Situation and Mode Awareness: SMA

This is the Eigth in a series of posts that will provide, throughout the year, an improvement strategy that will cover the entire family of 9 Automation Airmanship® principles.

Just a few years ago, we went on the record to update an outdated concept, one that had remained unchanged for decades while our industry had evolved to become the technology- and automation-dominant business that it is today. By combining and updating the concepts of Situation Awareness and Mode Awareness, we made it possible for crews to view these two important aspects of contemporary aviation for what they actually are: highly interrelated and highly influential over much of the activity in today’s cockpits. Meanwhile, accident investigation teams around the world have continued to report the outcome when Situation Awareness and Mode Awareness is incomplete, breaks down, or is lost completely. Here are just a few excerpts from three accident investigations that most people are familiar with:

Asiana 214 (San Francisco, July 2013): “In post accident interviews, the PF made several statements that indicated he had an inaccurate understanding of some aspects of the airplane’s autoflight system.”1

UPS 1354 (Birmingham, August 2013): “The captain’s change to a vertical speed approach after failing to capture the profile glidepath was not in accordance with UPS procedures and guidance and decreased the time available for the first officer to perform her duties.”2

Air France 447 (June 1, 2009): “The destabilisation [sic] that resulted from the climbing flight path and the evolution in the pitch attitude and vertical speed was added to the erroneous airspeed indications and ECAM messages, which did not help with the diagnosis. The crew, progressively becoming de-structured, likely never understood that it was faced with a “simple” loss of three sources of airspeed information.”3

What we proposed in 2012 both simplifies and explains how necessary it is for crews to attain a high level of knowledge and understanding of their operational work environment, and an ever-increasing understanding of the technology that helps them get the job done. Essentially, combining what we know about “Situation Awareness” and “Mode Awareness” (“SMA” if you like) helps crews achieve this:

“The accurate, useful mental model of relevant aircraft automated tasks, including aircraft configuration, powerplant state, flight guidance, flight control and sensor modes, and their dynamic relationship to the present and future flight path of the aircraft.”4

There’s a lot at work in this definition—key words and phrases like mental model, mode, dynamic relationship, and flight path—all must be understood by cockpit and mission crews; operators can’t just learn the basics how things work in the cockpit and modern airspace to succeed (in Chapter 9 of Automation Airmanship you can learn more about modes, mental models and why they are so closely linked to the classic human factors concept of Situation Awareness). Being the best professional that one can be means knowing how these key components of SMA come together to represent one of contemporary aviation’s most important airmanship principles.

The crews of the above-mentioned accident flights surely did not arrive in the cockpit for these fateful and now famous trips with any other intention than conducting a routine operation to a successful outcome. Likely most of these crews considered themselves at or near the peak of their professional abilities relative to their entire careers. The tragic outcomes of these flights are just part of the mounting evidence that the mental models we construct during the conduct of our risky profession are not always accurate enough to contend with the circumstances we can find ourselves in. In the words of safety icon, Charles Perrow,

“We construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process the information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it. Unexpected or unlikely interactions are ignored when we make our construction.”5

The world we live and work in today requires that the “world we construct” encompass the complexity it contains. Having a sound working knowledge of SMA allows skilled professionals to see complex relationships with clarity and understanding.

There was a time in modern life that concepts like Situation and Mode Awareness meant something only to those who worked within the confines of high-risk activities in which technology or machinery played a significant role. Certainly aviation, but professions like medicine, finance, energy, space, robotics and now many others depend on their workers developing not just a functional knowledge of their industry, but a high understanding of the technology they use in their everyday tasks.

Whether at work or at home, SMA is increasingly a factor in everyday living—for example, consider the many choices we have in just driving to the corner grocery: “should I engage the lane keeping and adaptive cruise control so I can listen more carefully to my voicemail through the hands-free, or do I turn the phone off completely, and just focus on the driving without the assistance of any automatic technology?”

These and countless other choices like them constantly force us to decide (whether we are aware of the decision or not) between sticking with what we know we are capable of and have an accurate mental representation for, or complicating our decisions with a model that doesn’t fit within a situation rife with forces we don’t understand and can’t anticipate.


 Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.



1 Descent Below Visual Glidepath and Impact with Seawall. Asiana Airlines Flight 214 Boeing 777-200ER, HL7742 San Francisco, California July 6, 2013. National Transportation Safety Board, 490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW. Washington D.C. 20594. NTSB/AAR-14/01. Washington, DC. P. 93

2 Crash During a Nighttime Nonprecision Instrument Approach to Landing UPS Flight 1354 Airbus A300-600, N155UP Birmingham, Alabama August 14, 2013. National Transportation Safety Board, 490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW. Washington D.C. 20594. NTSB/AAR-14/02 Washington, D.C. P. 87

3 Final Report on the Accident on 1st June 2009 to the Airbus A330-203 Registered F-GZCP Operated by Air France Flight AF 447 Rio de Janeiro – Paris. Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile. Ministère de l’Écologie, du Développement Durable, des Transports et du Logement. P. 199

4 Chris Lutat and S. Ryan Swah, Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. McGraw-Hill Education, New York NY. 2013. Chapter 9: The Sixth Principle: Situation and Mode Awareness.

5 Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1999.

1 thought on “Situation and Mode Awareness: SMA”

Leave a Comment