Situational Awareness

I did an article on "Area familiarization" that you can read here. It was about learning the area and becoming an expert on where you are searching. This article is about "focus" while searching. When I went to the Suwanee Paramotor Fly-in last November, I had initially entertained the idea of flying at the event. The weather was much too windy though, which prevented any flying except for those with a death wish, of which there was one guy who decided to make a point. Everybody shook their heads.

It wasn't until sunset of the second day that the conditions improved and then the sky became filled with buzzing paramotors like a swarm of mosquitoes. I counted 35 at one time. That pretty much shot down any dream I had had of getting up there. "Know what you don't know," and I knew that I didn't know how to safely navigate in a sky full of paramotor pilots of varying skill levels, especially with mine being towards the bottom.

I remember the first couple of times I flew. My situational awareness was a bubble about 3 feet across extending from my head outward. I couldn't have told you if I was wearing shoes. It was the third flight out of Pierson that I actually focused on the ground below and I remember thinking "Holy $#/+!," there are only pine trees, buildings, poles and wires below me.

That was when I began to reassess if I should fly out of this tiny field in the future. Pierson field is well maintained, long (3500-ft), narrow (250-ft) and tree-lined. I have subsequently changed my take off pattern from staying over the runway until the last minute, to flying off to the side and parallel to the runway as soon as I had enough safe altitude so that I only had to make a 180 degree turn to get back down on the field.

On about my fifth flight, I flew out of Marion County airport for the first time and with a couple of other flyers. I asked one of them if they had any kind of "hand-and-arm" signals to communicate with because we didn't have radio contact other than our air-band radios, at which point one of them told me he didn't plan on being close enough to me to read any kind of signals. I, of course, had only seen videos of people flying in fairly close proximity, so I assumed that that would be the case with us. But, it became obvious that he was right to give me, a noob, a wide berth. His situational awareness translated to me when I later made my decision not to fly at Suwanee.

In Fire Standards (school for firefighters), the classes on search and rescue emphasize that you must remain oriented to your entry point. The search and rescue team is separate from the fire attack team (hose-draggers). By the way, in a "real" fire, you can't see your hand in front of your face, unlike Hollywood where the smoke is thin because they pay actors lots of money to show their faces. If while searching you stumble across a hose ,you learn how to read the direction that a hose is laid by feeling the connections/couplings and this allows you to exit the structure in the right direction in an emergency evacuation. But, first and foremost, you learn to constantly reassess the direction back to the entry point; kind of like a mental compass. An ongoing situational awareness.

All paraglider/paramotor pilots know the rule of thumb that to be perfectly safe you should never fly out of a zone where you are not in glide range of a potential emergency landing spot. But the truth is, we do it all the time. We go in and out of these zones on every flight. But then so do airplanes and every other flying machine. You have to trust your motor, yes, but you also have to keep constantly reassessing your situation with respect to wind direction, ground speed and landing alternatives.

Airborne search and rescue (ASAR) only requires that the pilot fly mostly level, low and slow and yes, possibly a few gentle slalom skills. All forms of paramotor flying (acrobatics, cross country, altitude, etc.) entail risk. So does flying "level, low and slow." The greatest risk to this kind of flying is lack of reaction time. You don't have time to figure out which way the wind is coming from or how fast it is blowing at the last minute. You don't have time to "look" for a safe landing zone or figure out how you are tied to the machine. This is something that you must constantly reassess. Like your computer saves your files every few seconds so that you don't lose your work, you too must constantly save your flight data mentally. Altitude, ground speed, wind directions, obstacles, etc.) You need to be aware of, and reassess your alternatives all the time, and this while simultaneously conducting a search operation. Over-focusing is probably the number one reason for pilot error accidents. So the great game of search and rescue is not just about getting up in the air, operating your flying machine and looking for someone on the ground. It takes expertise to increase your safety margin that go beyond simple flying skills. It requires toggling between multiple mental exercises to balance all of it and it must be constantly practiced.

If you have enjoyed this article, please feel free to comment or ask questions. Outside input is welcome. This is an evolutionary process.

"What do we do?"

"Save lives!"

"How do we do it?"


Red Angel One

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