Airline pilot situation awareness: presenting a conceptual model for meta-cognition, reflection and education

    William Irwin Affiliation
    ; Terrence Kelly Affiliation


The dissertation research summarized here, utilized the Grounded Theory Method to develop a conceptual model of pilot situation awareness from 223 Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) narratives. The application of Latent Semantic Analysis aided the theoretical sampling of ASRS reports. A multistage model was developed involving attention, perception, interpretation, decision making, and action in support of goal-driven behavior. Narrative report coding identified several categories of situation awareness elements that pilots direct their attention to in building and maintaining situation awareness. Internal to the aircraft, flight crews directed their attention to the aircraft’s flight state and automation state. They also directed their attention to the condition of the aircraft, the functioning of the crew, and the status of the cabin. External to the aircraft, flight crews directed their attention to airport conditions, air traffic control, terrain, traffic, and weather. Pilots were also aware of the passage of time. Twelve characteristics of situation awareness were identified from narrative report coding which were subsequently compared with existing theoretical perspectives of situation awareness.

Keyword : airline pilot, crew cognition, situation awareness, human factors, Grounded Theory, aviation safety, narrative reports

How to Cite
Irwin, W. and Kelly, T. 2021. Airline pilot situation awareness: presenting a conceptual model for meta-cognition, reflection and education. Aviation. 25, 1 (Apr. 2021), 50-64. DOI:
Published in Issue
Apr 16, 2021
Abstract Views
PDF Downloads
SM Downloads

This work is licensed under a .


Artman, H., & Garbis, C. (1998, August). Situation awareness as distributed cognition. In Proceedings of ECCE (Vol. 98). Citeseer.

Aviation Safety Reporting System Reports. (n.d.) NASA.

Bedny, G., & Meister, D. (1999). Theory of activity and situation awareness. International Journal of Cognitive Ergonomics, 3(1), 63–72.

Behrend, J., & Dehais, F. (2020). How role assignment impacts decision making in high-risk environments: Evidence from eye-tracking in aviation. Safety Science, 127, 104738.

Bell, H. H., & Lyon, D. R. (2000). Using observer ratings to assess situation awareness. In M. R. Endsley & D. J. Garland (Eds.), Situation awareness analysis and measurement. CRC Press.

Bryant, A. (2002). Re-grounding grounded theory. Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application (JITTA), 4(1), 25–42.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory. Sage.

Deerwester, S., Dumais, S. T., Furnas, G. W., Landauer, T. K., & Harshman, R. (1990). Indexing by latent semantic analysis. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 41(6), 391–407.<391::AID-ASI1>3.0.CO;2-9

Dekker, S. (2015). Safety differently: Human factors for a new era. CRC Press.

Dillon, D. R., O‘Brien, D. G., & Heilman, E. E. (2000). Literacy research in the next millennium: From paradigms to pragmatism and practicality. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(1), 10–26.

Dominguez, C. (1994). Can SA be defined. In Situation awareness: Papers and annotated bibliography (pp. 5–15). Air Force Systems Command.

Endsley, M. R. (1995). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 37(1), 32–64.

Endsley, M. R., Farley, T. C., Jones, W. M., Midkiff, A. H., & Hansman, R. J. (1998). Situation awareness information requirements for commercial airline pilots. International Center for Air Transportation.

Fracker, M. (1991). Measures of situation awareness: Review and future directions (Report No. AL-TR-1991-0128). Armstrong Laboratories, Crew Systems Directorate.

Froger, G., Blattler, C., Dubois, E., Camachon, C., & Bonnardel, N. (2018). Time-Interval emphasis in an aeronautical dual-task context: a countermeasure to task absorption. Human Factors, 60(7), 936–946.

Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory (Vol. 2). Sociology Press.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1964). The social loss of dying patients. The American Journal of Nursing, 64(6), 119–121.

Glaser, В. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Aldine Publishing.

Irwin, W. J. (2017). Airline pilot situation awareness models: Providing a framework for meta-cognition, reflection, and education (Order No. 10600731). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (1964275212).

Kaber, D. B., & Endsley, M. R. (1998). Team situation awareness for process control safety and performance. Process Safety Progress, 17(1), 43–48.

