Being a pilot requires a unique combination of technical skills, knowledge, and personal attributes. While flying an aircraft safely from point A to point B is the primary duty of any pilot, there are many additional skills and traits that are equally important for success in this career. So what is the number one skill needed by pilots during flight operations? The consensus among aviation experts and experienced pilots is that situational awareness is the most critical skill for pilots to master.
Situational awareness refers to a pilot’s constant awareness of the aircraft’s position, the flying conditions, potential hazards, and the operation of the aircraft systems. Maintaining strong situational awareness is absolutely essential for avoiding accidents and emergencies. Pilots must have complete knowledge of the aircraft status, the weather, terrain, air traffic, and any other factors that could impact the flight at all times. Being aware of all these variables, understanding how they interact, and staying ahead of potential threats is fundamental to flying safely.
Let’s examine situational awareness for pilots more closely and why it tops the list of essential piloting skills.
The Importance of Situational Awareness for Pilots
Situational awareness is sometimes described as a pilot having “the big picture.” It is about having a comprehensive, real-time understanding of the complex flying environment. Some of the key reasons why situational awareness is so critical include:
– Safety – Loss of situational awareness is a major contributor to aircraft accidents. Knowing the aircraft status, weather, terrain, traffic, and other factors at all times is fundamental to avoiding danger and flying safely. Good situational awareness allows pilots to anticipate problems and take corrective action before an emergency occurs.
– Making informed decisions – Pilots must make countless decisions every single flight. Having complete situational awareness provides the right context for making sound decisions on everything from route changes to responding to mechanical issues. Poor awareness leads to poor decisions.
– Managing complexity – Flying an aircraft involves monitoring a huge array of systems, conditions, and variables. Strong awareness manages this complexity, prevents information overload, and allows the pilot to focus on the most important factors.
– Compliance – Pilots must comply with air traffic control instructions, altitude clearances, noise abatement procedures, and countless other rules during a flight. Maintaining awareness ensures pilots comply with all requirements.
– Avoiding blunders – Many minor piloting errors or blunders result from a momentary lapse in situational awareness. Examples include missing a radio call from air traffic control, descending below an assigned altitude, or failing to make a checklist item. Good awareness prevents these mistakes.
Situational awareness is not only vital during critical phases of flight like takeoff and landing. It must be maintained at all times from pre-flight procedures to engine shutdown at the end of a flight. The old aviation adage is true – aviate, navigate, communicate – in that order. Maintaining strong awareness enables pilots to aviate and fly the aircraft safely as their top priority.
Components of Situational Awareness
Pilots must integrate and process data from multiple sources to build and sustain strong situational awareness during flight operations. The key components that feed into overall awareness include:
– Aircraft systems – Pilots continually monitor instruments, sensors, and indicators that provide data on powerplant status, electrical and hydraulic systems, fuel levels, pressurization, and all other aircraft systems. This systems awareness is essential for detecting any abnormalities or failures.
– Orientation – Pilots must have continuous awareness of the aircraft’s geographic location and orientation. This includes knowing the precise heading, air position, altitude, vertical speed, ground track, and relationship to surrounding terrain. Orientation is maintained through instruments like altimeters, heading indicators, and GPS displays.
– Weather conditions – An up-to-the-minute understanding of weather conditions along the flight path as well as at the destination airport is required. Wind speed and direction, visibility, cloud cover, icing conditions, turbulence, and storms are critical variables.
– Air traffic – Pilots must be fully aware of surrounding air traffic, both visually and via radio communication. This traffic awareness ensures proper spacing from other aircraft and avoids collisions, especially around busy airports.
– Environment – An awareness of the landscape, terrain, obstacles, and airports along the route path and at the destination contributes to overall situational awareness. Familiarity with airports and terrain helps maximize safety.
– Operational factors – Issues like fuel status, flight mode (autopilot versus manual control), checklists status, cabin pressurization, passenger safety, and all other flight operational factors relate to situational awareness.
By continually integrating all of this incoming data, pilots are able to construct and sustain the complete awareness needed for safe and efficient flights. And while technology assists by presenting information to pilots, it does not replace the human ability to comprehend and make effective decisions based on the sum of all information. This underscores why situational awareness will always be a core piloting competency that cannot be replaced by automation.
How Pilots Develop and Maintain Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is not an innate skill pilots are born with. It is developed and refined over years of training and flight experience. Among the ways pilots improve and sustain strong awareness:
– Systematically scan instruments – Pilots continually scan the aircraft’s instruments in a logical sequence to capture all essential system data. This structured scanning reinforces complete systems awareness.
– Attention allocation – Pilots learn to appropriately allocate their attention to the most important flight parameters at any given phase while maintaining peripheral awareness of all factors. The ability to selectively focus while maintaining overall awareness is key.
– Checklists – Consistent use of pre-flight, takeoff, landing, and other checklists reinforces situational awareness by ensuring critical factors are not overlooked. Checklists supplement awareness.
– Look outside – Pilots resist any temptation to spend too much time “head-down” scanning instruments and remember to regularly look outside at surrounding terrain, traffic, and weather conditions. This supplements internal cockpit awareness.
– Think ahead – Mentally thinking ahead of the aircraft’s current position and anticipating potential scenarios and threats builds greater awareness of the big picture. Proactive thinking expands awareness.
– Manage distractions – Avoiding distractions like non-essential tasks or conversations during critical phases of flight helps pilots focus awareness on the most important factors for that phase. Minimizing distractions protects awareness.
