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Situational Awareness

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Category: Human Behaviour Human Behaviour
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Put simply, situational awareness (SA) means appreciating all you need to know about what is going on when the full scope of your task - flying, controlling or maintaining an aircraft - is taken into account. More specifically and 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[1]

This basic definition has been extended by Dominguez et al. (1994)[2], who state that SA needs to include the following four specific elements:

  1. extracting information from the environment;
  2. integrating this information with relevant internal knowledge to create a mental picture of the current situation;
  3. using this picture to direct further perceptual exploration in a continual perceptual cycle; and
  4. 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.


For a pilot, situational awareness means having a mental picture of the existing inter-relationship of location, flight conditions, configuration and energy state of your aircraft as well as any other factors that could be about to affect its safety such as proximate terrain, obstructions, airspace reservations and weather systems. The potential consequences of inadequate situational awareness include CFIT, loss of control, airspace infringement, loss of separation, or an encounter with wake vortex turbulence, severe air turbulence, heavy icing or unexpectedly strong head winds;

For a Controller, situational awareness means acquiring and maintaining a mental picture of the traffic situation being managed and maintaining an appreciation of the potential for unexpected progressions or changes in this scenario.


Situational awareness is so important that much of the working environment of both the pilot and the ATCO is designed and used to help maintain it.

  • For the ATCO, this includes communication, with aircraft (voice and data link) and with other controllers; and radar, together with associated safety nets.
  • For the pilot, this includes communication with the controller; monitoring communication between controllers and other aircraft; visual look-out; navigation (incuding use of maps and charts); and aircraft safety nets, including TAWS, ACAS and GPWS.

Typical Scenarios

Contributory Factors


  • Strengthening the defences and reducing the impact of the contributory factors listed above.

Related Articles

Related OGHFA Material

Further Reading


Flight Safety Foundation ALAR Toolkit:


  1. ^ Endsley, M. R. (1998). A comparative analysis of SAGAT and SART for evaluations of situation awareness. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 42nd Annual Meeting (pp. 82-86). Santa Monica, CA: The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.
  2. ^ Dominguez, C., Vidulich, M., Vogel, E. & McMillan, G. (1994). Situation awareness: Papers and annotated bibliography. Armstrong Laboratory, Human System Center, ref. AL/CF-TR-1994-0085.