Situational Awareness

     One of my grandfathers was an absentminded poet who kept his grandchildren constantly amused. After a few hours at the typewriter, he'd slip his glasses over his hair and go for coffee. We'd wait patiently for his return.
     The fun began when he sat down and searched for his specs, not realizing they were perched atop his noodle. We'd laugh like the dickens. Unfortunately, he kept extra glasses lying around the house. Our family worried that he might inattentively rack up three or four pair, walk out into sunlight and start a fire on top of his head.

     Disregarding the stares and finger pointing, the worst that can happen if you leave your glasses on top of your head is a toupee fire. Misplacing your attention in the cockpit of a moving airplane, however, is a far more serious matter.
     Inattention and its famed counterparts, distraction and complacency, have always stalked aviators. These demons have a well-deserved reputation for bending airplanes and bruising pilots. Yet according to the experts, we can cope with these difficulties by increasing our situational awareness. I agree. But how do we do that?
     Telling someone to be situationally aware is like telling him to have a sense of humor. Both terms are used as if they represent strategies, when in reality they only identify goals. There are, however, definable steps we can take to focus our attention on what's important at the moment.
     Several years ago a student and I were sipping sodas when we spied a Cessna 150 on the taxiway with its towbar still connected. I ran out, got the pilot’s attention and signaled for an engine cut. The instructor in the right seat opened his window and asked, "What did you do that for?"
     I replied, "You can't take off, your nosegear is sporting a towbar."
     Both individuals looked at each other, pointed fingers, then the instructor said, "Ah, we just landed."
     Isn't that your worst nightmare?
     Who among us hasn't come close to doing something similar? It's easy to become distracted and walk away from an attached towbar to remove a chock or untie a rope. Granted, the secret is not to walk away. But if you have to, do what an old timer taught me many years ago. Point at the towbar as if it's an NDB station and let your arm represent the ADF needle. No matter where you are around the airplane, just keep pointing until you do your business and return to the towbar.
     ROD MACHADO'S HOW TO FLY AN AIRPLANE HANDBOOK (BOOK OR EBOOK)Yes, this looks funny, but I've seen a towbar scooped up by the propeller and thrown into (as in puncture) the left wing of a Cessna 172. That looked funny too. Although pointing is a simple strategy, it's very effective at compensating for this type of inattention.
     Other types of inattention produce more serious consequences. Suppose a lack of awareness during takeoff caused you to hit a wandering cow and flip it up into the air. Obviously the steaks are higher now, right? After all, it's one thing to dent a prop by forgetting to disconnect a towbar. It's an entirely different matter to plow into solid objects like bovines, billboards and buildings because you lack situational awareness.
     Situations like these require expanding our awareness to include man, machine and environment. Sustaining this degree of attention, however, requires additional skills. To find out what they are, we need to learn a little existentialist philosophy. Granted, if you study too much of this you could mess yourself up for the rest of your life. I promise I won't let that happen to you. So let's see what the great existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre has to say about this.
     Sartre suggests that we exist in one of two mental states: reflected consciousness and unreflected consciousness.
     Unreflected consciousness is the type you're experiencing right now. As you read these words, the objects of your attention are paper, text, coffee and possibly donuts (if you're a police officer). There is no I, no me, no self-reference, in unreflected consciousness.
     On the other hand, reflected consciousness involves some form of self-reference. For instance, if you lock yourself out of your car while the engine's still running, you may become angry with yourself and say, "How could I be so careless?" Now you've projected yourself into the question by using the words I or me. We call this a self-referential question. It's the type of question that causes you to think about your own thinking. In a sense, the question helps you to penetrate the experience, making you more aware of yourself as well as events in the environment (like the location of the keys, the people pointing at you, and the guy with the video camera).
