Lost It, Situational Awareness!

Situational Awareness “can be conceived of as the pilot’s internal model of the world around him at any point in time” [1].

Conventional flight requires the pilots to glean information from the instrument panel and other auditory inputs, interpret it and draw inference to maintain their situational awareness and in turn ensure safe flight. And if any information input suggests an abnormality, they need to interpret the cause, make necessary corrections or take remedial actions, to continue flying safe. Situational awareness, thus, is inclusive of flight environment, location of aircraft, terrain, navigation, communication, weather etc. [2]. Salient cognitive processes associated with situational awareness are: mental modeling of problems, using knowledge structures or schemata, and categorizing situations or scenario [3, 4]. 

Defining Situational Awareness.

  • “Monitoring to understand the state of the aircraft, its systems and its environment to make decisions, revise plans and manage the aircraft” (Adams et al) [5].
  • “Situation awareness is 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) [6].
  • “Awareness of the whole situation, its demands, its course, where they [the pilots] (sic) themselves were in it at that moment, where they had been, and how they should proceed to be able to succeed (Angelborg-Thanderz M) [7].
  • “The accessibility of a comprehensive and coherent situation representation which is continuously being updated in accordance with the results of situation assessments” (Sarter and Woods) [8].

Pilots’ current assessment of the changing situation: aircraft’s operational parameters, external conditions, navigational information, and hostile factors, together determine safe flight [6]. Inputs from the environment is necessary while operating within closed loop environment like aviation. But such inputs may also be disconcerting or overwhelming as in IMC flying, with denial of ambient visual cues from outside and the conflicting inputs from non-visual sensory modalities, the ‘seat-of-the-pants’ sensation. Compromised situational awareness, in such cases is known to lead, at times, to spatial disorientation.

Situational awareness is built up over time and is not instantaneous [6]. Thus one needs to be trained or experienced. Another important component is situational awareness of shared elements amongst formation members for effective and safe team coordination [6]. The latter point is not being commented upon presently.

Situational Awareness & Decision Making.

Human performance in dynamic situations is determined by situational awareness for effective Decision Making [9]. Situational awareness, thus, is not just a vital input for Decision Making but may impact the very process of Decision Making. It is the pilots’ understanding or characterising of the unfolding situation that shall determine the choice of decision process as per his(her) evolving situational awareness. This in turn determines the performance, and still more importantly, the outcome – safe or fatal, as per the actions taken under compromised, incomplete, inadequate, or incorrect situational awareness [6].

During complex and dynamic environments, maintaining situational awareness in rapidly changing situation may, in turn, compromise the Decision Making, especially when the sensory inputs are at variance and perceptual conflicts could add to the stressful situation of maintaining a safe flight, thus adding to the mental workload. During such situations, perceptual conflicts can be resolved if the pilot’s situational awareness is accurate, the SOPs are straight forward, and there are no physiological or perceptual conflicts.

Loss of Situational Awareness.

The loss of situational awareness takes place when there is “an interruption, an oversight, a hasty inference, or a decision based on incomplete knowledge or information…especially under conditions of heavy workload or tight temporal pressure” [5]. Adams et al enumerated conditions conducive to poor situational awareness which included formation flying, unfamiliar aircraft, or working at one’s limit of capacity [5].

Situations of lost situational awareness entail slower detection of problems by the operators and worst still, need for extra time to analyse the flight parameters to reorient themselves, In case of a problem, there is delay in diagnosis [9], all at the cost of delay in taking critical corrective actions for recovery or correct actions as per the phase of flight.

Doubts about situational awareness, absence of SOPs, physiological or cognitive conflicts, or a de novo situation faced by the pilot, requires real time problem solving and Decision Making. More importantly, loss of situational awareness could occur due to breakdown of either of the two components of the decision process: ambiguity in situational assessment or uncertainty in choosing a course of action [10].

Maintaining Situational Awareness.

Alkov advocated several factors to help maintain situational awareness [2]. This included experience and training, honing of flying skills, personal health and attitude, and crew coordination. In case of  loss of situational awareness, aircrew must verbalise  loss of situational awareness, deal with the unanticipated problem and return to conscious monitoring [2]. Thus all the efforts are directed at maintaining situational awareness during all phases of flight, requiring the pilot to fly the aircraft, maintain vigil outside, and to accomplish the designated mission. Thus there is a constant demand of making decisions as the events in flight unfold: some briefed, some practiced and others unexpected and sometimes beyond the capabilities of the piloting skills or the experience level of the pilot. The airmanship expected of the pilot need not be adequate for the situation or may at times overwhelm the cognition.

Situational awareness is enhanced by supervised exposure of the pilot to ground based (followed by in-flight) simulation of situations which are known to decrease situational awareness in the first place say, flying in clouds or during night. Such training aims to help each trained pilot gain the requisite expertise for safe flying viz. risk management, dynamic problem solving, attentional control and experience [2]. In addition, cognitive judgement, which is complex, analytical, requiring more information, involves uncertain reliability and outcome, and therefore time consuming, with experience and training must convert to perceptual judgement, i.e. recognition based, almost automatic or with minimal analysis or thought. It must be added here that there is a continuum between perceptual and cognitive judgement, where as one gains experience many cognitive judgements in effect become almost automatic and thus, perceptual [2].

Could there be subsets of situational awareness say spatial awareness, geographical awareness or mode awareness? The first two are relevant to ward off spatial disorientation and the last to ward off doubts about system behaviour under the dynamic situations. Could such a situation be handled by conventional pilot training or is there a need to look at the components of Naturalistic Decision Making, and plan modifying the aviation training accordingly? This is an area which needs to be explored by the aviation experts.


1. Endsley MR. Design and evaluation for situation awareness enhancement. In Proceedings of the Human Factor Society 32nd Annual Meeting, Santa Moica, CA: Human factors and Ergonomics Society 1988; 97-101. Quoted in Smith K, Hancock PA. Situation awareness is adaptive, externally directed consciousness. Human Factors, 1995; 37(1): 137-148

2. Jensen RS, Guike J, Tigner R. Understanding expert aviator judgement. Chapter in Decision making under stress: Emerging themes and application. Flin R, Salas E, Strab M, Martin L (Editors). Aldershot:Ashgate, 1997: 233-242

3. Federico P-A. Expert and novice recognition of similar situations. Human Factors 1995; 37(1): 105-122

4. Salas E, Prince C, Baker DP, Shrestha L. Situation awareness in team performance: implications for measurement and training. Human Factors 1995; 37(1): 123-136

5. Adams MJ, Tenney YJ, Pew RW. Situation awareness and the cognitive management of complex systems. Human Factors 1995;37(1): 85-104

6. Endsley MR. Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors 1995; 37(1): 32-64

7. Angelborg-Thanderz M. Military pilot performance – dynamic decision making in its extreme. Chapter in Decision making under stress: Emerging themes and application. Flin R, Salas E, Strab M, Martin L (Editors). Aldershot:Ashgate, 1997: 225-232

8. Sarter NB, Woods DD. Situation awareness: a critical but ill-defined phenomenon. International Journal of Aviation Psychology. 1991; 1: 45-57

9. Endsley MR, Kiris EO. The out-of-the-loop performance problem and level of control in automation. Human factors 1995; 37(2): 381-394

10. Orasanu J. Stress and naturalistic decision making: Strengthening the weak links. Chapter in Decision making under stress: Emerging themes and application. Flin R, Salas E, Strab M, Martin L (Editors). Aldershot:Ashgate, 1997: 43-66

Acknowledgement Image courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net

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