Situational Awareness: A Complicated Affair

The keys to keeping your bearing in the tech age.

Situational Awareness Feature Gyro

Situational Awareness Feature Gyro

Today's flight instructors are coming to terms with a new presence in the cockpit of their training aircraft: the Apple iPad. Students are bringing iPads with them to run one of a few apps that give them unprecedented situational awareness, a level of situational awareness, in fact, that makes old-school aviators wonder how in the world pilots who've come of age in the iPad era could ever manage to make it from point to point if the batteries ever gave out.

The aviation world today is divided in two, those who started flying only after area navigation — for all intents and purposes this means GPS — and those who learned to fly before that time.

Such moving-map-reared pilots are sometimes pejoratively called "children of the magenta," referring to the magenta line that denotes the active leg on a moving map display. "Follow the magenta," critics suggest tongue in cheek, "and you'll be just fine." The funniest part is, for the most part, that's not far from the truth.

As cute as they are, such jokes fail to take into account the complicated issues behind the paradigm shift we've seen in aviation displays over the past two decades. We have gone from a flight world in which the ability of the pilot to visualize the flight situation was not only highly prized but also necessary for survival to one where graphically obvious situational awareness information is everywhere the pilot looks in the cockpit.

This cultural shift has taken us from a world of raw data to one of graphical information. In the old days, a pilot had to be able to mentally translate data shown by a single needle indicating course deviation in degrees from that selected by the pilot, for instance. The needle is the only indication the pilot gets from the receiver of a radio signal from a VOR, and that signal gets progressively less precise the farther away the pilot gets from the station and totally unusable as the plane passes over it. The task was nothing less than taking that data as presented on primitive instruments and translating it into flight tactics that would hopefully keep the airplane out of the trees. This is just one example of the insanely complicated world of radio navigation. Don't get me started on NDBs. Their complexity, inaccuracy and poor utility make them laughable by today's standards. Back then you just had to learn how to fly one. Heaven help you if you had to do it in anger.

The first certified IFR GPS receiver, the Garmin GPS 155, was approved for en route and nonprecision approach use. The integrated moving map brought many IFR pilots in-panel graphical situational awareness for the first time.|

There were instruments designed to help out. The horizontal situation indicator, or HSI, is a complex mechanical attempt to create what looks like an overhead view of what the procedure you're flying looks like with course, heading and deviation data all combined in one instrument. HSIs, while expensive and mechanically finicky, were as good as it got for small airplanes, and anybody who flew IFR for transportation and who had the dough put one in their panel. The HSI, unfortunately, was as good as mechanical instruments would get.

Like it or not, this is the world of instrumentation I found myself entering as I worked on my instrument rating 20 years ago today as of this writing.

I was, as many neophytes were at the time, baffled by all of it and incredulous that we couldn't have found a better way to do things.

Like many would-be instrument pilots, I did not (and do not) have a strong aptitude for visualizing data, which at the time was without question the most important skill an aspiring IFR aviator could have.

For those like me who lacked strong visualization abilities, over time one could pick up certain tricks, like mentally superimposing the final approach course on the directional gyro (another instrument that leaves much to be desired). Even once you got your head around such procedures, lest you get too confident, there were always new ones to humble you: back course localizers, DME arcs and approaches based on intersecting VOR radials.

All of this, remember, was heaped onto a plate already full with new skills to master, from learning the strange language of air traffic controllers to the critical need of being able to fly the airplane by reference to the instruments. Other than all that, instrument flying was easy.

New Gear

The arrival of new navigation gear was, at first for light-plane pilots like me, in the form of handheld moving map devices.

The term moving map is so common today it seems to need no discussion, but that begs the point that, when they came out, such displays were revolutionary. For the first time (not counting oddball or prohibitively expensive displays for high-end business aviation or the commercial airline market) regular pilots could see where they were in a highly graphical way.

For aviation, a moving map is just what it sounds like, a display that shows an electronic aviation chart with the position of your airplane right there on it. You get to see where you are in relationship to upcoming waypoints, airways, nearby airports and navaids of all descriptions. The clearance to "fly heading 060 to intercept the 180 degree radial of the Orlando VOR and fly it inbound" sounds like calculus to most new pilots, but by seeing it on a moving map display, it's easy to visualize. That's the genius of moving map displays: They allow pilots to see precisely where they are in relationship to the outside world. There's no more mental translation required, and all of a sudden the craft of instrument flying, the complex mental gymnastics that pilots had to do to visualize their place in the world of the air, was no longer needed. The age of the children of the magenta had begun.