     This is the mental state that famed memory expert Harry Lorayne calls original awareness, and it's generated by using self-referential questions. Lorayne says, "Anything of which you are originally aware cannot be forgotten." In other words, the experience is more memorable because original awareness compels you to pay more attention to it. Yet observations in unreflected consciousness -- the consciousness of everyday life -- aren't necessarily original. This explains why we don't always notice, much less remember, our everyday experience.
     Is there a payoff in all this? Oh yes, big time!
     Reflected consciousness means you're more likely to notice the cow on the runway. It means you can have a better sense of those other critical items that are normally transparent to the inattentive mind.
     Therefore, the secret to maintaining situational awareness is to remain in reflected consciousness by asking the proper self-referential questions.
     ROD MACHADO'S INSTRUMENT PILOT'S "E"SURVIVAL MANUAL (PDF EBOOK)And just in case you're wondering, the answer is "Yes." But I've only done it once with the engine running (someone's got a video to prove it, too). Now when I get out of my car I've trained myself to ask the self-referential question, "Do I have the keys in my hand?" I've never been locked out since (convertibles, you've got to love them).
     Of course, you don't have to ask self-referential questions all the time. You only need to ask them at the right time.
     For instance, I don't need as high a degree of situational awareness in cruise flight as I do during an instrument approach. This is a good thing, because reflexive consciousness is a real brain drain. It takes a lot work. Every few minutes or so while at cruise altitude I'll instinctually ask, "How am I doing?" "How's the machine doing?" "What's my proximity to the terrain?"
     When I'm flying an ILS to minimums I operate at a much higher level of situational awareness. Several times a minute I ask additional questions like, "Have I forgotten anything?" or "What are the common traps that I can fall into?" These are the types of self-referential questions that allow me to sustain and stabilize situational awareness with language.
     Smart pilot that you are, I’m sure you're thinking, "How do I know when it's the right time to increase my situational awareness?" Here's where we can take a lesson from those who practice the martial arts.
     A martial artist is trained to respond to triggers. No, not gun triggers. I'm speaking of environmental triggers. For instance, if you're nutty enough to sneak up on a blackbelt and grab him by the arm (his trigger), he'll most likely spin around and throw a punch. If his fist makes contact with a solid object, he may yell Keeahh! (which means ouch in Japanese).
     Pilots also need triggers to alert them when it's necessary to notch-up their situational awareness a few degrees. Taking off or landing (especially when cows are nearby) are always triggers for me. The moment I enter the pattern or prepare to take the runway, I begin asking more and more self-referential questions.
     When the approach controller says, "This will be a vector for the approach," that also triggers my situational awareness response. I immediately begin asking questions like, "What are the special difficulties with this approach?" or "What do I need to do now to make this work?" The type of airplane you fly, your experience, and the conditions in which you operate determine which triggers are appropriate for you.
     So that's my take on situational awareness. Perhaps a few of you are thinking, "Well, Rod's wheel is turning but I think his hamster's dead." Granted, some of these principles are a little esoteric, but they are derived from a respectable sub-branch of philosophy called phenomenology. They are not, however, based on mysticism.
     I hope you find this advice more meaningful than that offered by a famous New Age guru in one of his recent seminars. He suggested that we can elevate our minds by letting them go blank for at least 20 minutes a day. Well, this means that some folks will have to cut back a little (especially those people who paid $1,500 to hear advice like this). I hope you will find these principles a little more practical and a lot more useful.

