Loss of Situational Awareness

One of the greatest risks a pilot has when faced with a problem is that the pilot is simply not aware a problem exists.  This undesired state is referred to as loss of situational awareness.  Loss of situational awareness is like the boogieman sneaking up behind you—danger is imminent, but you are pleasantly unaware of it.  What are some of the causes of loss of situational awareness that pilots have become victims to?

Loss of situational awareness can be caused by something as simple as inattention.  A pilot is not aware of the 12 o’clock, 1-mile target on a mid-air collision course because he or she hasn’t been attentive in maintaining a traffic watch.  A pilot not supervising the refuelling of the piston-engine aircraft is not aware that jet fuel has been loaded into the fuel tanks.  A pilot inattentive during the pre-flight inspection is not aware that heavy rains and poor gas cap seals have conspired to put dangerous quantities of water in the fuel tanks.

Loss of situational awareness is certainly a function of experience and training.  A pilot from the prairies crosses the Straight of Georgia at 100’ ASL, oblivious of the hazards of having to ditch an aircraft in the water—unaware of how difficult it is to egress a dark, inverted cockpit that is submerged underwater.  A pilot on a fresh instrument rating is possibly unaware of just how rapidly dangerous amounts of ice can form on a aircraft after entering large cumulus clouds above the freezing level.  We can, of course, go on and on.

An even more interesting cause of loss of situational awareness is false assumptions.  In every one of the case studies reviewed below in this section, it is clear that the perceptions of every member of flight crews was undermined by false assumptions—the crew of PSA 182 thought they were clear of the Cessna 172, the crew of Eastern 401 thought the autopilot was still controlling the aircraft’s altitude.

Here are some of the factors that are commonly at the root of false assumptions:

Great expectations—e.g., you hear what you want to hear and see what you want to see.  Watch for this in PSA 182.  We tend to shape our reality to fit our expectation.

Fixation—e.g., you focus on one item while something more significant goes unnoticed—e.g., a warning light causes loss of control.  This is the central theme of the Eastern 401 disaster.

Ignoring the bad news—e.g., subconsciously changing bad-news information into messages that are preferred.  This too is an element in PSA 182.  This is also a classic form of this cause is “gethomeitis”

After period of intense concentration—e.g., after fighting bad weather a pilot lands downwind.


Physical stressors: hunger, temperature, noise, vibration, lack of oxygen, being tired, poor physical fitness.

Mental stressors: death, sickness, demotion, economic, workload.

Capacity to cope: during a normal flight, pilots are exposed to variable demands.

As demands increase, the safety margin between the work required to meet those demands and pilot capacity to perform the work decreases.

Remember, demands can pile up—e.g., an emergency during an approach.  Trouble occurs when demands of a task exceed ability to deal with them.

Stress often invokes an arousal response—flight or fight. Insufficient arousal causes boredom, while too much causes panic.

Common responses to stress:

  • Omission—failing to respond to a signal—a radio call or warning light.
  • Error—responding incorrectly.
  • Queuing—delaying certain tasks because of workload.
  • Approximation—accepting lower standards of accuracy and performance.
  • Fixation—concentrating on one item while ignoring another.
  • Regression—reverting to an earlier procedure or action.
  • Tremor—trembling or shaking caused by increased muscle tension.
  • Escape—giving up, panicking, and freezing at the controls.

Cockpit stress management Rules of Thumb

  • If an emergency does occur, BE CALM—think for a moment, weigh the alternatives, choose one, and then act.
  • Remember that fear and panic are your greatest enemies during an in-flight emergency.
  • Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency.  Let other people, including passengers, know about your situation.
  • Don’t delay until it is too late.
  • If you feel tension mounting, loosen your collar, stretch your arms and legs, open air vents.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask ATC for help.  Lots of ground resources are available.
  • Experienced passengers can be asked to look for landmarks and traffic.
  • If you make a mistake that you subsequently correct, forget about it and concentrate on the task at hand.
  • Focus on the situation, not the emotion.
  • Always have a “plan” and an “alternate plan,” and leave yourself an “out.”

Risk Management and the Pilot’s Checklist

Pilots should expand their concept of “being ready” for a flight; here is a wholistic pre-flight checklist for this purpose:


Do a pre-flight inspection on yourself.  Are you healthy?  Are you current?


Weight and balance.  Takeoff and landing performance.  Cross-wind limitations.  Navigation equipment.  Survival gear.


Weather; runway length; navigation aids.


Different operations impose different risks.  A pilot on a medevac assesses risk differently from a pleasure flight pilot.


The above risk areas compose a “situation.”  Upon considering them, fly accordingly.


Deal yourself a good hand: begin the above evaluation with a closed fist and raise one finger for each risk element that you believe is safe for the flight.  If you end up with less than a full hand, act accordingly.

Hazardous Attitudes

Here are some attitudes to flying you want to avoid:


   Don’t like being told what to do.  This leads to rule and regulation violation; rules, regulations and procedures become unnecessary.  Antidote: follow rules; they are usually right.


   When faced with a decision-making situation, the need to do something, anything, immediately.  There is a lack of careful consideration.  Antidote: don’t act so fast; think first.


   “It won’t happen to me.”  You are therefore more likely to take chances.  Antidote: think that it can happen to you.


   Proving you are better than someone else.  Antidote: “Taking chances is foolish.”


   Good luck versus bad luck.  You can’t make a great deal of difference as to what is happening to you—leave the actions to others—for better or for worse.  Just be nice and go along with unreasonable requests.  Antidote: don’t feel helpless; you can make a difference.


For additional reading see Transport Canada's Reflections after an Accident.