Situational Awareness (SA) is a catch-all term for “knowing what goes on around you and adapting to it”. SA is what matters in the fight – it is not the aircraft, not the numbers, nor the situation itself. You have heard the saying “it is the one you do not see that kills you” and that is very much so. If you do not see the threat, if you are not aware of it, then you cannot manoeuvre profitably against it. Lose sight, lose the fight!
SA a complex, very taxing and constantly ongoing process because you must identify and keep track of everything that goes on around you in order to make the correct tactical decision at any one time, all the time. You must harvest and compute data without pause, and the input changes constantly.
In short, SA is the sum of your attention to all kinds of details pertaining to your sortie:
- Navigation (staying in the air, plotting current and projected position)
- Systems checks (fuel, engine temperature, system failures etc)
- Ongoing visual checks of the surrounding airspace
- Radio communication
- Adherence to mission
- Position and energy state relative to friendly aircraft and territory
- Position and energy state relative to enemy aircraft and territory
- Position and energy state relative to unseen but likely enemy aircraft (aka ”wildcards”)
Performing all of the above tasks all the time is extremely tiresome and repetitive, yet you simply must perform them or shortly find yourself looking at a black screen.
As a beginner you will likely devote most of your attention to avoiding catastrophic contacts with the ground, and will have little time or opportunity to perform all the other vital checks. You will therefore quickly reach a state of task overload and be shot down by an unseen bandit.
Eventually you will fly, navigate and keep up a visual vigil as a matter of course, though you will still be unable to handle more than a single bandit at a time – because manouevring against him and keeping him in sight soaks up all of your brain power. Enter one more bandit and you will be mercilessly shot down, because your SA was already on the brink of being overloaded.
The amount of brain power required to keep tabs on enemy aircraft is exponential. One bandit, or a formation of bandits, spotted below and to the left, may cause you to devote 20% of your attention, whereas two cons with vastly different data coming at you from ahead and from high six may force you to devote 100% of your processing effort to sustain yourself. Introduce one more unknown set of data or make one of the previous critical (such as losing a vital control surface) and presto – you will suffer task overload.
So, what separates the rookie from the ace is not really flying ability, but the ability to process and adapt to huge amounts of data.
How to achieve good SA
Your highest priority is to keep an unceasing vigil of the surrounding airscape. This is especially important when you are chasing after a bandit or turning to engage. In a chase situation your attention will be fully focused on the bandit in front of you, leaving your astern blind and completely open to surprise attack.
You must develop a routine for looking about you. When cruising, scan left, right, up, low and behind in a steady and constant manner. Do not just flip through the views but make sure to look with determination – remember that it takes a few seconds for aircraft icons and range halos to develop.
There are other ways, beyond constant scanning, of keeping your SA high and most of them are quite self-explanatory. That said, you will notice that 99% of all online pilots disregard them 99% of the time:
- Maintain superior altitude and speed
- Limit yourself to single passes on the enemy, after which you promptly disengage to regain SA and energy
- Do not surround yourself with enemy (as in a furball)