Copyright by Rod Machado 2014


By Rod Machado | | CFI Resource Center, Learning to Fly | 3 comments
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  • Anil - December 21, 2015

    Dear Jack,Indeed there is a button to save, on top right coernr. The all process works like this:You enter into route planning mode by pressing on one of the airports and selecting the appropriate option, or by entering waypoint names separated by a comma in the route selection windowWhen you are selecting on the map, after you select just 2 waypoints, you can click done and the route is automatically saved (this button is on the top right, in a navigation bar).When you click the route button (bottom bar, the D icon), if a route is loaded it will aks you if you want to unload it or load another one (from a list of saved ones). If there is no current route selected, then the app will show you the menu for you to select one previously saved route. This has been working quite well as far as I know.If you go to the route selection window there is also an option (top bar) to insert a new route). When you click that button, you can insert routes by writing the waypoint identifiers (if they are known). Such as KEWR, KJFK, SFO.Once again, when you click done, it automatically saves the route for you.Hope this helps on the route saving / loading part.Regardng the N button, the only thing it does is to re-orient the map to the nort. If you are panning the map, zooming in or out with your fingers, clicking the N button will re-orient the map such that north points to the top of the screen. Also, as far as i know this feature has been there in the app since verion 1.0 and working.If you find further problems do not hesitate to contact me directly to .Regars,Luis

  • Ian Businge - October 05, 2015

    Thanks Rod,

    Like Charlie MCD said, it’s always a pleasure reading your posts. I have come to be familiar with your work through an unconventional medium- MSF simulator!

    I like flying- (never flown one myself before and I am not sure that will happen anytime soon)- but I really appreciate how you distill complex physics and mechanical aspects into digestible information. A friend who is a pilot introduced me to traffic patterns and ideas on plane speeds for approaches. With your material though I am steadily gaining knowledge about the technical aspects of the same, and what makes what work. I still really appreciate that knowing is different from actually doing, but like the post above says- consciously knowing- that is- experientally knowing- is what makes the difference when you come to the application of the concepts learnt.

    Thanks and keep this amazing work up.

  • Charlie McDougal - April 02, 2015

    Very interesting stuff. You are the only guy I know besides me who has brought up the word consciousness in a discussion about what pilots do. My reference had to do with the difference between a pilot who is sitting in a metal box with wings looking at gauges, occasionally looking outside to see if the world is still there, and one who is actively probing ahead, identifying towns and rivers and lakes and roads off in the distance then correlating what she sees with a chart and the objective. The first pilot’s consciousness extends no further than the metal box. The second pilot is actually projecting her consciousness ahead in both space and time, and then pulling it back into the present moment and space. It’s quite impressive and sort of mysterious when you consider that nobody really knows what consciousness, space, and time really are! I am pretty selective discussing this with other pilots, because I know that as soon as that word comes out of my mouth, the other guy is thinking; “oh, brother, here we go again with another of McDougal’s airy fairy, tooty fruity, semi sweet, decaffeinated, peach flavored teabags of an idea, and all i wanted was to fly the damn airplane from point A to point B!” And I know as I continue to explain passionately the wonderful mysteriousness of flight, time, space, and human consciousness (I need spell checker every time i use that word), that he is drifting further into his own thoughts; "Jeezum crow, I knew I should have chosen that ex-military guy as my instructor. You know the one I mean, that old guy with the hat; they call him the screamer and with good reason. The other day I saw his student walking away from the airplane sobbing uncontrollably and I asked him what happened. He started screaming at me; “I’m not sure. But I”ll tell you one damn thing that I am sure of! When the airplane is below glide path and sinking fast on short final, asking what should I do now is not going to cut it!"…….. So I don’t use the C word much these days. I have enough trouble with the A word (Attitude); “Oh god, here we go again, another talk about the primacy of attitude in aircraft control. Sheesh, if I cared about that I would have bought a Champ or a Cub instead of a Cirrus. I’ve got the fricken Chute after all. Who cares. Attitude? Angle of what? Dammit, I stepped on my drink holder! Where am I going to put my energy drink? Weight and Balance? Standard briefing? WHAT – ARE – YOU – TALKING – ABOUT?? IVE GOT FOREFLIGHT!” zzzzzz I have to feed my dog, Zachary now. By the way, you can learn a lot about teaching from training dogs!

    Cheers Rod. It’s always a pleasure reading your stuff.
    Charlie MCD
    PS I have an instrument student who is reading your IFR manual. I have no idea what’s in it. Could you send me a one or two page summary?

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