Pilot Performance - "Situational Awareness"
by Henry K.

Piloting an aircraft involves a continuous process of accurately recognizing what is happening and adjusting actual performance to the desired performance for each task or activity. In a very general sense, in terms of reaching a destination safely, and from moment to moment, the pilot determines the desired performance and the actions needed  to maintain the effectiveness of the aircraft’s systems, other crew members, and passengers. 

Situational awareness refers to an anticipation and outwards focus on the environment and those vital internal systems and processes and is the basis of skill, proficiency and competency in execution.

An awareness, anticipation and outwards focus
on the world to ensure the achievement 
of desired objectives

The task of piloting an aircraft from a small area of ground, flying safely in all kinds of weather, avoiding collision with the terrain or other aircraft, and then returning smoothly to another small area of ground places significant demands on the human sensory processes. Very early in pilot training, trainees are made aware of the necessity to disregard the sensations from different senses, as the development of aviation has placed demands on the human sensory systems that are beyond their normal limits. Flying tests the capability of humans to accurately perceive reality and therefore respond effectively. The processes developed to perform in spite of these limitations provide a useful roadmap for any activity in which the accuracy of perception is important to successful execution and competent performance. 

A continuous assessment and accurate 
interpretation of reality

Situational awareness in aviation is the aware attention to the external reality, and more importantly, the accurate interpretation of events, conditions and phenomena. It is the full or maximum available deflection of one’s aware attention to the external environment to know with a very high degree of certainty what is really going on. An accurate assessment of reality starts with the very basic assumption that one does not know! Typical intellectual processes of categorizing patterns and rationalizing phenomena to fit with past experiences cannot suffice in dealing with the reality of an ever changing and unique set of circumstances in a turbulent environment. The ‘know it all before it happens’ assumption creates an attitude of complacency which can prove to be fatal. Awareness and attention remain focused externally only when we do not know, and have an intense need to find out! 

Competence, precision, and safety

Situational awareness is an ongoing process of the continuous assessment and accurate interpretation of reality. Effective environmental scanning when combined with the awareness of the performance capability of the aircraft, and the self awareness of personal capabilities and skill of the pilot result in competency and precision in the execution of maneuvers, and flight safety.

Preflight routines and preparation are designed to minimize in-flight operational distractions and disruptions. It has become standard procedure for pilots to employ checklists for important transitionary maneuvers to ensure details and specifics are carried out without exception. These checklists are very brief sequences of the required actions to ensure a thoroughness and accuracy of execution. The checklists of vital operating procedures are also designed to minimize the internal routines that require attention yet ensure the proper performance of aircraft systems.

Full outwards direction of conscious attention;

Unlearning dysfunctional sensory perceptions, assumptions,
and behaviours;

Overlearning - training, experience, and mastery.

At all levels of proficiency and experience, pilots are cautioned to avoid flying by ‘feel' as the sensory perceptions can often be deceiving. The techniques of environmental scanning based on our physiological reality of vision are designed to deflect maximum attention externally. 

The ‘unlearning’ of dysfunctional perceptions and ‘overlearning’ of procedures and maneuvers are also designed to free up the maximum of aware attention to the external environment for the accurate interpretation of reality. The activity of piloting an aircraft requires a constant and conscious aware attention focused outwards on the environment and on those vital internal functions that are critical to the achievement of desired specifications of performance and effectiveness.

The foundation for high performance in a 
rapidly changing environment

Situational awareness is the foundation for high performance in a rapidly changing context. The awareness, anticipation, and outwards focus of attention on the environment, accurately matched to the capabilities of aircraft systems and pilot proficiency can ensure the achievement of desired objectives. The achievement of flawless levels of execution in an uncontrollable environment attests to the almost limitless capabilities of individuals to achieve very high levels of performance in very challenging circumstances.

A continuous process of accurately recognizing what is happening and adjusting actual performance to the  desired performance for each task or activity.

... competent performance of a procedure or maneuver ... requires that the pilot
be the obvious master of the aircraft, with the successful outcome
of the maneuver never in doubt.
F. A. R. 135.293 (d).

Pilot Performance TM - Superior Performance and Adventure


Henry K. is a private pilot, author, artist, actor, whale watcher, fly fisherman, tour guide, seasonal server and surfer residing in Tofino, B.C. Canada, as well as a contributing editor to The CEO Refresher.

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