I levelled the wings and pointed the glider back towards the tarmac triangle of the three runways. The uncomfortable truth of my situation was glaring back at me. Attentional narrowing meant there was a good chance I might not make it back to the airfield…
The day had started as a normal but mediocre gliding day over the flat fields of Staffordshire, but as I was having a conversation with the aero-tow pilot the radio burst into life with some talk of thermal lift close to the airfield.
An essential skill of glider flight is the ability to seek out lift to remain airborne, especially given the absence of an engine. Being able to judge conditions is as important for a glider pilot as it is to a mountain guide finding the best snow on a power skiing day.
We decided to launch and after a few checks I was being pulled along the runway behind another aircraft on a long tow rope. The aero-tow was unremarkable and we continued upwards towards 4000 feet with no airspace restrictions. Suddenly, there was a ripple of the wings and we lurched upwards a fraction behind the aircraft in front. The feeling was unmistakable, we had flown into “wave”, orographic lift created by air hitting the mountains of North Wales or Long Mynd and being pushed upwards.
I pulled the hook release three times releasing the rope and the aero-tow aircraft accelerated away in a steep curving descent in preparation for the next task. Pulling the glider around in a 180 degree turn I searched for the invisible crest of the wave that would allow me to surf upwards.
The glider sat suspended silently in the air, there was nothing. I turned 180 again in the hope of feeling the unmistakeable ripple if lift. Again nothing!
This situation is normal in gliding. It was back to my original plan of searching for the thermal lift that had been mentioned over the radio. Soon enough I got some success and the audible beep of the variometer indicated that I was going up, slowly. Thermals are rising bubbles of air, so in an attempt to stay in the rising column I had manoeuvred the glider into a tight spiralling turn.
Round and round I went a couple of knots away from stalling speed, suspended in the rising column of air until the variometer went quiet. Just about maintaining height, I was doing ok. My attention was focused on my airspeed. If I let the speed drop by a couple of knots there would be a good chance the glider would enter a spin. It is raw, technical flying much like leading that just adequately protected pitch on the rock.
The altimeter showed I was maintaining height whenever I gave it a glance, and I was keeping a good lookout for other aircraft as I was drifting, albeit slowly, towards East Midlands Airport.
I was glancing at the map while an insidious and subtle chain of events where rapidly stacking up against me.
Situational Awareness and Attentional Narrowing
The variometer was working fine, it wasn’t making any audible indication of lift because there wasn’t any. There was no loss of height indicated because it was so small. I had dropped out of the rising bubble of air and was slowly sinking.
The altimeter was faulty and the needle had temporarily got stuck indicating that I was maintaining height. Sadly, I wasn’t.
I had lost all situational awareness, my attention was focused on the small cluster of instruments in front of me. I didn’t have a full comprehension of what was happening and I hadn’t yet perceived that I was running out of height. Although the chain of these events were subtle, I was suffering from attentional narrowing. The consequences were however obvious: I was in effect not far away from flying a perfectly good glider into the ground.
Glancing out of the cockpit I looked down for the first time in too long. The world rushed back, I was too low and never before had I seen livestock look so large from the air. Levelling the wings I pointed the glider back towards the tarmac triangle of the three runways. The uncomfortable truth of my situation was glaring back at me; there was a good chance I might not make it back to the airfield.
Aviate – Navigate – Communicate
With my limited experience I had never before seen the airfield at such a shallow glide angle. I had drifted downwind and was too far away. Now too low to fly a normal approach circuit, it was time to use the mantra Aviate – Navigate – Communicate.
Pushing the nose forward to 70 knots I cut through the descending air in an attempt to trade horizontal distance for a bit of height. Then reducing the airspeed I trimmed the glider up to get what marginal gains in performance that I could. My only option was to fly in a straight and direct line back to the airfield. This technique was reserved for competition gliding and glider pilots who were much more experienced than me.
Keying the PTT on the radio I remember the transmission … “Glider Echo Golf Zulu, final glide runway 26”. Some confusion followed as it wasn’t a standard call saying that I had entered a normal right hand downwind leg of a circuit. But I had been spotted and things started to happen on the ground.
Meanwhile I started picking fields (and noting obstructions) where I could land a glider. Luckily there were a few options each of which quickly fell away behind as I got closer to the runway threshold. I completed my checks called “finals” and pulled the airbrakes to soften my landing onto the runway.
The landing was soft enough and the glider sat on the tarmac for a few seconds, the gentle breeze holding the wings level and free from the ground. Now stationary, I let the wingtip drop onto the runway and opened the canopy to let the atmosphere of failure and fear dissipate.
Val said nothing. As a really experienced instructor, she shared the silence and like any good coach let me reflect on the events that could have orchestrated our deaths. If there was one saving grace it was that she hadn’t intervened during this pre solo check flight. Clearly the situation wasn’t quite as bad as I felt, but I had learnt some valuable lessons and I wouldn’t be going solo just yet.
Attentional Narrowing – Avalanche on Aonach Mor
Fast forward 15 years and I was about to experience attentional narrowing (also referred to as task fixation) and degraded situational awareness again, this time in the context of an avalanche.
The first day of a week of introductory Scottish winter climbing was a tricky one. The weather was forecast to deteriorate by mid afternoon with significant drifting. Using the gondola at Nevis Range seemed like a good choice to access the snow line and make the most of the days coaching and instructional aims. My two clients were keen and able so accessing the area around Aonach an Nid was straight forward.
We had a productive morning revising snow belays, and safe travel with intelligent use of the terrain to mitigate the avalanche hazard. Moving up and down some rocky ribs, there was some thin windslab just a few centimetres deep that we could avoid by keeping to the rocks.
The weather wasn’t too bad so we decided to head towards the summit plateau, doing a little navigation on the way. Here we were able to look into ‘Easy Gully’ and notice the tell tale signs of new windslab accumulation on the lee side of the corniced edge. We decided together to finish the day by building some emergency snow shelters, a useful skill for anybody to have in the winter mountains.
To deliver such coaching excellence I needed an area of deposition where the snow had accumulated, preferably at a reasonable angle so it was easier to dig into the slope. With this in mind we descended back to the rocky ribs bounding ‘G&T Gully’ that we had used before.
The area looked subtly different, our footsteps obscured during the hour which we were absent. I started to descend, my clients just behind sticking to the rocks. There looked to be some good patches of snow lower down and the windslab was shallow, perhaps only 5cm deep at my feet next to the rock rib. Spotting the next group of rocks I stepped onto the other side of the rock rib and was suddenly up to my waist in fresh snow.
Whoommppff – a split second later and the tension crack appeared near my hips propagating across the slope for a hundred metres or so and out of sight. The snow around me seemed suspended for a second despite breaking into big blocks, but then accelerated away taking me with it.
I managed to stop myself but watched with a fixed stare as the snow slowed but covered the flat bench below me. We were all lucky not to be carried down, in part by careful, habitual route choice.
How can we improve our Situational Awareness in the mountains?
- Practice and drill routine tasks to create more bandwidth for the bigger picture.
- Minimise distractions, use or request a “sterile cockpit” if you need to. More details can be found in CASM v3.0.
- Consider other factors that reduce situational awareness: protect yourself from the elements, avoid fatigue and ensure you and your group are adequately fed.
- Most importantly be bothered, and actively look for new information and clues to changing conditions. Communicate these observations often.
- As all glider pilots know, avoid being “head down”.