance

Is there non-compliance with aircraft performance limitations, minima etc?

  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Are establishedSOPs not being followed by everyone?

  • Fixation

Are you focused on any one task to the exclusion of others?

  • Communication

Have you heard or made any vague or incomplete statements?

  • Contradictions

Have you failed to resolve any discrepancies or contradictory information?

  • Navigation

Have you failed to meet an expected checkpoint on the flight plan?

Maintaining a Good Level of Situational Awareness

Video embedded from YouTube on 16 August 2012

There are many things a person can do to maintain their level of situational awareness:

  • Familiarise yourself with the system you are using. The easier you can find the information you need, the better your situational awareness will be.
  • Make sure you are actively gathering all the information required. There are many resources available to you so make sure you are using these wisely.
  • Keep up a good scan rate of the environment. For pilots flying visually, a maximum 20% of the time should be spent looking inside, the remaining 80% of the time, the pilot should be looking outside.
  • Plan ahead and fly the plan. It is easier to make plans early when you have a low workload. This way you are keeping yourself stimulated during low workload times, and then when the workload increases, you have already made all the important decisions and do not need to use as much mental capacity. This gives you more time to scan the environment and keep a high level of situational awareness. Having alternative plans is also a good idea.
  • Try not to assume what is going to happen. If you assume something and it is incorrect, then the decision you make will also be incorrect.
  • Maintaining a good level of knowledge. Make sure that your keep your knowledge current. Procedures are continually updated month to month. You should know your aircraft inside-out.
  • Keep your skills current. If you can fly manoeuvres automatically, then you will have spare mental capacity to concentrate on what is going on around you, rather than concentrating on operating the system itself.

Some Strategis for Pilot to Improve Their Situational Awareness

  • Plan ahead and predetermine crew roles for phases of flight that have high levels of workload. Assign responsibilities for handling problems or unexpected distractions.
  • Be aware of all the services available to you, then use them. For airline pilots this may require getting input from all crew members, including cabin crew. For single pilots, be proactive in sourcing input from ATC, maintenance, dispatch, etc.
  • Avoid fixating on a problem. Direct your attention systematically to the aircraft, the flight path and finally to the people around you. Repeat this attention pattern over and over again.
  • Monitor and critically evaluate your current performance (flight path, fuel estimation) based upon your pre-flight plan.
  • Anticipate by considering the “what ifs”. That is, project ahead and design contingencies to avoid being taken by surprise.
  • While it is important to focus on the details, don’t forget to scan the big picture.
  • Tasks that take time or are subject to interruptions from ATC or other crew are less likely to be done right. Therefore, create visual and/or aural reminders of interrupted tasks. For example, some pilots use the technique of selecting the audio for the outer marker when they have been instructed to contact the tower at the outer marker early in their approach. This aural reminder means that they don’t have to remember to look during a busy phase of flight.
  • Use the checklist to watch for clues of degraded situation awareness.
  • If you observe any obvious signs in words or actions that indicate situation awareness is breaking down, speak up.

Accidents Involving Loss of Situational Awareness

Pilot affected by medication The pilot in this accident was affected by stress, and medication, which both acted to reduce his situational awareness
CFIT accident This pilot chose to fly into a mountainous area, and had a lack of experience in flying in these conditions, which lead to a loss of situational awareness
Mt Erebus The pilots in the Mt Erebus crash were not informed that the GPS coordinates in their system had been changed, leading to a loss of situational awareness.
Spatial Disorientation in poor weather This pilot does not get an accurate weather forcast, and chooses to continue on into deteriorating weather. Because he did not gather enough weather information, this lead to a loss of situational awareness.
British Midland 092 After suffering an engine failure, this crew suffer from a lack of situational awareness, possibly due to stress, and shut down the wrong engine.
1. Endsley, M. R. (1995) Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors (1995) Issue 1, Volume 37, p32-64
2. Doug, E., John, D., & Graeme, E. (1998) Flight safety. Australia.
: CASA2009 : CASA (2009) Aviation Situational Awareness "Lookout" Part 1/3 Retrieved from YouTube on 16 August 2012.
3. CASA Situational Awareness Retrieved from YouTube on 16 August 2012.
4. Maersk Air Training Centre CRM Training Video Retrieved from from YouTube on 16 August 2012.

Want to know more?

Wiki of Science
A more indepth, scientific discussion about Situational Awareness.
Flight Crew Situational Awareness
A discussion about maintaining Situational Awareness within a Flight Crew.
Encyclopedia about all things relating to Situational Awareness
Common errors committed by pilots
Some of the common errors committed by pilots. You can see that most involve situational awareness, at all of the three different levels.
Aeronautical Decision Making
An indepth, scientific discussion about Aeronautical Decision Making.
AviationKnowledge - Effectiveness of computer-based training on SA
Here are three experiments related to training situational awareness: the effectiveness of computer-based basic skills training on SA, the effectiveness of computer-based attention sharing training on SA and the effectiveness of computer-based preflight planning training on SA.

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