Situational Awareness is defined as "the degree of accuracy by which your perception of a situation mirrors reality" The trick to gaining and maintaining it is knowing when to get it from technology and when to get it from proven techniques and rules of thumb.
Today situational awareness is dramatically improved by avionics technology. EFIS displays, moving maps, GPS, data links, and small computers give aviators awesome tools. Properly employed, these devices give the aviator situational awareness beyond that previously available. The downside to this is incorrectly prioritizing tasks. We have to divide our attention in a disciplined manner-prioritizing tasks in their order of catastrophic consequences. Any crew-military and civilian-can reduce the inherent risk with good coordination and rules of thumb.
It is my experience as a military instructor that today’s crews spend more time "heads-in." Good crew resource management balances the cockpit workload between the pilot flying (PF) and the pilot not flying (PNF). When the PNF is working a problem, we lose his contribution to VFR lookout and he often needs to "cage his gyros" when he finally brings his head back up. We mitigate that limitation by announcing "co-pilot’s head-in" to alert the crew that a scan quadrant is not monitored and that his situational awareness might be reduced. The other crewmembers change their scan pattern to overlap the void created by the preoccupied pilot. When he rejoins the flight, the pilot flying quickly updates him. We also use standard brevity terms to assist crews in "building the picture," without overloading the intercom.
Another issue is implicit trust in avionics. Aviators should trust, but verify. Two years ago, my mission computer’s hover power calculator displayed 97-percent torque available and 94-percent torque required for hover OGE at a high-altitude remote site. A 35-ft. hover was established to provide a slightly greater power margin. Kicking up a dust cloud at 35-ft., we climbed to 45 ft. to clear the dust and the rotor started to decay at 94-percent torque. As the rotor further decayed during our descent, we quickly realized that our healthy engines simply couldn’t produce 97-percent torque. The computer lied. Later analysis revealed our software hadn’t kept pace with the flight manual hover chart changes and the erroneously displayed power available was four percent greater than reality. The calculator page was decertified until a new, accurate version was written. There is a remote operations mnemonic that would have prevented that situation had we simply "trusted, but verified" the display.
I teach new pilots a survey technique called WETPARTS. It prioritizes the remote site data collection/analysis in the order that it’s available and needed. It goes like this:
High Recon: 300 ft. and >50 KIAS
Low Recon: 50 ft. >50 KIAS
Winds can be determined based on forecast and actual winds en route, then adjusted for remote area terrain effects. Elevation can be pulled from map contour lines and temperature can be inferred from standard lapse rate with a few degrees added for the bubble effect. From the first three we can determine predicted power available and required. This power should be verified, in some cases with a max power check or another crewmember’s chart check. Remember to make that pull in similar density altitude conditions to your intended remote site area for valid comparison. The area is next evaluated on arrival and identifies size for confined area considerations, suitability for obstacles, surface conditions and slope limits. Routes are determined and evaluated, for the best entry route given winds, power and proposed departure or egress routing. You should consider Go/No Go reference points, before which you could execute a marginal power escape and beyond which you may be committed to a touchdown. Touchdown points should be identified with clear, concise descriptions of the adjacent landmarks. That is, "10 meters left of the large oak tree on the far right of the clearing." Scanners’ inputs should query each crewmember to elicit individual observations about the site. "GETTS" simply "gets" the data again in a practice low approach to the site prior to committing to the touchdown.
This is a proven technique. I recommend proper task prioritization by getting to the terminal area and building situational awareness using the technology but after arrival, re-prioritize your tasks from the techno-gadgets to the basics and focus on what’s important-flying the aircraft and analyzing conditions by building S.A. using proven techniques.
The views expressed are those of the author and not an official position of the U.S. Air Force. This article has been approved for release by AWFC public affairs.