Where Are You?

Situational awareness is more than knowing your exact position. It also includes anticipating events. A 16,000 pilot examines several accidents from WW2 to the present in which the crew simply lost the picture.


Situational awareness is more than knowing your position. It’salso about knowing what’s going on or anticipating what’s aboutto happen. There have been tragic results from the lack of situationalawareness. Some accidents/incidents haven’t ended tragically,but have resulted in FAA enforcement actions against the pilotsinvolved. Let’s review some of the occurrences and try to profitfrom the misfortunes of others.

Although the following incident occurred over 50 years ago, itillustrates a situational awareness problem which instrument pilotsas well as non-instrument rated pilots must deal with.

During World War II, Col. Hajo Herrmann of the German Air Forcehad a navigation problem with one of his squadrons he sent toattack a convoy of ships in the Baltic Sea.

The squadron departed very early in the morning, after which Col.Herrmann went back to sleep. He was soon awakened by a telephonecall from his boss, General Stumpf, who was the area air forcecommander. Col. Herrmann said the General shouted at him withsuch anger that "my pajama trousers fluttered and my dogbegan to bark."

The General was irate because the squadron had flown more than180 miles across Swedish territory and church-goers had identifiedtheir aircraft. Sweden was neutral during WW2. The General nowhad the unpleasant task of reporting the facts of the incidentto Hitler’s headquarters, and explain why this had occurred.

In and around the Swedish border there are a large number of riverswhich run parallel to each other, in a southwesterly directiontoward the Baltic. The squadron commander had followed the wrongone. The correct river was actually on the border, but the squadroncommander didn’t pinpoint it.

The commander led the squadron quite a ways into Swedish territory,"in blissful ignorance, sailing over the natives of a dozenvillages in their Sunday best, as if on a ceremonial fly-past,"said Col. Herrmann. The commander didn’t realize his mistake untilhe was over the Baltic.

The report submitted by Col. Herrmann explained that his squadroncommander was a top-notch navigator. The official maps he hadbeen given were wrong because the magnetic variation was erroneouslycharted by as much as 30 degrees due to iron-ore deposits at theSwedish border. Col. Herrmann went on to say that his pilots neededmore up-to-date charts immediately to prevent further border violations.

General Stumpf was happy about the explanation and said thatCol. Herrmann’s report could be transmitted to the Swedes withoutcomment.

We don’t know whether Col. Herrmann’s squadron commander had difficultyreading the map or if the map itself was defective. He was successful,however, in convincing his boss the map was wrong.

VFR navigation important skill

This anecdote points out the need for chart reading and pilotageskills even for instrument-rated pilots. While administering flightreviews, I’ve found a number of pilots who’ve became lost in VMCwhen asked to find their way to a point 50 miles from their departureairport without the use of any avionics. This is an example ofdeteriorating skills due to the lack of proficiency.

Many of the instrument-rated pilots I’ve flown with either don’tcarry VFR charts or the ones they do carry are very much out-of-date.The oldest Sectional chart I noted in one pilot’s flight bag wasvintage l970. VFR charts become very important following an electricalor avionics failure, since current charts depict obstructionswe need to know about. An FAA ramp check could also result insome embarrassing moments if up-to-date charts aren’t aboard.

Tragedy could have been averted

The wisdom of carrying and referring to VFR charts was never soapparent as in the following tragic accident that involved a CFIwho had recently arrived in the LA Basin from the East Coast,filed an IFR flight plan for a night flight via airways to a controlledairport, only 12 miles from his departure airport. After takeoff,he was vectored by ATC and because of traffic wasn’t allowed tojoin his flight planned airway. He accepted the vectors (as manyof us do) and maintained the altitude assigned by ATC.

Unfortunately, the controllers lost track of the flight and theCFI flew into a mountain while in IMC. Traffic saturation, controllerworkload, and other errors played a part in the accident.

The message here is loud and very clear. We must never forgetfor an instant, that by regulation the pilot-in-command in alwaysresponsible and the final authority for the safe operation ofhis/her aircraft. Having heard that phrase ricocheting throughreams of accident reports, I came to the conclusion many yearsago that any PIC who accepts a vector and altitude assignmenthad better know for certain that it’s safe and will clear anyand all obstructions along the way.