– Fight complacency – Pilots understand that complacency is the enemy of good situational awareness. Maintaining a professional “sterile cockpit” environment with a proper alert mindset counteracts complacency in the air.
– Foster teamwork – For crewed aircraft, tasks and procedures that foster strong crew coordination and teamwork creates a shared situational awareness among all members. CRM (crew resource management) principles strengthen awareness.
How Technology is Expanding Situational Awareness
While technology will never replace the need for pilots to maintain complete awareness as they operate an aircraft, cockpit systems advances are certainly making awareness easier for pilots. Examples include:
– Electronic flight bags (EFBs) – Tablet devices preloaded with charts, terrain data, airport diagrams, and other key information expand awareness of the environment and flight planning considerations.
– ADS-B – Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast systems allow aircraft to continuously transmit and receive surveillance data with air traffic control and nearby aircraft. This shared awareness greatly improves traffic visibility.
– GPS navigation – Global positioning systems provide precise aircraft location data that contributes to stronger overall orientation awareness.
– Enhanced vision systems – Infrared cameras improve pilots’ ability to maintain awareness at night and in poor visibility conditions where orientation is more difficult.
– Graphical weather – Advanced radars and in-cockpit graphics allow pilots to instantly visualize weather radar, lightning, turbulence, and other hazards for greater environmental awareness.
– Alerting systems – Aircraft systems that provide alerts for potential issues like conflicting traffic or altitude deviations provide another layer of awareness protection for pilots.
So while cockpit technology deliver valuable awareness benefits, it remains imperative pilots remember these aids are supplemental to their own innate focus, training, and sense of awareness. At the end of the day, technology supports but can never replace the pilot’s responsibility to aviate the aircraft based on complete situational awareness.
Maintaining Situational Awareness During an Emergency
Situational awareness becomes even more critical during abnormal or emergency situations when workload increases dramatically. Even an experienced, well-trained pilot can lose awareness when surprised by a sudden aircraft system failure or other emergency. When an emergency occurs, pilots must:
– Aviate – Fly the airplane and maintain aircraft control as the first priority above all else. All immediate actions should focus on keeping the aircraft in the air.
– Analyze – Once proper aircraft control is ensured, diagnose issues by analyzing alert messages, abnormal instrument indications, and system failures to understand the problem.
– Take action – Based on analysis of the situation, take necessary actions like troubleshooting failures, navigating around weather, or communicating with air traffic control. The priority is always maintaining overall aircraft control.
– Call for help – If required, call for assistance from air traffic control or via aircraft radio and declare an emergency.
– Manage workload – Using all available resources like checklists and the autopilot, shed unnecessary tasks and manage essential workload to support awareness.
– Fight stress – Recognize and counter any stress reactions to maximize cognitive performance and awareness.
By regimenting their response using best practices like the above steps, pilots can regain and strengthen their awareness after the disorientation that often accompanies emergencies. Staying ahead through preparation, practicing emergency procedures regularly, and employing CRM techniques creates the capacity to manage even unexpected emergency situations.
Why Pilots Lose Situational Awareness
Understanding the factors that can degrade situational awareness helps pilots recognize and counter them through training and discipline. Some common causes of diminished awareness include:
– Task saturation or high workload – When pilots become overwhelmed managing multiple competing tasks, awareness decreases.
– Distractions or irregular events – Anything that draws pilot attention away from essential flight parameters degrades awareness.
– Complacency – When pilots become over-confident or disengaged, their awareness drops. Routinely flying the same routes often breeds complacency.
– Fatigue – Just like any degradation of physical or mental performance, pilot fatigue reduces situational awareness.
– Stress – Under pressure or during emergencies, stress can narrow focus away from big-picture awareness.
– Instrument or automation dependency – Over-reliance on instrumentation or autopilot instead of looking outside causes awareness lapses.
– Poor cockpit resource management – In crewed planes, weak coordination or communication lessens shared awareness.
– Lack of systems knowledge – If pilots lack deep understanding of aircraft systems, their ability to monitor and interpret indications will be diminished.
– Spatial disorientation – In obscured visibility, loss of orientation also decreases overall awareness.
Through training on mentally managing high stress and workload, ensuring proficiency even when fatigued, and developing robust skills to cope with distractions and avoid complacency, pilots can strengthen their resilience against the factors that degrade awareness.
Maintaining Situational Awareness Results in Safer Pilots
The best pilots don’t just aviate the aircraft – they also maintain continual awareness of systems, orientation, weather, traffic, and the total operational environment at all times. Building resilient situational awareness through training and constantly working to improve awareness throughout their career enables pilots to operate aircraft safely and avoid the errors and complacency that lead to accidents. While new technology continues to provide valuable awareness aids, the foundational skill of maintaining strong cognitive situational awareness during all phases of flight will always be the pilot’s ultimate responsibility. There is simply no replacement for the heightened state of alert situational awareness needed to operate an aircraft safely amidst the endless variables and hazards of flying. That’s why situational awareness tops the list as the number one skill truly skilled, professional pilots must possess.
In summary, situational awareness is unanimously viewed as the most important skill for pilots given the safety consequences when awareness lapses occur. By continually gathering and processing all the pertinent data related to aircraft operation and the surrounding environment – and always staying ahead of the aircraft – pilots sustain the complete awareness demanded to fly safely and avoid the pitfalls that lead to accidents. While technology will continue to aid awareness, nothing can replace the human pilot’s responsibility to maintain full situational awareness throughout every single flight. Regular training plus vigilance against complacency and other awareness-degrading threats enables pilots to hone and preserve this number one vital skill over an entire career. The very lives of the crew and passengers depend on it.