“Clueless” is Dangerous; Teach Situational Awareness!

We all start out “clueless” in a new environment. In a social situation, this deficit is commonly described as an inability to “read the room.” We all have different levels of situational awareness (SA) depending on our needs, aptitude, and environment. But unfortunately, in the high-consequence world of aviation “clueless is dangerous” so every pilot needs some level of SA to fly safely.

As pilots and CFIs, our survival skills are tuned up to immediately detect a deficit in SA when flying with other pilots. In accident reports it is alluded to, but seldom specifically mentioned as a causal factor. The reason many pilots are weak in SA though, is they were never taught how to do it well. Some educators claim it is inborn and not teachable but it appears 110 times in the Private ACS (mainly in the Risk Management areas).  I did see one multi-engine pink slip that just said “behind the plane.” Frequently, CFIs are so busy correcting the symptoms of low situational awareness they miss this larger fundamental skill. But unfortunately, a collection of “watch that” and “pay attention” cautions never adds up to this larger “emergent” quality. Good situational awareness is “safety magic” that every pilot needs (and every CFI should teach).

Situational awareness is a higher-level “meta-skill.” It does not reside at the rote level of “checking the carb heat and using the rudder.” Like other “Higher Order Thinking Skills” (HOTS) it is a “metacognitive” skill. This ability is distributed throughout the brain but largely resides in a mental layer above our daily operations. Teaching situational awareness requires a keen perception because it is built at the level of attitude and personality. So here are a few ideas on how to inject this critical magic of situational awareness into your training.

The three levels of situational awareness (SA) can most simply be defined as perception, meaning, and implication. Level one SA is to perceive clearly and process new input consciously. Time pressure and fatigue diminish this ability (as does a CFI constantly babbling). Familiarity with an environment is a blessing and a curse. Initially, we are overwhelmed with a new environment, but familiarity quickly leads to complacency. The challenges lie on both sides of the Yerkes-Dodson graph of human awareness.

It is critical that every CFI understand that a new learner is mentally saturated in this busy, buzzing environment of aviation. In this new world, everything is confusing and nothing makes sense. A savvy CFI must to be very careful to add *meaning* but not add to the confusion. Until proper pilot habits are formed, higher-level awareness is cognitively unavailable for new learners; they are ovewhelmed and operating at a survival level. Your learner is still just trying to keep the aircraft on a 75′ wide taxiway while the (clueless) CFI is discussing advanced aerodynamic concepts🤣.

The real teaching of anything complex should have happened in the preflight instruction and briefing. Once a plane is in motion, only succinct and precise instruction is useful (and this must be “chunked ” into low workload periods). The beginner CFI error is the continuous “CFI babble” taught for the CFI flight test (unlearn this to be effective). New learners need mental space to self-talk and internally code their new experiences into meaningful actions.

During initial training, a good CFI must create a safe learning environment for their learner to experiment and systematically build their awareness. Your student is operating entirely at Level One situational awareness “what is this and what does it do?” (constant confusion) Only as they build comfort and familiarity in this new aviation environment can we progressively build higher-level SA.

Step one is focus and mindful awareness. Then we add meaning. But not until excess mental capability becomes available. In every learning challenge, “too much too soon” just overwhelms and frustrates a learner; impeding education! As soon as “what it is, and what it means” are on board we can move to the higher levels.

Level One: Focus – Everything is Important!

In modern life, we have the blessing of not experiencing continuous threats – unlike human survival throughout evolved time. Historically, “clueless” had Darwinian consequences. But now, many people float through their daily existence at a very low level of awareness. But Code White (fat, dumb, and happy) does not work at all in aviation. We see the result of “clueless” in our frequent accident reports. Aviation is a “high-consequence environment,”  with many active and latent threats; everything is important. It is critical for educators to develop focus in their early learners and create respect for risk management (stuff happens). This is the difference between “Code White” (fat, dumb, and happy) and “Code Yellow” which is alert and focused, devoting full attention to the environment before us.

