Situation Awareness (SA) is acknowing what is going on around you… essentially recognising “the big picture”. It’s is fundamental to correct decision making and action.
Information processing tends to be the term used for the psychological mechanism of receiving and analyzing information; situation awareness is a description of an individual’s – or a team – understanding of the aircraft state and environment, based on perceived and processed information.
SA is more than just perception – it is understanding the meaning of what you perceive, how it might change in the future, and the implications.
Decision making is based on situation awareness; therefore if you have poor SA, you are likely to make poor decisions. SA has sometimes been referred to as “perception of reality” and it is quite possible for different crew members to have different perceptions of reality.
The aim of SA training should be to ensure that all flight crew members have good SA and a common (and correct) perception of the state of the aircraft and environment. This can be achieved by good team working and communication.
Breakdown of situation awareness is the root cause of so many aircraft incidents that eliminating it would dramatically reduce the accident rate.
SA is, therefore, an important element of CRM.
Excerpts from the cockpit voice recorder prior to the tragic accident in Cali, Columbia emphasize this point. The flight crew turned their aircraft into a mountain.
First Officer: “Uh, where are we… we goin’ out to …”
Captain: “Lets go right to, uh, Tulua first of all. OK?”
First Officer: “Yeah, where we headed?”
A few seconds later, Captain identifies Tulua.
Captain: “Just doesn’t look right on mine. I don’t know why.”
Two minutes later they impacted a mountain.