Never stop listening – why it pays to be paranoid in the cockpit

What is situational awareness? If you ask that question to 100 people, you’re likely to get 100 different answers. One definition I’ve read goes like this: “Situational Awareness or situation awareness (SA) is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event.”

So, you could sum it up more succinctly: situational awareness is a perception. It is the perception of what is going on around you. If you are moving, or things around you are moving, then your perception requires periodic and valid updates. Often times those updates require only your ears and mind’s eye in order to draw an accurate SA picture.

We pushed back from the gate and began the start procedure for the number one engine. The co-pilot, Greg, was quite busy in his attempt to retrieve the “takeoff numbers” from load control, so I elected to start the engine myself, all while monitoring the push, the ground control frequency, the tug driver, and the engine instruments. It was that quiescent, lazy, hazy time of the morning after the early rush period when you often realize that you are the only moving object on the airport, so there would be no particular hurry in getting things moving toward takeoff. And, to no surprise, the ground controller was silent after issuing our push clearance.

Pilots in cockpit
It’s easy to lose situational awareness when you’re “heads-down” programming the avionics.

After setting the parking brake I gave a salutation to the tug crew and ran through my after-start flow. Greg joined me in preparing the airplane for taxi, but he still had not received the takeoff performance figures. He said he was awaiting some information from the loadmaster. I released the parking brake and turned the airplane into the light breeze to better facilitate fresher air entering the cabin. The ground controller, obviously far from over-worked at the moment, saw us beginning to move and pre-empted my request-to-taxi call. Without our asking he cleared us to the takeoff runway with instructions to switch to and monitor the tower frequency after we turned out of the ramp area and onto the parallel taxiway. That, we did.

No sooner had we made the turn when the tower controller cleared us for takeoff on runway ##L. Both Greg and I were surprised at the unusual eagerness of the tower employees to keep the one airplane they had jurisdiction over at the time moving along in such a timely fashion. Never before had we been cleared for takeoff from such a distinct distance from any runway. We looked at each other with raised eyebrows, but we also acknowledged the clearance without hesitation.

At that point we began the start process for the second engine before Greg went “heads down” again on the number two radio in order to get back to the load controller. I monitored the second engine start myself while taxiing. Just a few seconds later I heard another airliner call the tower for landing clearance on runway ##R. The tower promptly answered his call with a clearance for him to land on the requested runway. We continued to our runway, ##L.

At about a hundred yards from the runway Greg, now in possession of his required numbers, rejoined me mentally in the cockpit and began entering the performance figures into the FMS before we could run the taxi and pre-takeoff checks. We had a lot to do in a short amount of time if we wanted to keep it rollin’. While he was typing frantically, the tower controller gave this clearance to the arriving airliner who was then on about a one-mile final:

“Fast Jet 99, after landing, cross runway ##L on taxiway Whiskey, taxi to the ramp. Monitor ground after crossing.”

Fast Jet acknowledged the clearance without fanfare.

I looked at Greg with what I’m sure was a look of utter incredulity because I couldn’t quite believe my ears. Greg was just picking up his checklist at that time and hadn’t heard the ill-fated command to Fast Jet. I was about to inform him of the irregularity, but he jumped in quickly with the taxi checklist callouts. I briefly thought about halting the taxi checklist right then in order to bring to the controller’s attention the conflict that now was only smoldering but had the potential of exploding. However, I let it pass in the hope that all would work itself out quietly. We ran the checklist.

After finishing all the pre-takeoff checks – while approaching the runway hold line – I queried Greg about our status. “Hey, we are cleared for takeoff, right?”

He verified our clearance. “We were cleared to take off way back there. We are cleared to take off.” He said this as he was fastening his shoulder harness belts and searching for his sunglasses. I looked left out my windshield to see Fast Jet rolling out on the parallel runway – preparing to make his left turn across our runway. At that moment the Fast Jet pilot asked for verification of his clearance to cross our runway. The tower controller gave it to him. Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked Greg,

Runway incursion
All it takes is a loss of situational awareness.

“Did you hear that?”

I could tell by his expression that he was perplexed, but he didn’t quite catch the conversation because of his preoccupation with his all-important internal matters and duties – as he should have been.