For every flight control or gauge introduced, an effective educator must make sure to add the true meaning and importance of each item. The information and function of every control and instrument are critical for successful flying; this is serious business. There are very few superfluous items or insignificant gauges; everything is important. This is why flying can be so demanding and occasionally fatiguing, especially during initial training as your student develops their pilot habit patterns. And if it goes wrong here, it will persist forever. Correct initial learning is critical.

Thinking Three Dimensionally

Once your new learner becomes comfortable with the demands of their new aviation environment, actively processing and accurately reacting, it is time to add new levels of SA. The magic and significance of our three-dimensional (3-D) capabilities escape many new learners. The new 3-D world of flying is totally new to terrestrial humans. Understanding the significance of this makes all the difference for weather systems, airspace and traffic avoidance (over/under, AGL/MSL). A new pilot must immediately start building their “mental moving map!”

As a learner normalizes the idea of being safely in the air and their fear diminishes,  CFI has the opportunity to build higher-level situational awareness. Monitoring the radio, either on the ramp or while taxiing a known route, can be an interesting method to develop your learner’s “mental mapping.” When another pilot checks on the radio “7 SW at 3500 ft” have your learner point to where that airplane will appear and also when that plane will be an issue for our operation. This adds meaning to the constant chatter and allows a new pilot to process threats. “7 SW” as we approach the hold short for take-off is not an issue. But what about the pilot who just called base leg? (hold short and “head on a swivel”) Similarly, as we exit west, the pilot reporting north (if they truly are where they say they are) is not an issue. This is a whole new world for a learner. Have you ever noticed many experienced pilots do not actively and accurately process this information? Many pilots never develop accurate situational awareness.

At bigger airports, locating taxiing traffic on the pilot’s “mental map” is also critical to determine active threats. Geo-referenced ForeFlight is an excellent tool to teach this awareness and determine which aircraft may be future issues for our taxi route.

3-D awareness is critical for risk mitigation, and many certificated pilots seem to entirely lack this capability. Just discussing these “latent threats” starts to build positional situational awareness and introduce the timeline of level three SA. When teaching initial radio calls it is essential to include the third dimension (altitude); “Reporting 7 NW at 3500 feet” so your learner understands 3-D and the significance of altitude separation. If traffic is at 2100 feet and we are at 3500, vertical separation is assured and the third dimension becomes real in their mind.

Micro/Macro Scanning: “Multitasking

A huge problem for early learners in any new environment is fixation. When we do not understand something in our perceptual field, we tend to fixate on it. If something is moving or shiny, we also tend to stare too long. In a novel environment, your learner will tend to spend too long on every task. This over-focus and fixation prevents attention in other critical areas. They need to develop effective multitasking. Fixation creates the classic problem of being “behind the airplane.”

An important way to avoid fixation is by turning down the “pressure for immediate perfection” (often enforced by the CFI). Until a basic skill level is developed, perfection is just out of reach. The initial goal in accomplishing most tasks is “pretty good” and moving on (multitasking). Perfection is always a worthy goal but the enemy of early progress in every field. As ability improves and habits develop, accuracy will progressively increase. Striving for immediate perfection is a common CFI error.

For time allocation in tasks to be mastered, attention on each item must be limited to 2-3 seconds (tick/tock multitasking). As understanding increases, speed increases; in aviation the plane is always in motion. Encourage a hot focus on each detailed requirement – such as setting an altimeter of checking a mag drop (micro) – but then enforce a switch to the larger view (macro) encompassing the “bigger picture.” Effective “multitasking” is really fast “task switching,” and is a learned skill and uniquely timed in every situation.

