What is Situational Awareness?

Nautical Miles
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Situational awareness is a commonly used term among pilots and others in the aviation world. The term often refers to a pilot's awareness of the airplane's physical location in space, but extends outward to include all factors relating to the safety of the flight, and is a big part of single pilot resource management.  

A pilot who is situationally aware has a good grasp on the airplane's physical location relative to three-dimensional space.

At what altitude is he operating? What is his lateral position in space relative to airports and navaids? How aware is he of what's happening to him and his airplane at this moment and what will be happening in the future? 

The FAA states that situational awareness encompasses all five elements of risk, including the flight, pilot, aircraft, environment, and type of operation. A pilot is considered situationally aware when he has a good overall mental picture of what is going on during the flight. Does he understand ATC instructions? Does he know why his GPS is telling him to fly a certain bearing? Does he understand why the autopilot is beeping? Does he remember to accomplish checklists? Does he know where he is geographically and is he able to navigate successfully? Can he predict where he will be in the future? Losing awareness in relation to any of these factors can lead to a loss in situational awareness overall.

Other factors can cause a loss of situational awareness and risk the safety of the flight, too, like fatigue, stress and a high workload. Fixating on a particular problem, on a single instrument or on a chart, can mean that the pilot inadvertently omits other valuable information and can lead to a loss of situational awareness - either geographically or mentally.

Maintaining good situational awareness requires a pilot to be attentive, mindful and perceptive, even when things are going well. Pilots can do multiple things to improve their situational awareness: thorough preflight planning, improving stick and rudder skills, becoming familiar with aircraft systems and performance in advance, being comfortable with the aircraft's avionics, using ATC services when available and many more. All of these items can help a pilot maintain positive situational awareness during a flight.