I like to think of myself as a “defensive driver.” When I get to a four way stop, and I stop, I don’t just glance around and go again. What if someone coming from another direction fails to stop? That means I’m getting hit. Sure, it’s not my fault, but who cares about fault when lives are at stake? Instead, I look carefully down each direction for anyone approaching. I’ll sometimes wait for an extra while to make sure they are stopping. Extra cautious? Perhaps, but I like to think that I’m situationally aware of what’s around me. In the airplane, situational awareness goes so much deeper than just “being cautious.” Let’s explore the concept and look at how you can apply it to your flying.


Work The Margins
Safety in aviation is about creating the biggest possible margin for error. One way to increase that margin is to be situationally aware on the radios. Knowing what others around you are doing can help you not only anticipate their next move, but prevent a mistake on their part from affecting you. It doesn’t take a radar screen or any fancy technology to get a good picture of what most of the airplanes around you are doing.  Many radio calls involve the location of the aircraft calling.  In busy airspace, it’s impossible to mentally map every airplane – even a controller with a radar screen has a lot to keep up with.  But you can paint the best picture in your mind that you can, and almost like marking certain emails as important, decide which transmissions warrant a mental note to follow up.  For example, if you are on the downwind leg to land, hearing an airplane who is ten miles out for a straight in approach to your runway might not be a factor.  But what if the airplane calling is significantly faster than you are?  You can’t tell his speed by his radio calls, but hearing “Citation 1234” or “Beech Jet 5678” alerts you that it is faster than, say, the Cessna 172 you are flying.  That would be a good point on your mental map to follow up on, try to make visual contact, and listen for his tail number again.  You create a bigger margin for error by paying attention to that sort of traffic, rather than assuming that because you are doing everything right, a mistake on their part wouldn’t affect you.


Paint A Picture
I remember reading a story about a busy airport on a low visibility day (Thanks to fellow blogger Ron Rapp for finding the story here). The controller was moving aircraft around and couldn’t actually see the aircraft due to the low visibility. An airplane was being cleared from one area to another and at one point was holding short of a runway crossing. The copilot was listening to the radio traffic and following along on his airport diagram. At one point, he was instructed to cross a runway on his ground journey. He replied that he was unable to do that, going back and forth briefly with the controller, who urged him on. Before an explanation could be given, an airliner sped past on that runway.  Had the airliner proceeded across the runway as directed, a collision would have been unavoidable.

Cessna Flight Simulator

Paying attention to more than just what is in front of you is critical.

The pilot had stayed put because he had been listening to the radio traffic. He was aware of the fact that the controller that instructed him to cross the runway had just cleared another airplane to take off on that same runway. Whose fault would it have been? Likely none of the pilots. The controller made the mistake. But the fault wouldn’t have mattered. Everyone was just doing what they were told, and even if they had done it well, lives would have been lost. The pilot, who was situationally aware of his surroundings, had been painting a mental picture of everything he heard on the radio, mentally placing the various airplanes on the map as he heard it.


A Story of Excellence
I’ve worked in hospitality for 14 years now, serving as the Bell Captain of a luxury lake resort. My whole team communicates on radios with earpieces. Much like in aviation, it’s necessary to be plugged in both to the physical world around you as well as the digital world in your ear. When guests call for help with luggage, time is of the essence. I was recently walking a bit behind another bellman who was heading in the same direction as I was. As he walked past the elevator, he hit the up button as he kept walking past, knowing that I was not far behind him and heading up. How? He had been plugged in to the radio traffic and had heard the room I had just signed off to help.  It’s a very small courtesy, and arguably neither critical to the operation or required to do, but the action demonstrates his situation awareness on the radio.  Being aware of the little things means he’s probably aware of the bigger, more important things as well.  That sort of situational awareness doesn’t just happen overnight or after reading a manual.  It takes practice and experience to get there.

The Activity
There are several ways to brush up on your situational awareness. One of my favorites is listening to actual radio traffic at an airport. While this used to require having a hand held radio and pulling up a seat at the local airport, you can now listen to a selection of airport radio traffic from all over the world through LiveATC.net. Go online or grab the app and select your favorite airport. For this exercise, I like an airport like Athens, GA (KAHN). It happens to be where I learned to fly, but it’s a fairly busy class D airport, meaning there is enough radio traffic to keep you busy but all of the traffic is still on one channel. Too big of an airport and you might be listening to only approach, or ground, or tower, which might not give you the same big picture. As you listen to the traffic, pull up an airport diagram and sectional chart of the area (the LiveATC app has a “Diagram” button to pull up the one you are listening to). Whenever you hear a radio call, identify where the airplane is. If you want to print off the diagram you can actually mark points on the paper. The key to this exercise is to be able to listen to words on the radio and paint a mental picture of where the airplanes are. As you get better at this, you can even draw out or speak out where they will be heading next. Here is an example:

You hear: “Athens Tower, Cessna 19916, 10 miles to the south, inbound for landing.”
You respond: “The Cessna is 10 miles below (south of) the airport” (point on the sectional if you like).
Think even further: “Knowing that runway 27 is in use, I expect that he will enter a left downwind for runway 27.”

LiveATC Athens Airport

An Athens airport diagram from LiveATC


See if what you forecast to happen actually happens. Maybe the controller asks him to report left midfield downwind for runway 27. Or maybe he doesn’t. You can’t predict the future, but by mapping out what you hear and guessing what happens next, you hone your situational awareness skills so that the radio is not only less daunting, but maybe even predictable.

As you listen to traffic in the pattern, this exercise becomes invaluable.  If you hear “Cessna 19916 is left downwind for runway 20,” where does that put him in relation to the airport?  Looking at the diagram above, that would put him East of the airfield, potentially crossing the flight path of approaching traffic to runway 27.  It would likely be at a different altitude than an airplane on final to runway 27, but knowing other airplanes in close proximity is important.  With a little practice, hearing the calls will more instantly translate into a visual image in your mental map of the area.

How do you work on YOUR situational awareness?

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    • Clay

      Thanks for that link, Okyere! That is similar to the one I read about, although I recall mine not ending in an actual incident. A great illustration – thanks for finding that!

    • Clay

      That looks like the one! Thanks Ron! I added the link up in the blog along with a link over to your great blog site.



  1. Understanding The Airport Traffic Pattern | Clayviation - […] a mental picture of everything you hear on the radio.  Learn more about situational awareness in a recent blog…

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