Situation Awareness and Intersections

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What is situational awareness? It’s something that everyone knows and must have to succeed in flying, but it is not obvious exactly what it is and how you get it. When we make bad decisions it’s often that we weren’t really situationally aware. So like with other abstract, albeit intuitive flying concepts, I like to break it down into its components and see what it really is all about. So on a simple level, perhaps situational awareness is the pilot’s ability to process his present environment. A pilot can be said to be situationally aware when he recognizes where he is, how he got there and what are his choices going forward.

However, while one can look at situational awareness as a snapshot of a person’s judgment, it may be more useful to look at it from a broader view. The ability to process one’s environment is the product of the pilot’s past decisions and his resulting condition, both physically and psychologically. This in turn feeds into his ability to make decisions in the present, which feeds into his future environment, which feeds into decisions he will have to make in the future. As such, it is clear that situational awareness and decision-making form a cycle and feed into each other.

But now we run into the problem of how do you make good decisions? You must be situationally aware! As such, it is a chicken and the egg sort of phenomenon.

To resolve this, consider if you are driving a car. One of the first things we learn in driving is that intersections are challenging moments and are a more frequent location of accidents. All of a sudden, the road opens up into a number of different possibilities and the environment becomes quite complicated. The driver has a number of choices and there are procedures to help deal with those choices. These procedures are usually outlined explicitly through road signs or traffic signals. Approaching an intersection, the driver usually becomes more attentive. What are the traffic signals and the road signs saying? What are the other cars doing? The driver is becoming situationally aware.

The difference in an aircraft, a pilot does not have road signs or traffic signals to alert that he is approaching an intersection. It is much more abstract. However, failing to recognize that the pilot is passing a decisional intersection is much like driving past one with one’s eyes closed. Maybe most of the time a driver would successfully drive through an intersection and not get into an accident, but eventually this will lead to catastrophe.

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As such, how do we recognize we are approaching a decisional intersection? What kind of signs should we look out for when we are there to become situationally aware? And lastly, what kind of procedures should we follow at that point? Should we turn, continue or do something else?

The first step is to outline these critical points. An example is the classic, should I fly today? Everyone at one time or another finds themselves at this crossroads and chooses not to fly. If a pilot does not feel well, is stressed out or has any number of other concerns, this will limit his ability to make good decisions and effectively process his environment. To help make the decision whether to fly, the FAA made the IMSAFE checklist, which outlines a series of things to look out for.

In the air, there are strategic intersections. For instance, a pilot can decide whether to go cross country or not today. To help make this decision, pilots often come up with decision criteria for climb rate or altitude of the lift. As we are gathering information to gauge whether we meet these criteria, we are especially attentive to our environment and monitoring how it is shaping up in relation to our expectations.

Lastly, there are tactical intersections. For instance, when a pilot attempts a ridge transition, he must decide whether he should continue beyond the point of no return or turn back and try again. The signs to decide whether to press on depend on the glide angle to return and the perceived likelihood of making it across. There’s little reason to press on if there is no hope of making it across, yet one must be cautious to commit oneself if the probability of coming up short is too high. To help make this decision, advanced pilots will look over their shoulder and be sure to keep the ridge behind them in glide as long as possible. When they reach the point of no return, they make an active choice whether to press on or turn back. 

Here is an incomplete list of critical decision points:

  • Should I drive out to the airport today? (Pre-flight weather prep/planning)
  • Do I fly today?
  • Are you ready to hook up?
  • Rudder waggle: ready to takeoff
  • Altitude thresholds for rope break options?
  • Release now in a thermal, or continue on tow to the next one?
  • Stay with this thermal or move on to the next one?
  • Which direction should I fly?
  • Should I go cross country today?
  • Which energy line should I take? 
  • What is the weakest thermal am I willing to stop for? 
  • When to begin final glide?
  • When to commit to airport on final glide or go beyond last field.
  • How deep to go into a turn area?
  • Abandon task or keep trying as day goes on?
  • Attempt a standard pattern or do a non-standard pattern?
  • If getting low, at what height to break toward a field?
  • Which field do you pick?
  • What is the height at which you commit to landing?

Ridge

  • Are today’s conditions within my margins and skill set?
  • Do I test the ridge or return back to the airport?
  • What is the altitude threshold for leaving back home?
  • What is the set up for the ridge transition? Where am I going to take my climb?
  • Am I high enough to begin the transition and attempt a crossing?
  • Where is the point of no return in the ridge transition? When can I no longer make it where I started from?
  • Is the ridge good enough to continue beyond this landing option through an unlandable area?
  • Is the ridge getting better or worse in this unlandable area? Do I press on toward the next landable option or turn around while in some sink?

In all of these cases, the pilot is entering a critical moment where he must decide how to proceed. The first step is recognizing that he is approaching this point. The next step is recognize what are the possibilities in dealing with this situation and what sort of information he needs to make a good decision. Finally, the pilot must analyze and synthesize this information into a final decision. Failure to do so is akin to driving through an intersection like Mr. Magoo!