The first such navigator I got was a handheld loran navigator, though soon I traded that in for a GPS unit, the Garmin 100, which allowed me theoretically to program a flight plan, though I never came close to mastering it. For me it was "direct to" and then repeat as necessary.

I wasn't allowed to use any such aids on my IFR training — I wasn't even allowed to use the perfectly functional (well, "perfectly" is a stretch) autopilot in the Piper Arrow I flew in my training at FlightSafety Academy, then located in Lakeland, Florida.

But once I had my ticket (which I got only thanks to a training regime that focused on passing the test and nothing more), I was free to return to the brave new world of small ­handheld graphical displays.

My first in-depth experience with such flying was with the Garmin 195, a gray-scale handheld with a pretty good-size portrait format display that I used to confirm the routing I was dialing into my Grumman Tiger's steam gauges. At first that's what I did. Then, after a while, even though I knew the 195 was for advisory purposes only, I started pretty much flying off the handheld while tuning and monitoring the course on the needles of the OBS. It would not have been legal for me to at some point switch to simply flying the course based on the nav display of the handheld, even though it was more reliable, more accurate, easier to use and easier to interpret than the mechanical instruments. I would never have done such a thing.

Garmin again set the situational awareness standard with the introduction of the GNS 430 and GNS 530 (shown here) all-in-one GPS/WAAS navigators. With integrated traffic and terrain awareness on a bright color moving map, the units helped hundreds of thousands of pilots find themselves.|

Before too long I could fly off GPS as my primary nav source. The Garmin 430 and its larger counterpart, the GNS 530, which burst onto the scene more than a decade ago, are multifunction navigators that combined a moving map, flight management system, waypoint information database and much more. They became the de facto standard in light airplanes.

I was, it should be said, still forced to fly behind steam gauge primary flight displays, something I assumed I'd be doing forever — but even that changed. With the introduction of the Avidyne Entegra flat-panel displays in the Cirrus SR20 and SR22, pilots of light airplanes could rely on electronic primary flight displays with solid-state attitude and heading sensors that, when combined with a good navigator, like the Garmin 430, gave them an entire suite of instruments with sophisticated moving map displays. Combining these things with a good autopilot gave pilots a remarkably sophisticated flight management package.

It wasn't enough, however, and soon came satellite based in-cockpit weather, displays of instrument procedure charts, traffic awareness and terrain awareness, along with engine management and even in-flight entertainment.

**iPad Apps **

Over the past three years we've seen one of the most remarkable developments in the history of avionics, namely, the explosion onto the scene of the tablet computer and the apps that make it a must-have piece of pilot gear.

Calling an iPad an instrument is not a stretch. For starters, it is indeed FAA-approved equipment, as is an EFB (electronic flight bag, a term so clunky it surely must have been created by someone far from Silicon Valley). True, the iPad was never intended for use in an airplane, and it is portable hardware, and the apps that have evolved for it do not have to gain approval as FAA-­certified flight software. Call it what you like: The iPad running ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot is for all intents and purposes the most marvelous thousand-dollar investment in situational awareness a pilot could make. The thought, 20 years ago, of having such capabilities at our fingertips would have been beyond our wildest dreams. With ForeFlight Mobile Pro, for example, pilots can see their progress on the moving map, see a profile view of the flight as it relates to terrain and obstacles, see the progress of the flight on georeferenced approach plates (no profile view there — yet) and even take advantage of third-party sensors to view an unapproved (and unapprovable) primary flight display with synthetic vision showing a computerized version of the outside world, with airports, terrain, bodies of water and advanced guidance cues. On an iPad.

New Kinds of Awareness

One of the most amazing things about today's iPad apps is that many of the pilots who routinely fly with them do so behind some very sophisticated panels. I include myself in this group. Now, why in the world would I need an aviation app running full time on my tablet when I have in my Cirrus panel a PFD with solid-state ADAHRS, an MFD with moving map, XM Weather, georeferenced approach charts, terrain awareness, traffic awareness and cool jazz to boot?

The answer is, because I get things out of the iPad I don't out of the panel in the Cirrus, and those are a blazingly fast scroll speed, pinch and zoom, and near instant access to constantly updated information on fuel prices, rental cars, TFRs, high-res terminal procedure charts and free weather uplink. Heck, I've got an app for my Lightspeed PFX headset. Some of these things are unique to the iPad, and some of them are just done ­better or faster than by the panel-mount avionics, but the point is that I have no plans to leave my tablet at home any time soon.