Have you ever watched an early student (or poorly trained pilot) do a run-up? Their eyes are entirely inside the cockpit for the duration of the operation. This single-task devotion is dangerous on a busy ramp. Effective situational awareness demands macro/micro task switching.  Properly done, each specific sub-task is completed efficiently (micro) then the attention goes wide (outside – macro) to make sure there are no other planes around and we are not moving on the ramp. In a two-person crew, a busy pilot will announce “heads down” so the other pilot is actively focused outside, “covering the gap” in awareness. A safe solo pilot must always be alternating between required details and the bigger picture (micro/macro). Developing effective single-pilot resource management continues to be a challenge for as long as we fly.

Developing the “Mental Clock:” Managing Trends

Once the habit of task switching (the effective division of attention) gets more habitual in your new pilot’s personality, and 3-D awareness becomes meaningful, introduce the third level of situational awareness – the trend/timing dimension. This aptitude will make a much more successful pilot in every aviation operation. As a CFI, have you noticed how many problems pilots encounter result from an inability to properly detect and manage “trends?” A good CFI will build awareness by continuously asking “If this process continues at this rate, where will we be in a specific interval of time?”

Trend awareness becomes especially critical when teaching pattern work. Early learners are frequently off altitude or airspeed as a result of not seeing or projecting trends in energy.  They get very busy fixing the symptoms but never detect or correct the root problem of trends. The central pilot skill is developing a sense of how a power setting or descent rate will impact (literally) our future energy state. Novice CFIs also fail here by continuously correcting symptoms instead of correcting the root cause (SA). Discussing the management of energy trends and timing is a much more powerful way to achieve results and build awareness in your learners.

Consequences and Future States; Contingency Planning

A critical addition to the “mental timeline” that is the final level of situational awareness is our anticipated future state for our flight. Where will we be in the next interval; short-term and long-term? This involves utilizing the continuous FAA 3-P tool of Perceive, Process, and Perform. We are always projecting an expected result with our planning and actions. Many early learners fail here by too dogmatically (and emotionally) attaching themselves to an expected outcome. We absolutely must plan and strategize in aviation. But we must accept, as many military leaders have counseled, “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.” In aviation, there are many important moving pieces we cannot always control, starting with weather and ATC. We operate in a much larger fluid 3-D chess game. Pilots must learn to be flexible and resilient; things *will* change and alternate planes (as mentioned in the basic CFR 91.103) will *always* be necessary. Expect disappointment and the probability of a “pivot” (has any flight ever gone *exactly* as you planned?) This keeps our piloting job exciting. And a savvy CFI must create enough “creative surprises” to prepare their learner for the world of aviation outside the protected cacoon of dual training.

The last diagnostic tool for developing and analyzing situational awareness is to continuously “share the mental model.” Verbalizing your plans and future desired states allows a CFI to critique the success of their learner’s SA; realistic, flexible, multi-path.  Accurately perceiving, then adding meaning, and then projecting a future state is the heart of situational awareness. We always need more of this to be smooth effective pilots (solo or dual). Fly safely out there (and often)!

In a stalled condition, the nose of every conventional aircraft falls toward mother earth. This is physics and happens every time. And the natural human reaction is to pull back away from the ground making the control situation worse.  Only high-quality flight training, both initial and recurrent, can overcome this deep human reaction of “panic and pull.” Education in the classroom yields understanding, but training on the controls in flight is necessary to build deep, reliable, and correct habits.

A good pilot is a healthy mix of mathematician, scientist and athlete, part mechanic and all curiosity.  They must know everything about their airplane;  control surfaces, power plant, the avionic systems, tire pressure.  Because, while the heart of an airplane is metal, fabric or composite;  the bloodstream fuel and oil, its brain is the person who flies it. Community Aviation

New pilots must be patiently taught the feel of slow flight and the correct reaction to an excessive angle of attack and full stalls. It is necessary to train deeply here and to slowly overcome the initial fear. It takes time and persistence to reach a level of comfort and control in high AOA flight. Our fatal accident statistics still demonstrate that we all need better initial education and more current repetition and review; Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I) is the #1 pilot killer.

