Situational Awareness and Decision-making

Visit Us

To protect ourselves from skydiving dangers, we must improve our situational awareness

“We often have little time to understand what is happening, choose the appropriate solution and execute it correctly”

Introduction

The human factor, threats and errors are the main causes of accidents in aeronautics. Equipment-related problems are now minimal and the evolution and improvement of procedures and training mean that the occurrence of incidents and accidents has decreased considerably. Statistically these mainly happen under canopy and during landing, not only to beginners but also to very experienced people.

One of the ways to improve safety is to allow practitioners to take a step back from their practice, and to understand the potential problems linked to their operation. It is easy to understand that it is essential to improve your technical abilities whether in the sky or through the wind tunnel or under canopy. This is not so obvious for soft skills. Situational awareness, workload management and even TEM (Threat and Error Management). These skills are behaviors that must be adapted to each situation. We do this naturally, but by improving our knowledge of how our brain works and makes decisions, we can anticipate and mitigate the errors and threats that we encounter.

This series of articles will be divided into several parts which I hope will give you the keys to understanding and improving your practice.

In this first part we will look at how we develop our situational awareness and our decision-making.

We often have little time to understand what is happening, choose the appropriate solution and execute it correctly

“Making the right decision is what will guarantee you the best of a bad situation”

Situational awareness

The most common definition of situation awareness is “the perception of elements of the environment in a space and time, the understanding of their meaning and the projection of their states into the near future”.

Situational awareness is a mental construct that we make of a given situation. It is thanks to this that we make decisions. The closer our situational awareness is to reality, the better our final decision-making will be provided we execute it correctly.We build situational awareness all the time, it’s our way of making sense of the world around us.

To be able to understand our brain follows several chronological and obligatory steps.

Firstly, we use our senses; mainly our sight but also our hearing, touch and our spatial sensations (acceleration, position in space.)… Then we match these feelings with our memory; have we already experienced moments In the same way? Have we been trained, read or been briefed on the subject or situation encountered?

These steps allow us to understand and make sense of what we perceive.

Then we try, always unconsciously, to project the evolution of the situation into the future. This understanding that we have of the world gives us our mental representation of the situation. Unfortunately, it is within this process that our mistakes emerge. In a model that we will detail in a future article we will see how and where errors are created and how we can minimize their consequences.

Situational Awareness Infographic

Decision-making

Making a decision is choosing one of the options that our brain creates for us. We have seen that following the mental representation of the situation, we project the evolution of the situation. We then choose one of these developments to act on. Not acting is also making a decision. The closer our awareness of the situation is to reality, the better the decisions we will make.

Situational awareness is dynamic and evolves depending on one’s perception of external elements. We participate in an activity that has very high time pressure and therefore we often have little time to understand what is happening, choose the appropriate solution and execute it correctly.

However, it is essential to check that the evolution of the situation is consistent with what we have planned. If this is not the case, you must quickly admit that you were wrong and redo the entire process. Losing situational awareness is one of the worst things that can happen to us. It will place us under intense stress likely to lead to very serious errors and erratic actions.

Here is a list of factors that can affect situational awareness:

  • Ambiguity: several sources of contradictory information
  • Attentional focus: focusing your senses on a single source of information while excluding the rest
  • Confusion: uncertainty or perplexity when faced with a situation
  • The unexpected: an unexpected situation does not need to be spectacular to surprise.
  • Hidden information: things you can’t perceive.

Optimize your decision-making

To protect ourselves from the risks linked to our activity, we absolutely must improve our situational awareness. To achieve this, it is important to perceive the right information. This perception must be active, but attention to perception costs energy. In addition, it is essential to know and have the knowledge necessary to understand. To know, you have to take the step of being interested. Be interested in the equipment, know how it works, why it works the way it does (skyhook, AAD, canopy, etc.), know the potential problems linked to it, the advantages of certain options but also their disadvantages. Take the example of the metal reserve handle, it helps avoid confusion between the handles, it is open and therefore easier to pull, but it can also get caught more easily and cause your reserve to open accidentally.

  • It is essential to know the area in which you are jumping, what are the dangers associated with it (wind shear, obstacles, outside landing zones, etc.) 
  • Know and be interested in run-ins, separation between groups, trajectory problems of certain jumps (eg. movement jumps).
  • Know your pattern under canopy and how to pilot it with all the different controls (rear, front, harness, etc.), have knowledge of the recovery arc, stall, maximum flare, etc.

All this knowledge will allow you to build much better situational awareness and understand the situation you find yourself in.

Landing safely in crowded skies requires a lot of situational awareness
Photo by Ray Cottingham

The issue of time is, as I said, an important factor influencing decision-making. To be able to manage complicated situations, you must anticipate and create solutions in advance with means such as (what if?…) and always work in a tree structure, leaving yourself options and avoiding getting locked into a mental schema as much as possible. to avoid “target fixation” by creating exit doors.

However, decision-making is also linked to our personality and other factors that influence decision-making:

  • Psychosocial factors: The ego, the view of others or that of the instructor, the influence of the group…
  • Cognitive factors: personality biases, emotions, impulses, personality…
  • Contextual factors: procedures, rules, external dangers, time constraints, performance requirements, etc.

Examples

Having a good situational awareness is crucial because it’s the way we perceive the world. Below are a couple of incidents caught on video. In every video the questions we should ask ourselves are:

  • What information do I perceive about the situation?
  • What technical knowledge do I have regarding the situation?
  • What are the risks associated with this situation?
  • What would be my decision?
  • Would time be a factor in my decision-making?

Skydiver flies into trees

In this example, this bad landing decision could have been avoided by planning a better landing pattern. This jumper’s poor situational awareness is due to his lack of canopy skill, landing pattern knowledge and he didn’t have a clear procedure to follow.

Pilot chute out the door

This one too is clearly a lack of situational awareness where the jumpers did not perceive visual information, did not try to get the information and end up nearly dying, only saved by the AAD equipment.

Here, it’s a collective lack of situational awareness where nobody realized the situation they were in. In this video it’s clear the skydivers focussed all their attention on docking, forgetting everything else, and seriously jeopardizing their safety.


Conclusion

Making the right decision is what will guarantee you the least dangerous situation. As we have seen, it is important, proactive work that requires investment in practice as well as self-awareness. Unlike many other sports, danger is omnipresent and even if the activity seems fun and rather safe, we have all witnessed incidents or accidents that have resulted in injuries and sometimes even deaths. By analyzing these accidents we often realize that they were due to human errors and that they could have been avoided, if people had built up a good awareness of the situation, had identified the dangers, had mitigated them and made decisions constructed in advance with a good general knowledge of the practice and the main dangers linked to it.

The importance of feedback is essential because it allows us to learn from the events of others and to become aware of the causes which led to incidents or accidents and to make improvements in equipment, procedures and good habits during the activity.

In the next article, we will talk about workload management and human errors by taking concepts covered here and fleshing them out a little more. Future articles will cover stress management and assertiveness, threats and error management

Keep safe and blue skies.

Visit Us







Meet: Phong Son Ho

After being trained in the French Air Force. I joined a French airline as a copilot on Boeing 737s. Then I was rapidly promoted as a captain on ATR72-500 then on Boeing 737-NG and now on Boeing 777 and 787. I was also crew resource management and human factor expert and instructor in my company for more than 10 years.

I started skydiving in 2019. I am a camera flyer at my DZ

View All Posts