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.

KISS Me You Fool

checklistSheila got out of bed on a bright, CAVU morning, checked her METARS via DUAT, saw that  there were no TFRs or noteworthy NOTAMS that might discourage her, dressed and made her way to the FBO.   Once in her airplane, she checked the ATIS, dialed up ATC, and was on her way.   Once in the air, she asked for VFR flight following, and navigated with her GPS from one VOR to another on a VICTOR airway, just for old times sake.  On her way to her destination, she kept her eyes glued to the PAPI as she gently descended to earth, but not before going through her final GUMPS.   And by the way, did I ever tell you the (true) story of the time I went NORDO on my way to SMX?

If you are a pilot, you understood every word I didn’t say.   Every trade has its shorthand.  Flying is replete with them.   Pilots live or die by them. The idea behind mnemonics– be they abbreviations, acronyms, or short phrases, is to make complex things simple.

One acronym everyone knows is KISS, which, in case you’re not one of the every, is short for “Keep it simple, stupid.”   That isn’t particularly aviation-related, although I have heard it more than a few times in that context.   KISS is what it is all about; if cleanliness is next to Godliness, then simplicity is next to cleanliness.

Complexity, of course, is merely a lot of simplicity all tangled up.   Understanding complex interactions is merely a matter of disentangling, disambiguating, or to use the popular word, deconstructing interactions so that we understand each component and how it builds on the previous one.   I could not have gotten through graduate school without a host of mnemonics– some of which were taught to me and some of which I made up myself.  Whenever anything seemed difficult to remember, I would construct some sort of abbreviation that made sense to me.  Ask me Freud’s psychosexual stages or the four subtypes of schizophrenia and I will tell you in a flash.   Go ahead, try me.

One form of mnemonic is the checklist.   Checklists are used religiously in aviation, and some believe that it is the procedure that has contributed most to the increase in aviation safety. (Atul Gawande writes about the importance of using checklists in surgery in “The Checklist Manifesto.”)   I have yet to need the checklist I have committed to memory for a major emergency, but it is designed to make sure that I not only do what I need to do, but that I do them in the right order.    The mnemonic is ABCDE, and it applies to all airplanes at all times.  If you are a pilot, you probably know it.   If not, you don’t need to.   If I had to remember to trim to the best airspeed (A), look for the best field (B), run through my systems to try to solve the problem (C for checklist), declare an emergency (D), and then, finally, grab the emergency landing checklist (E), all in exactly that order, I might get flustered.   But simply remembering ABCDE and applying each item in order makes it all simple, and perhaps with a little bit of luck or Divine intervention, that is one KISS that might save my life.