Unfortunately, especially in larger airframes, pilots were taught for years to “power out of the stalls.” Even if initial training was accurate, many years of “negative stall training” overwrites habits. Historically there was very little emphasis on reducing the angle of attack in larger, powerful aircraft. Instead, the emphasis was on preventing altitude loss. The FAA recently added Expanded Envelope Training to the 121 regulations for every airline pilot recurrency. And the new ATP ACS puts a clear emphasis on reducing the angle of attack for stall recovery. But this may be “too little and too late” for many veteran pilots who experienced and reinforced “negative stall training” for so many years.

During my recent recurrent training in Florida, I witnessed a very experienced (though somewhat rusty) pilot attempt to recover an intentional stall with power and no reduction in angle of attack. This was shocking but eye-opening for me. He panicked, fought the controls, and eventually put the large jet simulator into the (virtual) ground. This was identical to the mishandling that resulted in the landmark accident of Colgan 3407. Negative initial stall training is very persistent and hidden away in our deepest habits. One important purpose of recurrent flight training is to discover, correct, and retrain these very deep habits we all depend on as pilots. Accurate habits must be immediately available or our lives are at risk in an upset situation.

Proper stall recovery training requires time and patience. Complete and thorough stall recovery training is seldom included in our current accelerated flight training environment. It is also the professional responsibility of every CFI to not only train correctly but also to create safe and complete pilots beyond the minimum ACS requirements. Many important skills are not required in the ACS test and are consequently not taught. The FAA puts its trust in professional educators here. Eradicating deeply embedded “negative stall training” takes even longer. Panic and pulling, combined with incomplete understanding, are the root problems behind many pilot deaths.  Releasing and unloading in a panic situation is a trained and very unnatural response.

Various versions of the FAA ACS initially allowed stall recovery “at the first indication” of a stall. Consequently, many recent pilots (and even CFIs) have never experienced, or gotten comfortable with, full stalls. These pilots often panic when full stalls are requested for higher-level certificates. Old-school flight training often included ballistic “falling leaf” stall recoveries during flight training, teaching rudder usage and demonstrating control of the nose-low stalled condition. Every pilot can benefit from this “extended training!”

Every pilot (and especially CFIs) should invest the time to take Rich Stowell’s FREE Learn-To-Turn Course. Then put these ideas to use with a good instructor practicing SAFE’s Extended Envelope Training. This builds comfort and correct control during high AOA flight conditions. Until the unload instinct overwrites “panic and pull” you are not a safe pilot. Safety requires expanding your flight envelope and training out of your comfort zone. Build correct and reliable habits; fly safely out there (and often).

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

2 thoughts on ““Clueless” is Dangerous; Teach Situational Awareness!”

  1. When I am asked to simplify the basic aspects of flight instruction I always tell instructors that good flight instruction and learning occur in four very different and distinct phases.
    1. All “theory” is taught on the ground. This begins during a preflight session between the instructor and the student concerning what will be experienced in the dual session that immediately will follow.
    2. In flight, all instruction given allows a rote execution by the student with minimal intervention by the instructor.
    3. There should be a post flight debrief with the student where the student is allowed to engage in follow up and ask questions about what took place during the dual session. The instructor should THEN suggest study material pertinent to what was covered in the air.
    4. The period BETWEEN DUAL SESSIONS is CRITICAL for the student’s learning experience. It is during this period where what was done by rote in the air is mentally considered by the student and comprehension takes place.

    What I have described above basically constitutes a flexible unwritten lesson plan that a flight instructor can follow that if used properly can form the basis for a learning curve that will allow a student the time needed to help build the comprehensive level required for situational awareness to enter into the learning curve and become effective.

    An added thought for CFI’s.
    ALWAYS teach by continuously stressing what is needed to accomplish the task. NEVER teach by criticizing what the student is doing while trying to accomplish the task.

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