by LeRoy Cook
Staying aware of the aircraft’s position and, most importantly, where it’s going on its present track or live tracking, is a vital part of piloting. Historically, many, many tragic CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents have resulted from lapses in positional awareness. The pilots thought they were in safe airspace, until the trees came through the windscreen.
Even if an accident does not result, there are probably numerous instances each year when the crew or pilot allows the aircraft to stray outside its intended flight path, perhaps causing embarrassment or momentary alarm. These events should bring attention and resolve to eliminate future occurrences.
Now that we are well-equipped with navigation displays, flight management systems and automated flight controls, there should be zero CFIT accidents and inadvertent off-course excursions. The fact that loss of positional awareness continues to occur is evidence of the creativity of human ability to induce failures. Pilots can keep up with only so much programming and changing; frequent twists and turns in the aircraft’s flight path can leave us unsure of exactly where we are and where we’re supposed to be.
With TAWS or other terrain-awareness equipment installed, there’s less likelihood of ignoring the rock monitor’s “pull up” alert and red-splashed display, but it can still happen, particularly when warnings become commonplace because the terrain is nearby. In nearly every case, however, near-misses or close encounters are the result of an earlier loss of positional awareness – a result, not a cause, of the piloting error.
Therefore, we must return to a basic fundamental fact of flight; know where you are, and know it before you get there. As my instructor taught me, “never let the airplane take you anywhere your brain hasn’t been one minute before (or longer).” If you keep track of where you are, you won’t get lost, and more importantly, you can plan ahead for what must take place next.
“Where’s It Taking Us?”
Today’s pattern of position loss is more likely to occur from information overload, or from over-reliance on automation. In the first case, the pilot has a geo-referenced map but it has so much symbology on it that the aircraft’s position is submerged in data. It’s important to utilize brain-power to monitor the flight’s progress. Know where you’ve already been, know how long it’s been since the present heading was taken up, and gauge where you are. Do not depend strictly on the MFD’s view of present position.
Because most of the flight may be flown coupled to a flight plan loaded in the FMS, it’s easy to rely on the automation, but remember GIGOm – Garbage In, Garbage Out. Misprogramming is only a fat-finger push away. Again, make sure it looks right when the results of your entry tally up. At every turn, verify where Otto is taking you, not just that the aircraft is following the line. Make sure it’s the RIGHT line.
Having radar vectors to downwind or base-leg position, or onto an intercepting heading, is not a cure-all. A friend of mine who was an airline simulator instructor often challenged his trainees by vectoring their simulated flight into the approach airspace, whereupon he would ask them to place a pencil point on the approach chart, to show him exactly where they were. All too much of the time, they would give him a blank-stare response. They were obviously dependent on radar guidance, with no backup resource in their mind.
Evidently, these well-schooled pilots had completed familiarization training on using the flight management system and following procedures and systems. But, they hadn’t a clue about how to maintain a mental picture of the flight’s progress. Simple dynamics should keep us aware of the airplane’s position in space, from elapsed time, heading and speed. Should the MFD fail, a back-up chart or tablet won’t have all the MFD’s features; our mental picture should be able to fix our last known position and project the flight’s progress to its present location.
Night, IMC or unfamiliar locations are all operational challenges requiring extra caution. Having previously made an entry to an airport helps to orient us, although one must not be lackadaisical from having had a fleeting familiarity. Facilities do change, and new obstructions can pop up. Following charted procedures is particularly important when visibility is obscured, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep track of your progress, anticipating where the next magenta path will appear and what the leader line on the flight path icon is forecasting. Do not abandon your responsibility as pilot-flying–keep track of where you are and where you’re going.
The sad result of loss-of-positional-awareness is an aircraft literally flying itself, and if intervening terrain or obstructions loom up quickly, impact may be unavoidable. Distractions, like passenger requests or ATC re-routes, must not replace monitoring the flight’s progress. And it will progress; airplanes need forward momentum to maintain controlled flight. That means you’re not where you were minute-before-last; you’re now over here.
GPS or multi-sensor navigation systems are great at marking a present fix. They are not so helpful with relating that fix to hazards and routes, especially when a flight plan has yet to be loaded. The pilot’s duty is to know roughly where he or she is, and to use the GPS in a forward-looking manner, free of surprises.
Where Are You Now?
In our wonderful world of moving maps and databases, we have the ability to see our location on a screen, in terms of waypoints and distance-to-go. That’s not the same as positional awareness. How often have you glimpsed the surface through a break in the undercast and were surprised to find yourself offshore? Is your present heading taking you into terrain? How long can you maintain this heading before you must turn to avoid CFIT? What altitude will clear all obstructions, if you need to climb away from a landing attempt? These question must be resolved by having positional awareness. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.
Some of the famous aviation accidents were the ones with no positional awareness at the controls. In 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401, a Lockheed TriStar, was flown into the swampy, flat terrain of the Florida Everglades because all of the crew was preoccupied with troubleshooting a faulty landing gear light. No one noticed that the autopilot was disconnected and altitude was dwindling. A total of 101 persons died, with 75 survivors.
Some 23 years later, American Airlines 965, a Boeing 757, crashed into a mountain at Cali, Columbia, killing 160 passengers and crew; four people survived, by a miracle. The weather was clear, but darkness was a factor. Contributing to the loss of positional awareness was a last-minute runway reassignment, plus an FMS programming error, leaving the airplane blindly pursuing an approach path to a non-existent airport, inserting itself into a mountain valley. Ground proximity warning gave a last minute “Pull up” command, but descent spoilers were not retracted and the slow climb was not sufficient.
The chain leading to accidents often begins with a simple mistake, compounded by further oversights. Losing positional awareness is such a mistake. With all the tools we now have, it’s not difficult to regain PA, but first we have to realize that we’re lost.