Klein, G. A. (1993). A recognition-primed decision (RPD) model of rapid decision making. In G. A. Klein (Ed.), Decision making in action: Models and methods (pp. 138–147). Ablex.

Klein, G. A. (2008). Naturalistic decision making. Human Factors, 50(3), 456–460.

Landman, A., Groen, E. L., van Paassen, M. M. (Rene), Bronkhorst, A. W., & Mulder, M. (2017). Dealing with unexpected events on the flight deck: a conceptual model of startle and surprise. Human Factors, 59(8), 1161–1172.

Lipshitz, R. (1993). Converging themes in the study of decision making in realistic settings. In G. A. Klein (Ed.), Decision making in action: Models and methods (pp. 103–137). Ablex.

Nguyen, T., Lim, C. P., Nguyen, N. D., Gordon-Brown, L., & Nahavandi, S. (2019). A review of situation awareness assessment approaches in aviation environments. IEEE Systems Journal, 13(3), 3590–3603.

O’Hare, D., & Wiggins, M. (2004). Remembrance of cases past: who remembers what, when confronting critical flight events? Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 46(2), 277–287.

Rasmussen, J. (1983). Skills, rules, and knowledge; signals, signs, and symbols, and other distinctions in human performance models. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, (3), 257–266.

Robinson, S. D., Irwin, W. J., Kelly, T. K., & Wu, X. O. (2015). Application of machine learning to mapping primary causal factors in self reported safety narratives. Safety Science, 75, 118–129.

Salas, E., Prince, C., Baker, D. P., & Shrestha, L. (1995). Situation awareness in team performance: Implications for measurement and training. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 37(1), 123–136.

Salmon, P. M., Stanton, N. A., Walker, G. H., & Jenkins, D. P. (2009). Distributed situation awareness: Theory, measurement and application to teamwork. Ashgate.

Salmon, P. M., Walker, G. H., & Stanton, N. A. (2016). Pilot error versus sociotechnical systems failure: a distributed situation awareness analysis of Air France 447. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 17(1), 64–79.

Sarter, N. B., & Woods, D. D. (1995). How in the world did we ever get into that mode? Mode error and awareness in supervisory control. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 37(1), 5–19.

Shalin, D. N. (1986). Pragmatism and social interactionism. American Sociological Review, 9–29.

Shu, Y., & Furuta, K. (2005). An inference method of team situation awareness based on mutual awareness. Cognition, Technology & Work, 7(4), 272–287.

Simpson, P. A. (2001). Naturalistic decision making in aviation environments (No. DSTO-GD-0279). Defence Science and Technology Organisation Aeronautical and Maritime Research Lab.

Smith, K., & Hancock, P. (1995). Situation awareness is adaptive, externally directed consciousness. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 37(1), 137–148.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Sage Publications, Inc.

Stanton, N. A., Stewart, R., Harris, D., Houghton, R. J., Baber, C., McMaster, R., ... & Linsell, M. (2006). Distributed situation awareness in dynamic systems: theoretical development and application of an ergonomics methodology. Ergonomics, 49(12–13), 1288–1311.

Stanton, N. A., Salmon, P. M., Walker, G. H., Salas, E., & Hancock, P. A. (2017). State-of-science: situation awareness in individuals, teams and systems. Ergonomics, 60(4), 449–466.

Tenney, Y. J., Adams, M. J., Pew, R. W., Huggins, A. W. F., & Rogers, W. H. (1992). A principled approach to the measurement of situation awareness in commercial aviation (NASA Contractor Report 4451). NASA Langely Research Center.

Uhlarik, J., & Comerford, D. A. (2002). A review of situation awareness literature relevant to pilot surveillance functions. FAA Report Number DOT/FAA/AM-02/3. National Technical Information Service: Springfield, VA.

Wickens, C., McCarley, J., Thomas, L., Foyle, M. I. D., Goodman, A., & Hooey, B. L. (2003). Attention-situation awareness (ASA) model. In NASA Aviation Safety Program Conference on Human Performance Modeling of Approach and Landing with Augmented Displays (pp. 189–225). NASA Ames Research Center.

Wickens, C. D., McCarley, J. S., Alexander, A. L., Thomas, L. C., Ambinder, M., & Zheng, S. (2008). Attention-situation awareness (A-SA) model of pilot error. Human Performance Modeling in Aviation, 213–239.