I rolled the airplane out onto the runway after checking that the final approach course was clear and began slowing to a stop. I was praying that the controller would catch his mistake himself and issue us a cancellation of our takeoff clearance. But he did not do so. Knowing that I would probably create some very big waves, I transmitted over the tower frequency a quite simple sentence:

“Ah well, we’ll just hold in position here until he crosses. How about that?”

I won’t go into a great deal of detail because I don’t know exactly what all happened in the tower – which was probably starting to rock back and forth about then – and in the cockpit of Fast Jet, but there was a lot of frantic calling, shouting, and beseeching going on over the tower frequency for a minute or so. Nonetheless, we were eventually cleared for takeoff – by another voice understandably – after Fast Jet cleared our runway.

I never got into a huff, or too excited or anything like that. It was never brought up again by anyone from anywhere. I should have expressed my concern of the situation, as I saw it, to the tower controller the moment I sensed that something wasn’t right though. I probably could have saved the poor fellow a lot of grief if I had given it any thought. I guess I kept a running analysis in my mind of what was going on, minute-by-minute, in the hope that somehow it was going to straighten itself out. But it never did. That was one of those times when I was glad I had continued listening to what was going on around me.

8 Comments

  • It just goes to show you that after a busy period, people tend to let their guard down when things are quiet.
    It takes experience and time to develop a listing ear to ones surroundings while running checklists, taxing, arrivals etc. Not everyone develops this. It’s called paying attention.

  • In the world of SA, I think we’re still on the “first gen” of deployment. Right now, we have enough computer power and data input/stream that the task of preflight, departure, enroute and approach checklists and procedures should be completely and dynamically delivered to the crew acceptance on the EFB before arrival at the airfield.

    I’m not just talking about the flight crews either: maintenance also needs to get onboard and provide MELs, CDLs, and the whole nine yards. Collectively, it sounds more like a flight “dossier”, right? Well, that’s exactly what it should be.

  • Many years ago I was instructing a USAF tanker pilot who was getting current in a Duchess. He was going to get his ATP and CFI. We were enroute in IMC to the HUT VOR which was a non-radar area at the time.
    Calling in on handoff from ICT HUT approach said to maintain 3,000 and report the VOR.
    While listening on frequency another airplane reported missed approach. They were cleared to the OM, maintain 3,000.
    We crossed the VOR about that time and we too were cleared to the OM, maintain 3,000.
    I counted to 10 to give the controller a moment.
    I then suggested that we could intercept the DME Arc for the ILS to give the other plane a clear shot at the ILS. I asked if 4,000 feet was good for them.
    Controllers get into a rut and don’t always say what is right and certainly not best. Years ago after the ATC strike, a new controller at Topeka gave me the weather, 600 and 2, cleared for the visual. I counted to 10 again and asked if I could have the ILS.
    Paying attention to other airplanes call signs and clearances/positions can save your life.

  • TEM…
    Threat Error Management.

    Green, yellow, red. When you find yourself rushing to comply, whether externally or self induced, you are probably going to miss something. The best pilots tou will ever fly with will see things coming, slow down just a little and keep everyone around them in the green.

  • Tennerife – clearance to take off not given, but assumed. This is a similar situation, albeit slightly reversed.

    I like your SA definition. It’s the one I use in my HF courses: Perception / Comprehension / Projection. That is to say: ‘What’s happening? What does it mean? What does it mean to my future?’

    Thanks for posting your story.
    CB

  • Having read the book on the Tennerifie crash, as I recall, the KLM Pilot was in a hurry, disregarded protocol and began his departure without tower clearance. One speculation that presented itself from the voice recording was that the Pan Am aircraft pilot said in response to the tower’s questioning if he was clear of the runway – “ not clear of the runway” – that the “not” might have been omitted by static in the frequency. Rather than checking for sure the KLM pilot began his take off roll without clearance from the tower. Hundreds of people were lost due to one pilot’s rush. A good cadence, even in a time critical environment, is prudent!

  • Thank you for sharing your story. SA is an essential part of being s good pilot. I wish drivers on our roads would drive more like a good pilot. I often wonder how much more safe we would be if folks drove like a good pilot, wheel brakes do you no good in the air. Always being ahead of the machine is what we pilots should always keep in mind, that includes SA!

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