Situational Awareness – Understanding the Effects of Situations

Put simply, situation awareness (SA) means appreciating all you need to know about what is going on if the full scope of your task – flying, controlling or maintaining an aircraft – is taken into account. More specifically, in the context of complex operational environments, SA is concerned with the person’s knowledge of particular task-related events and phenomena. For example, for a fighter pilot SA means knowing about the threats and intentions of enemy forces as well as the status of his/her own aircraft. For an air traffic controller, SA means (at least partly) knowing about current aircraft positions and flight plans and predicting future states so as to detect possible conflicts. Therefore, in operational terms, SA means having an understanding of the current state and dynamics of a system and being able to anticipate future change and developments.


A general definition of SA is that it 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

This basic definition has been extended by Dominguez et al. (1994), who state that SA needs to include the following four specific pieces of information:

  • extracting information from the environment;
  • integrating this information with relevant internal knowledge to create a mental picture of the current situation;
  • using this picture to direct further perceptual exploration in a continual perceptual cycle; and
  • anticipating future events.

 Taking these four elements into account, SA is defined as the continuous extraction of environmental information, the integration of this information with previous knowledge to form a coherent mental picture, and the use of that picture in directing further perception and anticipating future events.


In your opinion what are the primary causes of loss of situational awareness?

What can you do as a pilot to improve your concentration on the flight deck?

Have you ever been in a position in which you have lost situational awareness? What happened? How could you prevent that situation from occurring the future?

For each of the following examples, think of what effect they would have on your flight and the operational day as a whole.

Flying towards an area of known icing condtions

Wake turbulence

Making a request for a higher altitude


A displaced runway threshold

Extended holding on the ground

Extended holding in the air


A missing passenger

Two similar callsigns on the same frequency

Altimeter setting in Hectopascals or Inches of Mercury

A sick Cabin Attendant

Noise abatement procedures

Controller calling the wrong Callsign