One of my grandfathers was an absentminded poet who kept his grandchildren constantly amused. After a few hours at the typewriter, he’d slip his glasses over his hair and go for coffee. We’d wait patiently for his return.

The fun began when he sat down and searched for his specs, not realizing they were perched atop his noodle. We’d laugh like the dickens. Unfortunately, he kept extra glasses lying around the house. Our family worried that he might inattentively rack up three or four pair, walk out into sunlight and start a fire on top of his head.

Disregarding the stares and finger pointing, the worst that can happen if you leave your glasses on top of your head is a toupee fire. Misplacing your attention in the cockpit of a moving airplane, however, is a far more serious matter.

Inattention & Distraction

Inattention and its famed counterparts, distraction and complacency, have always stalked aviators. These demons have a well-deserved reputation for bending airplanes and bruising pilots. Yet according to the experts, we can cope with these difficulties by increasing our situational awareness. I agree. But how do we do that?

Telling someone to be situationally aware is like telling him to have a sense of humor. Both terms are used as if they represent strategies, when in reality they only identify goals. There are, however, definable steps we can take to focus our attention on what’s important at the moment.

Several years ago a student and I were sipping sodas when we spied a Cessna 150 on the taxiway with its towbar still connected. I ran out, got the pilot’s attention and signaled for an engine cut. The instructor in the right seat opened his window and asked, “What did you do that for?”

I replied, “You can’t take off, your nosegear is sporting a towbar.”

Both individuals looked at each other, pointed fingers, then the instructor said, “Ah, we just landed.”

Isn’t that your worst nightmare?

Who among us hasn’t come close to doing something similar? It’s easy to become distracted and walk away from an attached towbar to remove a chock or untie a rope. Granted, the secret is not to walk away. But if you have to, do what an old timer taught me many years ago. Point at the towbar as if it’s an NDB station and let your arm represent the ADF needle. No matter where you are around the airplane, just keep pointing until you do your business and return to the towbar. 

Yes, this looks funny, but I’ve seen a towbar scooped up by the propeller and thrown into (as in puncture) the left wing of a Cessna 172. That looked funny too. Although pointing is a simple strategy, it’s very effective at compensating for this type of inattention.

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Lack of Situational Awareness

Other types of inattention produce more serious consequences. Suppose a lack of awareness during takeoff caused you to hit a wandering cow and flip it up into the air. Obviously the steaks are higher now, right? After all, it’s one thing to dent a prop by forgetting to disconnect a towbar. It’s an entirely different matter to plow into solid objects like bovines, billboards and buildings because you lack situational awareness.

Situations like these require expanding our awareness to include man, machine and environment. Sustaining this degree of attention, however, requires additional skills. To find out what they are, we need to learn a little existentialist philosophy. Granted, if you study too much of this you could mess yourself up for the rest of your life. I promise I won’t let that happen to you. So let’s see what the great existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre has to say about this.

Sartre suggests that we exist in one of two mental states: reflected consciousness and unreflected consciousness.

Unreflected consciousness is the type you’re experiencing right now. As you read these words, the objects of your attention are paper, text, coffee and possibly donuts (if you’re a police officer). There is no I, no me, no self-reference, in unreflected consciousness.

On the other hand, reflected consciousness involves some form of self-reference. For instance, if you lock yourself out of your car while the engine’s still running, you may become angry with yourself and say, “How could I be so careless?” Now you’ve projected yourself into the question by using the words I or me. We call this a self-referential question. It’s the type of question that causes you to think about your own thinking. In a sense, the question helps you to penetrate the experience, making you more aware of yourself as well as events in the environment (like the location of the keys, the people pointing at you, and the guy with the video camera).

Mental State

This is the mental state that famed memory expert Harry Lorayne calls original awareness, and it’s generated by using self-referential questions. Lorayne says, “Anything of which you are originally aware cannot be forgotten.” In other words, the experience is more memorable because original awareness compels you to pay more attention to it. Yet observations in unreflected consciousness — the consciousness of everyday life — aren’t necessarily original. This explains why we don’t always notice, much less remember, our everyday experience.

Is there a payoff in all this? Oh yes, big time!

Reflected consciousness means you’re more likely to notice the cow on the runway. It means you can have a better sense of those other critical items that are normally transparent to the inattentive mind.

Therefore, the secret to maintaining situational awareness is to remain in reflected consciousness by asking the proper self-referential questions.

And just in case you’re wondering, the answer is “Yes.” But I’ve only done it once with the engine running (someone’s got a video to prove it, too). Now when I get out of my car I’ve trained myself to ask the self-referential question, “Do I have the keys in my hand?” I’ve never been locked out since (convertibles, you’ve got to love them).

Of course, you don’t have to ask self-referential questions all the time. You only need to ask them at the right time.

For instance, I don’t need as high a degree of situational awareness in cruise flight as I do during an instrument approach. This is a good thing, because reflexive consciousness is a real brain drain. It takes a lot work. Every few minutes or so while at cruise altitude I’ll instinctually ask, “How am I doing?” “How’s the machine doing?” “What’s my proximity to the terrain?”

Understanding Airspace & Situational Awareness
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Asking Additional Questions

When I’m flying an ILS to minimums I operate at a much higher level of situational awareness. Several times a minute I ask additional questions like, “Have I forgotten anything?” or “What are the common traps that I can fall into?” These are the types of self-referential questions that allow me to sustain and stabilize situational awareness with language.

Smart pilot that you are, I’m sure you’re thinking, “How do I know when it’s the right time to increase my situational awareness?” Here’s where we can take a lesson from those who practice the martial arts.

A martial artist is trained to respond to triggers. No, not gun triggers. I’m speaking of environmental triggers. For instance, if you’re nutty enough to sneak up on a blackbelt and grab him by the arm (his trigger), he’ll most likely spin around and throw a punch. If his fist makes contact with a solid object, he may yell Keeahh! (which means ouch in Japanese).

Pilots also need triggers to alert them when it’s necessary to notch-up their situational awareness a few degrees. Taking off or landing (especially when cows are nearby) are always triggers for me. The moment I enter the pattern or prepare to take the runway, I begin asking more and more self-referential questions.

When the approach controller says, “This will be a vector for the approach,” that also triggers my situational awareness response. I immediately begin asking questions like, “What are the special difficulties with this approach?” or “What do I need to do now to make this work?” The type of airplane you fly, your experience, and the conditions in which you operate determine which triggers are appropriate for you.


So that’s my take on situational awareness. Perhaps a few of you are thinking, “Well, Rod’s wheel is turning but I think his hamster’s dead.” Granted, some of these principles are a little esoteric, but they are derived from a respectable sub-branch of philosophy called phenomenology. They are not, however, based on mysticism.

I hope you find this advice more meaningful than that offered by a famous New Age guru in one of his recent seminars. He suggested that we can elevate our minds by letting them go blank for at least 20 minutes a day. Well, this means that some folks will have to cut back a little (especially those people who paid $1,500 to hear advice like this). I hope you will find these principles a little more practical and a lot more useful.

Copyright by Rod Machado 2014

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