Flight Crew Situational Awareness


In Aviation, for safe and efficient operations all members of a Flight Crew need to act together and a key component to achieve this is a high level of group situational awareness (SA).

According to Endsley and Jones (1997) [1], team situational awareness can be defined as “the degree to which every team member possesses the SA required for his or her responsibilities”.

The success of the team therefore depends not only on each team member maintaining their own individual situational awareness but ensuring that the other crewmembers are building the same 'picture', although perhaps to different levels of awareness. It is always possible that with different levels of experience and crew positions there will be different levels of SA in a flight deck. But if one person does not have the necessary level of SA for the job at hand, then inevitably the team will not succeed. In the case of aviation, this could lead to an incident or an accident.

Team Situational Awareness using Goals

Endsley and Jones (1997) [1], Image embedded from Wikipedia, 26/08/09

In a team, each member has a purpose, or a subgoal. The circles in the above model represent each individual and their goal within the team. To achieve the overall goal of the team, each team member needs to maintain active situational awareness about the area they are responsible for. There will be some overlap in these areas, which is shown in the model. Each team member must also communicate with the others in order for the team to be effective, as each subgoal will need to be coordinated together.

In a flight crew, there has been much research on the most effective way to coordinate a crew in this manner. This research topic is often referred to as CRM, or Crew Resource Managment. Each member of the crew will have a defined sub-goal, for example, the pilot flying the aircraft, and the pilot coordinating the checklist, making radio calls and monitoring systems. There will be responsibilities that will overlap, for example, both pilots should maintain an active look out for other aircraft. Both pilots still need to communicate with each other, otherwise they will not have enough information to maintain individual situational awareness, and achieve their sub-goals.

Factors Affecting Team Situational Awareness

Endsley and Jones (1997) [1], Image embedded from Wikipedia, 26/08/09

According to Endsley & Jones (1997[1]), there are four major factors that affect the level of Team Situational Awareness:

* Team Situational Awareness Requirements
This refers to the level that team members need to communicate with each other. This can include an important issue that one crew member has observed and which pertains to the overall goal of the crew, or could be an update on whether the member is achieving their role. Pilots in a flight crew need to communicate fairly regularly to help maintain each of the members situational awareness.

* Team Situational Awareness Devices
This refers to how team members can communicate with each other. This could be verbally, or non verbally using gestures and pointing, or could be information transmitted by radio or on a computer screen.

* Team Situational Awareness Mechanisms
This refers to any shared mechanisms the team has to help with interpretting shared information. For example if all crew members know the technical jargon and standard operating procedures for engine settings, then when one crew member changes these, it will be easier to communicate what has happened and it will also be easier for crew members to anticipate what will be done next in the sequence.

* Team Situational Awareness Processes
This refers to the amount that crew members engage in processes to help with sharing information to maintain situational awareness. This could include the ability of crew members to ask each other questions, communication between members about task prioritisation and having a system to check up on each crew member regularly.

How to Achieve good Team SA

Garland, et al (2010) [3] tell us that Team performance will suffer if necessary information is not transfered between one crew member to another; until the discrepancy is corrected. In essence what this means is the sharing of not just information across the flightdeck but sharing higher levels of SA.
How do we achieve this sharing of necessary information in a timely, precise and succicnt manner? By refering to the models used above we can extract the idea that shared goals and communication are necessary. But looking deeper, it is the sharing of a common mental model which allows this communication to occur and a means to interpret the information and predict what is going to happen next so you can anticipate what information is required (or not required).
For example it was found that "better performing teams actually communicated less than poorer-performing teams" Garland, et al (2010) [3].
This is why the focus of CRM training is on better communication skills and trying to build a better Flight deck relationship; so teamwork becomes a natural process for new crew members.

Developing Shared Mental Models

Crew Breifings - are a good tool to provide the initial 'picture' of what is about to happen for the flight or for an inflight briefing what is about to happen. This sets the shared goals for the crew and provides expectations for particular events. This increases the likelihood that a higher level of SA will be set and aids effective communication because a lot less discussion wil lbe generated at each event as they occur.

Prior Planning - provides an avenue for any discussion, research or questions to be asked well before you climb onboard the aircraft. Having all the necessary information at your fingertips and a well laid out plan will mean that the Flight crew are always thinking well ahead of the aircraft and if something unforseen happens then they are better equiped to cope with this. For example, in your planning you have anticipated potentially adverse weather at your destination so you research your possible divert airfields. In the event the crew decides to divert, everyone already has a mental model of which airfield they are going to and why.

Group Climate - ultimately good crew coordination and communication relies on interpersonal relationships and having a climate in the flight deck which fosters development and open communication. This means that indviduals will be able to predict how others will act and enable an efficient team.

1. Endsley, M. & Jones, W. (1997). Situation awareness, information dominance, and information warfare Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: United States Air Force Armstrong Laboratory, 1997.
2. Wikipedia (2009) Situation Awareness Retrieved from the World Wide Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situation_awareness on 26 August 2009.
3. Garland, D, Hopkin, V and Wise, J. (2010). Handbook of Aviation Human Factors CRC Press: Boca Raton, USA.

Want to know more?

Individual Situational Awareness
More information on individual situational awareness, what it is, and how to maintain it.
Human Attention and Situational Awareness
defines Attention and how it applies to SA.

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