Situational Awareness? Bring a Fat Pet

9255620704_57f5018b6f_oThe term “situational awareness” originally referred to knowing where one was in space at any particular moment and remaining vigilant when it comes to bumping into things such as other airplanes and mountains.   As have so many things in flying and life, it has come to mean much more.

Mnemonics, besides being a really fun word to spell, has helped me pass many an exam, and even occasionally led others to believe that I actually know something; and when it comes to flying an airplane, it may someday save my life.  Reducing complex concepts to simple abbreviations is also fun, which as the Beatles told us is something that money can’t buy.

So, wait for it… here it is:  being “situationally aware” is like having a FAT PET.   Here’s why having a fat pet is so important:

F is for “fuel.”  If your destination is 3 hours away and you only have 2 hours worth of fuel on board, you need to change your plans.   Because wind changes constantly, plans need to change as well.  Being situationally aware means always knowing how much fuel you have and how much you need, and changing plans accordingly.   I will confess that when not flying an airplane I often forget to fuel myself, which may be one reason my head begins to ache and I find it difficult to move a shopping cart down an aisle.  Staying aware of what’s in our own fuel tanks means staying hydrated and even having a meal every once in a while.

“A” is for “angle of attack,” which pilots know refers to the angle of the wing cord to the relative wind, but which translates for all practical purposes to the amount of power one has at any moment in time.  Exceed one’s abilities, and you end up on the “back end of the power curve,” meaning that the airplane will do the opposite of what you tell it to do because it really doesn’t have enough power to follow your commands.   For the rest of us, it means to know what our capabilities and limitations are, and being careful to not exceed them.

“T” is for “traffic,” and it means knowing where the other airplanes are and keeping out of their way.   In its most literal sense, for civilians it means looking both ways before crossing the street, but in metaphorical terms it can also mean knowing who your competition is, and making sure you know what they’re up to.

“P” is for “position,” and this is the closest thing to the classical definition of situational awareness.  It means knowing where you are in 3-dimensional space, especially relative to any terrain that might get in your way.  In the business world, this can be especially important.  See what happens if you neglect to tell your direct supervisor about the conversation you are about to have with her supervisor.

“E” is for “equipment,” and in aviation it means to know what equipment you have on board, how to properly use it, what its limitations are, and what condition it is in.   I am reminded of the cliché that a worker is as good as his or her tools.  This is true not only for the capabilities of the circular saw in your shed, but also for the cerebral cortex in your head.  If we are not certain of what we are doing, consult with others who may know better.

The final “T” is for “terrain.”  We not only need to know where we are in relation to the ground, but we also need to know where the mountains and broadcast towers are going to be.  Learning where our obstacles are likely to show up can help us to understand what we are up against.

Every phase of flight has its own mnemonics, from preparing for a flight, to taxiing and liftoff, to landing and for emergencies.   Pilot or not, it’s a good idea to keep a “fat pet” alongside us for the entire ride.

Thanks to Robert Goyer for providing the essential content for situational awareness.

Flying with Understanding

Bald-eagle-wallpaper2In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a rather silly story made into a really silly movie, Richard Bach wrote these words, which I find enchanting:

Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you.   All they show is limitations.  Look with your understanding.  Find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.

As a child, my self-esteem, on a scale from one to ten, was well below zero.   My mother, catching me during a moment of extreme self-doubt, told me that I was capable of doing anything in life that I wanted.  Challenging her optimism, I told her snootily that I could never fly.   Undaunted, she lovingly crouched down, put her arms on my shoulders, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “Ira, if you wanted to badly enough, you could fly.”

At first, in my confusion, I began to trust my mother less.   But there was a part of me that wanted to believe in her magical thinking.   So over the years her words, and the conviction with which they were spoken, echoed.  Eventually, I began to understand.

I knew that as a mere mortal I could never actually fly, but perhaps I could accomplish things that logic and reason (“eyes,” in Bach’s metaphor) couldn’t, if I could somehow learn how to look with my understanding.  Perhaps I could learn to not be deceived by the facts in front of me, by the obstacles that life creates, but instead to believe in my ability to understand that which transcends facts, just as my mother leapt over reality with her conviction and belief in me.

