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Aviation Decision Making

Situational Awareness

Human factors is a combination of aviation medicine, psychology, engineering and ergonomics. It encompasses all of these factors trying to understand the man/machine interface in the aircraft. It has its roots in aviation accident investigations resolving these where no clear technical cause could be found when aircraft became more and more reliable over the years.

As a pilot we need to be alert, healthy and fit so that the flight can be conducted safely. And importantly, we need to know whats going on with the aircraft and around us.

For those of us planning a flight it means that we need to obtain in advance all relevant information about the flight, building a mental picture and updating that image by keeping into the information loop. This is called situational awareness and for everyone working in the aviation industry it has its own meaning and importance.

Situational Awareness

This means that you, performing the job as the pilot in command of an aircraft, must take into account all that is going on with the aircraft and its immediate flight environment. Or in other words its "the perception of the 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, M. R. (1998).).

For a pilot to be able to obtain this awareness he must according to Dominguez, C., Vidulich, M., Vogel, E. & McMillan, G. (1994) be able to:

  • extract information from the environment
  • integrating this information with relevant internal knowledge
  • create a mental picture of the current situation
  • using this picture to direct further perceptual exploration in a continual perceptual cycle
  • anticipating future events

We will take a look and see how this translates to us VFR pilots.

Obtaining information

For a pilot this means that he/she must be able to obtain information pertaining to the flight, and in particular for the route to be flown, departure and destination airports (airspace) and terrain (obstructions), weather (current and forecast weather along the route and airports of intended use) and the airworthiness condition of the aircraft (preflight).

This process is known to us as flight planning.

Mental picture

Gathering this information creates a picture in the mind of the pilot. Not performing this duty could result in the aircraft getting lost, controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), airspace infringement and weather dangers as icing, turbulence and vortex encounters.

Keeping in the loop

Information loop

Keep in the loop means that every decision the pilot or crew takes must be evaluated for the results and if it does not result in the desired outcome adjustments must be made and the current information on hand must be updated. The acronym decide is used in aeronautical decision making and describes these steps in detail.

Flow of information

Thus the pilot needs a flow of constantly updated information from the crew, air traffic controllers, updated weather and pilot reports, by using his maps or other navigational devices and by just looking out of the windows. For VFR pilots this is their main duty.

The pilot needs to manage these resources in a professional manner to obtain information important for decisions regarding the flight and its safety.

Looking forward

Flying to a destination means looking ahead, anticipating and evaluating future events that might have an impact on the safety of the aircraft and its occupants. By nature this means that this is a process in which the pilot is actively concerned with.

Awareness Clues

There are a number of indicators or clues the pilot can use to asses his/her level of awareness. If none of these are happening then the crew has a good grip on the big picture and the situational awareness is very high. Some of these indicators are:

Situational Awareness
Clues Desired Result
Failure to meet targets Aircraft performance targets will help you to maintain your awareness by telling you if all is going well. Not meeting one means you need more information for asafe flight.
Undocumented procedures Following the published checklist or aircraft procedure will result in a logical flow of cockpit information and the airplane will perform as expected by the book.
Departure from standard operating procedures Flying employs doing things a certain standard way resulting in predictable performance and results from the aircraft reducing risks.
Violating minimums or limitations Aircraft, engines, weather, rules and pilots have limitations and minimums and violating these to fly as planned require you to change the expectation and outcome of the flight.
No one flying the airplane The use and monitoring of an autopilot and the assignment of a pilot flying the aircraft by proper semantics (I have control/you have control) makes sure someone is in positive control.
No one looking out of the window Being intimately familiar with cockpit and aircraft procedures keeps the attention of the pilot/ crew outside of the aircraft.
Communications breakdown Clear and concise communications using standard ICAO phraseology in the cockpit and with ATC will keep stress and unnecessary risk to a minimum.
Ambiguity Maintaining clear communications and resolving conflicting information will keep uncertainty and doubt out of the cockpit.
Unresolved discrepancies Clearing contradictory information as soon as possible by verifying with the source and double checking will keep risks low.
Preoccupation or distraction Step back from time to time and ask yourself if you are doing everything to assure a safe flight, grab the big picture without loosing attention for detail.

Looking at the above list you might find that you had one or two of these clues during a flight in the past. It does not mean the flight was unacceptable but that you temporarily stepped back from the big picture. No big deal as long as you are able to recognize it and take countermeasures.

Written by EAI.

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