My goal as a writer here at RBF is not to write about military flying, how awesome Air Force flying is (it’s pretty cool), and that everyone should become an Air Force pilot (but definitely not that cool). My goal is to write about aviation factors that are common among both civilian and military pilots alike.
For my second installment, I want to discuss the magical, phantom-esque, and always-elusive, situational awareness.
Situational awareness, also known as “SA”, is one of those human factors that, especially for students, can last about as long as a morning mist over a pond. It is also something that even for experienced pilots, once it’s lost it can be very difficult to fully regain. Situational awareness isn’t just about how you handle an emergency; it encompasses everything that’s going on around you and what’s literally ahead of you. It’s getting checklists done on time, talking to ATC when you need to, being ready for the next turn point, being on top of your fuel status, where you are in space, and countless other things and being able to handle all of that at the same time.
The best way to increase your “SA Bubble” is by plain ‘ole experience. Your SA bubble expands with the time and knowledge of how to operate an aircraft in any given environment and when an unexpected situation arises within that environment. A true test of your bubble strength is when that unexpected happens at the worst possible time (which is when all unexpected things happen, of course).
Now when I refer to the SA bubble, I am speaking of a figurative circle that can fit all the things you have situational awareness on. Let’s take a brand new student pilot who has all of 1.5 hours in an airplane. The instructor gives him the aircraft after takeoff. Out of all the things that a pilot could be thinking about, what is that student focused on? Holding straight and level and not crashing is correct. And understandably so, that’s about all his/her mind can handle at that moment. As the student progresses, he can start working ATC into his bubble, constant airspeed climbs/descents, constant airspeed climbs/descents with ATC, and so on and so forth.
By the time the student is ready for instruments, that SA bubble is actually pretty good and pretty strong. However, the instrument world ushers in a whole other plethora of goodies ready to destroy whatever SA bubble the student thought they had. Trying to shoot an approach down to minimums, at night, in an emergency, with crosswinds will test any pilot’s SA bubble no matter how many hours the pilot has. Same with multi-engine stuff. Do all that instrument stuff with a boot full of rudder with an engine out (and if you’re lucky enough to have 2 engines out on one side, 2 boots full of rudder).
No flying article would be complete without a personal story. While in the sim a couple of weeks ago, my flying partner and I were finally starting to get the hang of our mission (low level flying at night, refueling helicopters, among other stuff). We were feeling great with getting checklists accomplished appropriately and moving along the timeline, when all of a sudden we get a MASTER CAUTION annunciator. Turns out one of our hydraulic suction boost pumps failed. Not a big deal at all and definitely not required for flight. However, that little distraction threw a giant wrench through our SA bubble to the point that we got so behind the plane we almost had to go into holding prior to our destination just to get caught up and get what we needed to done in time.
But that’s a prime example of a student in training, regardless of the plane or how many hours one has. Eventually, all pilots, with the experience to show for it, will be able to handle any emergency at any point in flight, in any weather condition, and still be able to fly the plane safely and land safely.
So, Brian, what happens when you lose it?
Well I’m glad you asked! In a crew aircraft like the C-130, we are always reminded to announce it to the crew. Not a single crew member will fault another for announcing he/she has lost SA on what’s going on. That’s how mistakes and mishaps get prevented. If you’re in a single-seat plane or flying solo, it can prove a little more difficult to fix. The most important thing is to fly your plane! If you’re flying a VFR cross country and realize you aren’t where you thought you were, stop the plane! If only, right? In that case, start doing 360s over a point to get your literal and mental bearings straight. If you don’t have that luxury and your IMC on an IFR plan, request a holding pattern somewhere and use ATC to get yourself straight. The worst thing you can do to yourself is get yourself into a position with the plane that you think you’re in when you’re really not.
Challenge your airmanship capabilities while flying—assuming you have a better pilot flying with you to back you up. As soon as you start feeling comfortable with any flying regiment, throw a simulated monkey wrench in there to see how you fare. Think through some “what ifs” for your current phase of flight.
Complacency can be the enemy of SA. As soon as you finish one thing, think ahead to what the next thing you need to do is and when you need to do it. If you can do it sooner than later, than do it! But don’t let yourself get bogged down and behind the plane to the point that you can’t fly it safely. Chair flying before your flight is always a fantastic way to prepare and have good SA on your flight.
So to any students reading this, and as a student myself: I promise it gets better!
-Fly Safe, BRomanUSAF