Rule of thumb for the summer: situational awareness

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 9:45pm

The phone rang and a voice with a southern drawl said, “Hey, Joe, how’re you doin?” “Good, long time no hear Captain, how are you and yours? You still flying the big wagons?” I asked. “Yup, but I’ll tell ya, last week I crashed my Stinson Gullwing in New Mexico, some guy hit me while I was on final,” he said, “I was at one hundred feet, and he took out my elevators and rudder,” said the caller. (Pause) “Ahem, what, ahem, happened?” I asked. “This guy hit me, and I lost control of my airplane so I went to power to get some air over my wings, but I went vertical and up into a hammerhead stall and crashed,” he said. “What the hell? What about the other guy? Were you scared?” I asked. “Nope, just kept flying my plane and figured I’d know what it’s like to be dead in seven seconds, but the other guy lived, too,” he said, “Anyway, how’re the wife and kids?” 

Situational awareness, a.k.a. SA, means: “One having a perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.” For example, when we come to a railroad crossing, we are taught to “Stop, look, and listen.” In this technological age, we are now zipping through on the quick step — all of the time — we now must be hyper-aware of our surroundings. One of the downsides of our digital progress is that our attention spans are getting shorter, and our decision-making is getting compromised. A simple example of this is the iPhone. This gadget is designed to recruit us into paying attention to the screen longer than we had anticipated. As a result of this fixation, we lose some of our situational awareness; especially while driving our cars. Subsequently, laws for the use of our gadgets while driving have changed in order to protect us — from ourselves and the other guy.

While sailing across Narragansett Bay last summer in 100 percent visibility, a 50-foot powerboat was heading south toward Newport. I was on a starboard tack doing six knots and heading toward the Naval War College. The thought occurred to me that this guy might not see me. It’s a thought I have often these days, and it is very unsettling. The boat was heading right at me and then slowly the guy veered away from my stern. Furthermore, Interstate Navigation’s Captain Don Rooney and I were discussing the complexity of navigating through New York Harbor and Block Island Sound in bad visibility and heavy marine traffic. (Captain Rooney operates both traditional and high-speed ferries.) We discussed the technology available to operators of different types of vessels. According to Rooney, “Collision avoidance systems are only helpful if you first know the rules of the road,” he said, “We don’t all have the right of way and until you know these rules there is no technology that will help you in zero visibility.” There is very little room for error while traveling at 30 knots on a high-speed ferry. Some people simply do not know the rules of the road, and even the ones who do can be distracted by gadgetry. Add to this, wind, tide and sea-state, and it is clear that all operators must remain highly vigilant of their surroundings.

At the ferry docks I witness a lack of situational awareness on a daily basis. Although it’s against Rhode Island State law to drive while holding and talking on a cell-phone, people still do it; they text and they drive. A few weeks ago, a guy actually pulled into the ferry parking lot while he was operating a laptop on his dash board. I told the guy to shut it down and pay attention; there were people walking toward the ticket office and forklifts zipping back and forth and loading freight. The guy looked befuddled; go figure. Another thing that presents a loading problem is when drivers use their dashboard cameras when they’re backing toward the ferry. Human beings like things that are linear, so they back up and focus on the orange lines of the camera and aim right for the Coca -Cola machine at the corner of the main ferry building. I tell people to not look at the camera, and I’d rather they use their rear-view mirrors and look for the First Mate’s hand signals. If they do that, then they won’t fixate on the parallel, orange, linear image on their camera and be forty degrees off from the stern of the ferry. I reinforce this every day.

When my friend told me about crashing his Stinson out in New Mexico at an uncontrolled airfield, I got to thinking what he told me one day while we were flying along the coast toward Cape Kennedy in a Cessna 182 Skylane. Rick told me to look for some targets off his starboard wing. I was thinking there were no planes in our vicinity. However, when I started to look for targets, I found six aircraft of various shapes and sizes and at different altitudes. My friend was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and was stacking airtime, studying, and working toward his instrument rating when I did some flying with him, and he was all business. Rick loved his Stinson and had her tricked out with all of the original gear and webbed seats in the cockpit. He was preparing for a cross-country trip to his new crew base of the airline he flew for, and was testing his airplane for the long trip. Here was a professional pilot who was focused on his task, and was hit by someone who wasn’t, and fortunately, both men walked away from their downed aircraft.

Finally, whether we’re flying, driving, sailing, or simply walking it is imperative that we pay attention to our surroundings and have heightened sense of where we are and what we are doing — situational awareness.