ForeFlight Mobile Pro, a remarkable app in so many ways, even warns you as you taxi toward a runway intersection or hot spot, part of its "hazard advisor" feature. It's something that the Perspective flight deck can't do, at least not yet. It's a level of situational awareness that we might have imagined a couple of decades ago, but the idea of having it as part of a $150 annual subscription on a handheld tablet computer that can also play music and do email? It's a revolution.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

The question I initially raised, can you have too much situational awareness, is a valid one, but only if we discount the idea that real pilots should deny themselves such tools in order to make the craft of flying more challenging and therefore more meaningful. For some pilots and some missions, that's great. For transportation flying when there's weather and unfamiliar terrain and surroundings, I like to know I've got the right airport and the right runway, that I'll miss the big rocks and that the snack bar is open. A paper en route chart doesn't do it for me.

With the introduction of the Apple iPad a few years ago, ­situational awareness suddenly was affordable for all. The leading app, ForeFlight, has a wide range of situational ­awareness tools, including georeferenced approach plates.|

Still, there clearly can be too much situational awareness in at least three ways: when that awareness gets in the way of flying the plane (which one might argue is the opposite of awareness); when such awareness is based on mistaken notions of which instruments do what; and when the loss of that tool puts you at a significant disadvantage.

One of our columnists recently recounted an experience in which she gave a check ride to a would-be instrument pilot who was far more interested in the iPad than in the PFD in the Garmin G1000-equipped Skyhawk she was flying. Clearly, the pilot failed to understand the nature of a primary flight display and what its function is. One uses it for directly following course guidance. This is one thing an iPad is not good for. I know this sounds like it should go without saying, but here goes anyway: Know what your panel mount avionics are for and use them and not an iPad for that.

That said, the answer in my opinion is not to throw the iPad out the window in flight but to figure out how to better incorporate it into the cockpit tool kit. This means learning what your app does, how to access the information it has to offer and how to do it quickly to avoid distraction.

It also means having a Plan B. Don't rely on a single tablet. Have a way to keep it charged. Have an iPhone or second tablet for backup. Keep it out of direct sunlight. Get a kneeboard for it. Treat it like a flight instrument and not like a music player.

Relish this technological gift of situational awareness. Those of us who learned flying, especially instrument flying, in the bad old days of raw data and cold sweat know just how great a thing it is and will never take it for granted.

We also know that situational awareness, if it is anything, is being aware of your overall flight situation and not the magenta line on a moving map or the little airplane icon on your iPad. Flying involves air masses and lift, engine oil temperature and crossing altitudes, radio ­tuning knobs and the risk of airframe icing. All of that is part of the flight ­situation, and without awareness of all of that, knowing just your ­specific location in time and space is a ­woefully incomplete kind of ­awareness. New tools are just that, tools to help do a much bigger job, and that job is flying the airplane and all that means.

Situational Awareness Checklist

The concept of situational awareness that many pilots have is that of static location. "Here's where I am in reference to the outside world," seems to sum up the beginner's understanding of the concept. In truth, situational awareness is far more than that. It is an ever-changing value, the sum of the inputs to the health of the flight. All of the factors that go into the situational awareness picture are necessary to the safe completion of the flight, so all of them must be taken into account.

  • Position
  • Where are you in space, not only laterally, i.e., 12 miles southeast of ABC VOR, but in four dimensions? You need to work in present altitude (and rate of climb or descent), airspeed, heading/track and course intent, all as they related to your flight plan, which might include crossing or other altitude or speed restrictions. All of these factors are critical to understanding the nature of your present situation and what future actions you might need to take in the normal or adapted course of the flight.

  • Angle of Attack

  • What is your current energy state? Modern displays usually include a trend vector indicator that gives valuable information on where on the energy curve you currently reside. This is a critical part of situational awareness, especially as you get lower to the ground.

  • Traffic

  • Where is the other traffic? How will it affect the safety of flight not only now but as you progress along your route of flight?

  • Terrain

  • Where is the high terrain? How will it affect your future flight path? ForeFlight Mobile Pro features a cool profile view that shows you how your flight-planned route and altitudes relate to upcoming terrain. Lacking such technology, this is the kind of visual image you need to create in your own mind to manage your relationship to high terrain.

  • Fuel and Equipment

  • That destination 2.4 hours away is imaginary if you have but two hours of fuel onboard. Fuel reserves (along with other consumables, such as oxygen or deicing fluid) plus constant systems monitoring are critical parts of the overall calculation.

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