Another flash. The night seemed like day for a fraction of a second, as once light streaked through the sky. As we raced between clouds and rain, it was hard to tell how far – or how close – it had been. Looking back on the night, it really hadn’t started badly. But it still held a few surprises for us…
With every mile flown we were getting closer to the heart of the storm. But every minute passing also took us closer to the airport. Staring intently at the GPS map, where the weather radar was overlaying a grim picture, my first officer’s voice broke the silence sporadically as he answered ATC commands while they vectored us around for the ILS approach. I had wished to land straight in and avoid any time we didn’t have to spend near those thunderstorm cells, but the winds forced us to fly around to the other side of the airport. At least it gave us the use of a precision approach rather than the VOR alternative. Still, this didn’t seem to inspire confidence to my fledgling FO. “Fun time eh?” he managed to say with a weak smile. I returned the smile, but my mind was racing.
Our small cockpit was teeming with action. Every turn brought us closer to our final vector, and closer to a thunderstorm cell. Almost on a regular rhythm, the sky light up around us, brighter and brighter each time. We HAD to land soon – or turn around. But something was wrong…
The controller, in his haste to help us land and trying as best he could to keep us away from the towering cells of raging storm just aside of our course, had put us very close to our final approach course. Too close in fact – I realized – as I kept mentally calculating our descent angle and current altitude. We would miss the glideslope which we’d hoped would take us safely to the runway. If that happened, a missed-approach would most likely be needed and we’d miss our only opportunity to land at this airport, forcing us to divert and cancel the mission. I couldn’t take that chance.
Between two short communications and the preparation for the approach, I quickly explained the situation to my FO: “If we don’t get lower NOW, we’re probably not going to be stabilized going down the ILS, and the weather is reported to be pretty low. Ask the controller for a descent or we’ll miss the glide-slope!”
His look told me he understood plain as day. “ATC, this is MEDEVAC 101, we..uhm.. we need a descent NOW…. uhm.. please!” “Medevac 101, turn left heading 280. You are cleared for the ILS approach 25.”
That’s all we needed to hear. “Set the glide-slope intercept altitude!” I asked, all the while reaching for the vertical speed control button. Almost as fast as a lightning flash, we started making our way down as we veered to intercept our final approach course. It was none too soon: while the aircraft captured the localizer and turned inbound for the final approach, the glide-slope slid into place and, with it safely captured, we made our way down and landed, happy, tired, grinning. “Fun times indeed!” I finally replied, almost laughing in relief.
Every story carries a message I once learned. Have you found the one in this yet? Situational Awareness. If I could speak of any tool more precious than anything else in flight, this would be it. Countless accidents can be attributed to the crew losing their situational awareness. From a burnt light-bulb (Eastern Air Lines Flight 401) to black-holes (more on AOPA) to fatigue and poor training (Colgan Air), the reasons are more numerous than you can imagine. Too many times, an accident and loss of lives could have been avoided by a better crew coordination in the cockpit when faced with stressful or even sometimes mundane circumstances.
Situational awareness (SA) involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity, in order to understand how information, events, and one’s own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future. One with an adept sense of situational awareness generally has a high degree of knowledge with respect to inputs and outputs of a system, i.e. an innate “feel” for situations, people, and events that play out due to variables the subject can control. Lacking or inadequate situational awareness has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error. – Wikipedia
As crews train together and fly, it is crucial and imperative that they learn to communicate clearly. This in turn provides the channel necessary for basic information to travel back and forth, for example: who is flying the aircraft? where is the aircraft in relation to the targeted flight path or approach? what is the actual configuration or desired configuration for this phase of flight? Many little details have led to unfortunate errors, simply because of assumptions or even tunnel vision – focusing all the attention and resources on a problem rather than the flight itself. It is then imperative that the entire team share the situational awareness and communicate sufficiently to ensure complete cohesion.
Team SA is defined as “the degree to which every team member possesses the SA required for his or her responsibilities” (Endsley, 1995b, p. 39; see also Endsley, 1989). The success or failure of a team depends on the success or failure of each of its team members. If any one of the team members has poor SA, it can lead to a critical error in performance that can undermine the success of the entire team. By this definition, each team member needs to have a high level of SA on those factors that are relevant for his or her job. It is not sufficient for one member of the team to be aware of critical information if the team member who needs that information is not aware.
In a team, each member has a subgoal pertinent to his/her specific role that feeds into the overall team goal. Associated with each member’s subgoal are a set of SA elements about which he/she is concerned. Team SA, therefore, can be represented as shown below. As the members of a team are essentially interdependent in meeting the overall team goal, some overlap between each member’s subgoal and their SA requirements will be present. It is this subset of information that constitutes much of team coordination. That coordination may occur as a verbal exchange, a duplication of displayed information, or by some other means. (Source: Wikipedia)
Now, before we get carried away, let’s go back to basics. Remember that little adage you learned in flight school?
Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.
Let me rephrase that in different words.
Always fly the plane first. No matter where you are or who is talking to you, the aircraft, despite all the automation now available to flight crews, is only a machine. Granted, some aircrafts are “smarter” machines but the pilot should ALWAYS be in positive control of the aircraft. The famous “What’s it doing now?” question should be the prime target of any flight crew, eliminating any doubt as to whether or not the flight crew is in control, and if not, what needs to be done immediately to regain full control of the aircraft. YOU are in control, not the FMS, not even ATC. If your FMS takes you on the unprotected side of a hold, or your autopilot takes you down below minimums when a go-around was predicated, who will take the blame? For this step, communication between the crew is the key to success and safety.
Once positive control has been ascertained, making sure that you are not headed unwillingly for a situation where your aircraft could end up losing a limb (CFIT, thunderstorms, etc) is your next priority. Understand the dynamics of the weather you are encountering and always make sure to have an egress route if needed. For example, if you are encountering freezing rain and know it’s associated with a warm front, you will be ready to ask for a climb if needed to get away from it. Thunderstorm weather is often hard to predict as it can develop so fast, but a good knowledge of the area’s weather trends can give you a better awareness of where to expect it and how to avoid it best. Prepare as much as you can before you leave, and get updates as often as necessary on the weather to avoid being trapped. As you navigate en-route or on an approach, always cross check available information to confirm the correct position and required configuration.
Finally, broadcast your needs or intentions as often as possible. ATC is there to help and will often try to work with pilots in order to facilitate time constraints or safety matters. You’ve already setup clear communication in the cockpit, so the Pilot not Flying should have no problem relaying the information or requests to ATC, or vice versa, always keeping the Pilot Flying informed of what’s going on outside the airplane. Information such as conflicting traffic, changing weather conditions or special procedures to expect are crucial pieces of information which should be shared in a timely manner, but never taking precedence over flying the aircraft or navigating safely.
Remember, it is always when the order of things is upset that an accident will occur. If a crew is busy discussing an approach procedure and forgets to bring the power up when the autopilot levels off after a descent, the imminent stall will be a much graver danger than the possible deviation to a procedure. At the same time, an untimely communication can distract the crew from a crucial part of their procedure, missing a descent step down on an approach and quickly creating confusion or worse…
Fly. Track. Talk.
In times of need, restructure your team’s focus around the basics. Ensure that each member is targeting key goals, while working as a cohesive unit to promote safety and a successful mission.