En route and terminal IFR and VFR charts should be reviewed tomake this determination. If there’s ever the slightest doubt,ATC should be made aware of your concerns and any alternate routeand/or altitude should be requested which will avoid obstructions.If you can’t raise ATC, as PIC you’re obligated to fly the routeand altitude you’ve deemed as safe. Had the CFI in the accidentexercised his authority, he could have declared an emergency (inthe blind if necessary) informing ATC he was joining his plannedroute at the airway MEA.

An NTSB enforcement action against a flight instructor who flewbelow minimum altitudes over a congested area and entered classB airspace without an ATC clearance is a lack of situational awarenesswhich is being forcibly brought to our attention. Present technologyprovides ATC with a menu of detection methods that have been thedemise of pilots who have either intentionally or unintentionallyfailed to comply with the rules to obtain ATC clearances beforeentering class B airspace.

Here’s what happened and how the NTSB reached it’s conclusions:

A 300-hour CFI was ferrying an airplane to an airport with anoperating control tower about 12 miles from her departure airport.She was very familiar with the area because she conducted trafficreporting flights every morning. The CFI claimed that prior toher departure the reported weather was VFR. After she departedand was about eight miles from her destination, she claimed thatboth radios were inoperative. At this time she observed snow showersahead, turned away from the weather and descended in order toremain VFR.

Less than five minutes after takeoff, the CFI made contact withher destination airport control tower. The tower had also beencontacted by approach control in an effort to identify an aircraftoperating VFR in class B airspace. The tower controller told approachthat he believed he had established contact with the target.

The approach controller asked the tower to instruct the pilotto squawk a discrete transponder code and make an immediate leftturn. All incoming traffic on final had to be diverted as a resultof the pilot’s incursion. The CFI followed the tower’s instructionswithout any radio or navigation equipment problems, and was identifiedby approach as the target. Radar data established the pilot’saltitude as low as 700 feet in class B airspace and over residentialareas adjacent to the airport.

The NTSB found the CFI could have returned to her departure airportwithout any problem when the weather deteriorated toward her destinationairport. Her unauthorized incursion into class B airspace andher descent below minimum altitudes in a congested area were adirect result of her imprudent decision not return to her departureairport.

The Board also found that her violations didn’t occur becauseof her momentary inability to make contact with the tower at herdestination, nor was she forced to enter Class B airspace becauseof the snow showers she faced if she proceeded directly to herdestination.

The Board reminds us the FARs permit deviation from Part 91 onlyto the extent required to meet an emergency. No emergency existedin this case, except one of the pilot’s own making. The CFI wassanctioned for violating three FARs that included carelessness,low flying over a congested area, and entering class B airspacewithout an ATC clearance. Her commercial certificate was suspendedfor 45 days, which automatically invalidated her CFI certificatefor the same period.

NDB approaches

While I haven’t seen anything official on the Air Force B-737accident in Dubrovnik, which occurred during an NDB approach inIMC, I would like to offer some comments to stress the extremeimportance of situational awareness during instrument approaches.This is never more important than when an NDB is the primary navaid.

We must be aware of the effects of electrical disturbances, thunderstorms,precipitation static, mountain and shore/coastal effects on theaccuracy of NDB indications. Whether these disturbances affectedthis accident is not yet known. If they had no effect and therewere no aircraft equipment failures, the question remains whythey crashed 1.8 miles from the final approach course centerline.

If the aircraft was equipped with an RMI, the procedure to remainon centerline would have been to fly a heading to maintain thehead of the ADF needle on the inbound final approach course. Inso doing, the drift would be managed and the centerline maintainedwell within the minimums established for the approach. When indoubt in this situation, execute the missed and proceed to youralternate.

Some basic rules

Keep in mind the following when preparing for NDB approaches inIMC:

  • Tracking procedures must be practiced periodically to maintainproficiency.

  • Carefully reset non-slaved heading indicators before beginningthe approach.

  • When drift is noted, turn into the head of the needle (inbound)twice the number of degrees that the needle is displaced. Holdthis heading until the ADF needle is the same number of degreesoff the nose as the HI is from the inbound course. Then, turnback to the inbound bearing and crab if the ADF needle moves offthe nose.

  • When outbound, the same procedure is used, except the headof the needle is on the tail.

  • Whenever a destination has only an NDB instrument procedure,an airport with ILS and/or VOR approaches should be planned asan alternate.

When only an NDB approach is available, a good rule is to makejust one pass and then proceed to an alternate airport if therunway environment is not in sight at minimums. Additional approachesmight lead to a tendency to go just a little bit lower. Don’tdo it, it has resulted in many fatal accidents.