Situational Awareness

“Being ahead of the aircraft.”

We have all heard the term Situational Awareness (SA) and we can all probably think of a time where we lost it or it was diminished. But, what exactly is SA?

Well, a formal definition would be:

“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.”

In pilot terms, we describe it as:

“Knowing where our aircraft is, understanding its state and where it is in relation to the environment and threats, and where it is going.”

Our definition can be broken down into the three levels:

  1. Perception – Noticing the elements in the environment
  2. Comprehension – Understanding the current situation
  3. Projection- Thinking ahead to the future states.

Incase this sounds confusing, we have rephrased it as:

  1. Notice – What’s happening now
  2. Understand – What does it mean for us
  3. Think Ahead – What will happen next

The aim is obviously to try to keep our SA at the Think Ahead level, ergo the phrase “being ahead of the aircraft.” This isn’t always possible however. Building situational awareness is continuous; we must keep working to notice, understand and think ahead as new information becomes available, i.e. as change occurs.

We must use periods of low workload, like on stand or in the cruise to plan and brief departures and arrivals at the think ahead level so we are prepared and more equipped to maintain our SA when changes happen. 

For example, you would have discussed what actions would need to be taken if a Rejected Take Off was performed. You are thinking ahead to elevate your SA. This is because, should it happen, you will almost certainly be operating at Notice level by working hard to stop the aircraft and then managing the situation. By briefing and rehearsing for an event such as this, you will prevent the loss of SA.

Why do we lose it?

Lots of things can combine together and reduce our SA. Workload is a challenge. The harder we are working on a task the less capacity we have to receive information (Notice), process it (Understand) and project ahead (Think Ahead). So, a spike in workload is always going to challenge our SA.

When do we experience these spikes? 

We can anticipate busy flight phases. Generally, we will experience peaks in our workload during Take Off and Departure, as well as Approach and Landing. However, unexpected events such as system failures, weather avoidance and passenger events will generate sudden increases in workload.

We can also suffer from Data Overload. Sometimes information comes thick and fast from aircraft systems. We have PFDs, Nav Displays and ECAM/EICAS displaying information as well as ATC and various audio alerts in our ears. It’s difficult to assimilate it all and key pieces can get missed. 

Fatigue can make us less active in gathering new information. We are effectively absorbing less information and as such our SA can quickly diminish.

Another factor is Attention Tunnelling. We have limited bandwidth and when we are task-focussed, it is easy to forget about peripheral information. On approach for example it is very compelling to just concentrate on flying the aircraft. As such we lose the bigger picture of other aircraft, weather, aircraft systems etc.

What does a loss of SA look like?

We all behave slightly differently and so the signs we display when we suffer from a loss of SA may vary. However, there are some general themes:

  • Doubt – Does that look correct? I don’t like this 
  • Tunnelling –Just doing one task at a time, missing other information 
  • Surprise – a change occurs and it wasn’t anticipated. We are at notice level
  • Confusion – How did we end up above the Glideslope?
  • Not flying the Aircraft – Going heads down with FMS or EICAS 
  • Rushing – Trying to do tasks quickly to get them out of the way
  • Errors – Making erroneous selections, or incorrect SOP calls, ATC R/T etc. 

Sharing SA – Understand How

We are a team on the flight deck. We aren’t working independently; we work together. However, it’s impossible to know your colleagues’ SA unless they share it and unfortunately, we are all guilty of internalising our thought processes. But, if we want to have high crew SA, we need to verbalise our thoughts and engage with one another.

For example, you could be completing your walkaround and notice a significant CB making its way towards the airfield. You may start thinking about how best to manage this threat. 

You ask yourself:

  • Is it still safe to depart?
  • Will you need to deviate from the SID?
  • Could there be windshear?
  • What is the Windshear Escape Manoeuvre?

When you’re back to the flight deck, has your colleague even noticed the CB? 

You don’t know until you discuss it. 

Try to communicate at the think ahead level. Rather than asking if they’ve seen the CB, ask what the implications are and how they feel you should manage it? 

How does IATA define Situational Awareness and what Behavioral Indicators are used?

Competency Description:

Perceives and comprehends all of the relevant information available and anticipates what could happen that may affect the operation.

Behavioral Indicators:

  • Identifies and assesses accurately the state of the aircraft and its systems.
  • Identifies and assesses accurately the aircraft’s vertical and lateral position, and its anticipated flight path. 
  • Identifies and assesses accurately the general environment as it may affect the operation 
  • Keeps track of time and fuel.
  • Maintains awareness of the people involved in or affected by the operation and their capacity to perform as expected.
  • Anticipates accurately what could happen, plans and stays ahead of the situation.
  • Develops effective contingency plans based upon potential threats Identifies and manages threats to the safety of the aircraft and people. 
  • Recognizes and effectively responds to indications of reduced situation awareness.

Top Tips

1. Plane, Path, People

This is a simple tool for rebuilding your SA after a spike in workload. 


What is the state of the aircraft? Its location? Are the automatics in or who is flying? Are there any checklists outstanding? How much fuel do you have?


What’s the path of the aircraft vertically and laterally? How does that compare to threats of weather, and Terrain for example? Where are you in relation to destination, alternates, diversion? Are you on the agreed profile or will you make briefed gates?


Does everyone know what they need to know? ATC, Crew, Passengers, Ops, Engineering. Are there any people events (Pan medical/disruptive passenger) that are unresolved?

2. Briefings 

Briefings should be conducted at times of low workload, i.e. on the ground with the engine shutdown or in cruise phase. 

Aim to make briefings threat-based and engage your other crew members. Questions like “What could catch us out today?” are effective openers. Ask them what threats they perceive and then consider as a team how best to avoid, trap and mitigate them.

This keeps SA at Think Ahead level. Use open questions to gain the benefit of your colleague’s SA. Good examples may sound like, “How do you think we should manage that?” “What energy gate should we set for this approach?” 

3. Approach Bucket

An effective method for structuring a briefing, especially when it is a challenging approach or its abnormal due to system failures is the approach bucket. Brief the threats and how you plan to manage those for the three phases: (1)Approach, (2) Landing, (3) Go-around. 

4. Setting Gates

When briefing an arrival, agree some energy gates with your other flight crew. These should include certain points on the descent and approach as well as what altitude, speed and configuration you intend to be at during those points.

There are many benefits! Firstly, it has required you to come up with a plan and you have shared that plan with your colleague. Now it is much easier for them to monitor you as they now know your intentions. Should something happen and you lose your SA whilst pilot flying, they are now armed with a strategy for intervening and rebuilding your SA.

We are at 20nm and still at 9000ft. We briefed we would be at 6000ft. We will need more track miles. Let’s ask ATC for extra radar vectoring.

5. Managing Change

We can all have the best plan briefed, but the environment is dynamic and things frequently change. So, we need a structure for managing those changes. 

We suggest:

  1. Verbalise – Announce that something has changed and state what it is
  2. Identify – Look for any new threats that this has presented
  3. Resolve – If threats occur, come up with a plan to manage them


You were planning to hold at the IAF and descend in the hold and have therefore based your descent management on that profile. ATC instead vector you directly to an 8nm final approach.

  1. Verbalise – “That’s a significant shortcut that we hadn’t planned.
  2. Identify – “We have excess energy with only 20nm until touchdown.
  3. Resolve – “If we increase drag by dropping the gear and selecting flaps it will increase our Rate of Descent. That should be sufficient to regain the correct profile.

Hopefully, these top tips prove useful in your operation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *