Trust and Verify
June 1, 2019
We all have likely heard the old axiom, "trust, but verify!" It holds true today in many facets of our lives, especially in aviation. With all the "gee-whiz" technology that is available in today's cockpits to make flying easier and safer, it is still critically important that you trust your displayed, and controller provided information. But it is equally important that you verify that information.
When going into a towered airport for instance, it is common place to simply trust the air traffic controllers to give you instructions and guidance for a safe approach and landing.
While continuing your approach, do you listen to the radio traffic to help you maintain peak awareness? Do you listen to the tower and develop a clear understanding of where you are, not only in relation to the runway, but also in relation to the surrounding air traffic? Do you understand their intentions? So what does this have to do with what ATC just told you?
Well quite simply, we are all humans. The equipment we use and fly is made by humans; it, and we, are fallible. Thus mistakes can and do happen because we are human and not perfect. The point is, controllers and pilots do make mistakes especially when traffic is very busy arriving and departing. So it is easy for busy pilots to simply accept ATC directions without actually thinking about what they heard. This happens because many actions are driven purely by routine. The brain is essentially on "auto-pilot" (no pun intended) as the many actions and efforts involved with making a standard approach to a landing are now to some extent accomplished by "muscle memory." In other words, commonplace, routine, or normal actions.
It is very important to recall that the pilot in command has the full responsibility for the safe operation of their aircraft at all times, start to finish. Thus maintaining a heightened level of situational awareness (SA) is very necessary and in fact is critically important to a safely completed flight.
Aviation author Stein Miatveit defines SA in his May 2018 article on Core Competencies for Professional Pilots*, "Situational Awareness is a term that encompasses several elements of the pilots knowledge regarding his/her position, the environment they are operating in and the position of other aircraft relative to their own."
It also includes being aware of what your aircraft is doing at any given time and predicting possible situations that could arise from the next moment to anytime in the future until your flight has ended. In layman terms, pilots should always know where they are, where they are going and what's going on around them. This is true at all times, but heightened SA is vitally important especially when approaching an airport operations area or preparing to enter the traffic pattern at an airport.
Now, imagine your personal status after a three and a half hour, non-eventful flight. You call the tower at your destination airport and ask for a straight in approach. You are 7 miles out. Tower replies, "Cessna 1-2-3 X-ray, you are number three, cleared to land Runway 13. Winds 1-4-0 at 07 with occasional gusts to 13. Traffic is on about a three quarter mile final." You look toward the end of the runway and you see one aircraft less than a quarter mile final. But you don't see the number two aircraft? Bare in mind, at this point you are also assessing the operating status of your aircraft and systems, while monitoring your glide path including your vertical and horizontal (lateral) position. In addition, you are maintaining awareness of your fuel status, while looking for the tower-identified traffic, and trying to remember all the info ATC just provided.
You are listening to the tower for additional information or instructions, and now planning a course of action if you cannot see the aircraft somewhere in front of you on a similar glide path to Runway 13. Should you continue your approach to a landing? Should you go around? Should you try to break into the communications chain and advise the tower you cannot see number two? Does the tower think YOU are number two? Is there another aircraft above, below, or immediately behind you?
Now step back for a moment. Clearly you can see that this pilot has much activity going on outside the aircraft, all while monitoring his/her own aircraft systems and continuing to maintain proper aircraft separation. This is happening while holding proper descent rate and lateral position and considering the possibility of a go-around, while looking for other aircraft in the pattern, or possibly entering the pattern.
This pilot's SA is gone at this point in time. The distractions being concurrently dealt with degraded his SA to the point of loss. It is important for pilots to remember that the flight environment is dynamic which can (and often does) change very quickly. Many may ask the question, what can be done to mitigate distractions and potential loss of SA?
One way to maintain heightened SA is to use ADS-B-OUT. ADS–B Out is a function of an aircraft's on-board avionics that will periodically broadcast the aircraft's state vector (3-dimensional position and 3-dimensional velocity) and other required information. ADS-B Out greatly improves your visibility to other aircraft by broadcasting your aircraft's position to other aircraft equipped with ADS-B In and to air traffic control (ATC)*.
Keep in mind that ADS-B Out is mandated, and only within specified airspace. Beginning January 1, 2020, you must be equipped with ADS-B Out to fly in the airspace where today, a Mode C transponder is required.* Oh by the way, the FAA has restarted the ADS-B Rebate Program! The program will end promptly on 10/11/2019, so take advantage of this opportunity right away!
Experienced pilots also know that they should never expect their flight will play out exactly as they planned it. This is simply because of the many variables that can and do come into play. These variables may include unexpected air traffic, dynamic weather systems, various other meteorological elements, and the ever present possibility of aircraft mechanical issues.
Given the previous scenario, you can clearly see the importance of maintaining heightened SA during your entire flight. It can take one simple distraction to cause you to lose your SA which could then lead to a serious situation requiring extraordinary skill to get through. So make sure you trust and verify to assure you keep good SA for your entire flight.