You may know the Hasidic story about the origins of the philtrum, that little indentation above the mouth and below the nose.  According to the story, when we are conceived we are given all the knowledge in the universe.   Then, at birth, God touches us right below our nose and we forget everything.  We then spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what we already know.

What we already know is our understanding, which is more than the sum of our knowledge.   It is the way we imbue knowledge with meaning and connection that transforms it into understanding.

Understanding cannot be found simply by reference to our bodily sensations, or our “feelings.”  In instrument flying we learn that our eyes and the rest of our body can deceive us.   Our brain misinterprets the signals it receives through our senses.  We must, instead, fly with all of our understanding, and have faith that even if our bodies deceive us into thinking we are flying straight and level, we choose instead to believe what our instruments tell us.  And if our instruments give us conflicting messages, we must bring our entire understanding to the cockpit—the sum of our knowledge that transcends its parts and becomes a meaningful whole.

Our eyes do deceive us.  They show us the covers of books, but not what is inside of them.  They show us facts, and facts limit us.   They bind us to the ground; they show us what is, but never what can be.  They are the stories the news media, scientists, and our best friends tell us.  When we believe them, we deceive ourselves.     It is only through looking with our understanding that we can truly see, and it is only then that we can really fly.

Shit and Shinola

Unknown-4Although my dad, who never made it past high school, took pride in his vocabulary, he was not beyond vulgarity– undoubtedly resulting from his Bronx roots and likely nurtured by his 3-year stint in the Navy.  One of the vulgar sayings I heard emanating from my father was that a particular person didn’t know shit from Shinola.

Shinola was a popular brand of shoe polish, presumably with enough of a cachet that it could be used to distinguish the high quality stuff that was applied to the top surface of your shoes from the low quality stuff that might be found clinging to the bottom. It also had a nice alliterative ring to it, more so than the other phrase I heard my father say in similar situations– that a particular person didn’t know his ass from his elbow.

Although Shinola was the “good stuff” and the other wasn’t, I came to associate the two words.  One became what behaviorists call the “discriminatory stimulus” for the other, which in English means that one thing signaled the presence of the other.   I was therefore surprised the other day to see an advertisement in a magazine for a new Wright Brothers commemorative watch made by, you guessed it, the Shinola Company.  That took me to the Internet, to find out how it came to be that a shoe polish company began manufacturing watches.   What I learned is that the modern Shinola Company, headquartered in a beautiful building in Detroit, began three years ago after the initial investors bought the rights to the Shinola name from the New York based company that had since gone out of business.  Besides watches, the new Shinola manufactures leather goods, journals and bicycles, all made nearly exclusively from American components, or so they claim.

Now, exactly what brought the owner of the Shinola brand to buy a name from a defunct company that is associated with shoe polish seemed intriguingly out of the shoebox to me.   Shinola has a great website (, and on it they claim to be “reinvigorating a storied American brand.”

The new Shinola has been criticized because while it is true that its products are assembled in Detroit, a place badly in need of resurrection itself, most of its parts emanate from elsewhere in the U.S., and some come from abroad, including China.  “It’s not like we’re saying everything is 100% made in Detroit,” said company President Jacques Panis.    The fact that the new Shinola isn’t all about Detroit doesn’t bother me all that much; I’m not sure that the economic interdependence of nations isn’t a bad thing.

I don’t know whose decision it was to buy the rights to the Shinola brand name, but to me that is the intriguing part of the story.  Clearly, the idea that someone didn’t know shit from Shinola resulted from the fact that Shinola shoe polish was, in its day, considered the bomb, to use current parlance.  But for me, even the idea that Shinola was supposed to be a sign of quality gets lost by its contiguity with the stuff that all living critters deposit.

I imagine that if I were to buy and wear one of those watches, as Bill Clinton proudly does, I would be compelled to roll up my sleeve and declare, “See, I really do know the difference!”