10 Ways to Improve your Situational Awareness

Increasing your situational awareness when flying in a combat zone can have immediate impact on the result of your missions and on your chances of returning to home base without an embarrassing search-and-rescue operation. Here are some tips on how to improve your chances to achieve that euphoric feeling of setting down on the runway after a well-executed mission.

1 – Higher Resolution and more Monitors
The more vision coverage you have, the better chance you have to spot something dangerous. Having higher resolution means spotting aircraft and armor at a greater distance. Having triple-head displays will enable you to take advantage of your peripheral vision. A hardware triple-head solution is Matrox TripleHead2Go. A software alternative is SoftTH.
triple-head image
photo by Cameron Rogers

2 – Track-IR with zoom
Track-IR is a great hardware device which makes it easy to glance around the cockpit, or to keep your eyes on a target while bringing your aircraft and weapons to bear. It also frees up vital controls on your HOTAS that you can use for other procedures, rather than using a hat-switch for view control. Some Sims even allow you to aim your cannon, or fire off-boresight missiles using the input of your virtual helmet.

If your aircraft supports it, you can also use Track-IR to zoom in on a distant feature, perhaps allowing you to recognize a vehicle or aircraft. Be careful not to stay zoomed-out for too ling though or you could end up getting smacked out of the sky!

A more limited, but free alternative, is called Facetracknoir, which uses a web cam and software to do headtracking.
NaturalPoint TrackIR image
photo by Derek Hatfield

3 – Checklists
Since it is easy to tire out your brain with keeping track of so many tasks on a mission, it is a good idea to use a checklist. You should have checklists for things like start-up, take-off, fence-check, landing, etc. This lets you practically automate the mundane tasks, while keeping your brain “cycles” free to concentrate on more important tasks like navigation and kicking ass.
Checklist image
photo by Daniel Kulinski

4 – Mission Planning & Landmarks
A great way to do mission planning is to print out a map of the mission area, place a plastic sheet over it, and use whiteboard markers to draw out your flight plan. A very detailed map of the DCS mission area (Caucasus and Georgia) can be found here.

Keep your eye out for landmarks that fall along your path, and commit them to memory. These will be the key to regaining your bearings if you get disoriented.

Another excellent tool for planning your mission is to use Mission Data Cards, like the ones found here. These can also be laminated and reused, to track things like runways, callsigns, radio frequencies and targets.
Topographical Map image
photo by Todd Lappin

5 – Brevity Codes
Learning how to quickly understand and use brevity codes will allow you to utilize the broadcasts of other flight groups, AWACS and GCI to piece-together a clearer picture of the battlescape around you. The more concise your radio speech, the less distracted your flight will be.
Brevity Codes - microphone image
photo by Vikramdeep Sidhu

6 – Fly with a Wingman
Traveling with a wingman allows you to delegate tasks and avoid information overload. The lead flight can focus on dealing death on a target while the wingman watches for SAM launches, tracers from AAA or incoming fighters.
wingman image
photo by Phil Ostroff

7 – Master the autopilot
Just keeping your plane on the right heading and altitude can take away some of your ability to do other things when flying. Make sure you have a solid understanding of all the features and modes of your aircraft’s autopilot.

8 – Test Boundaries
If you don’t have a clear image in your mind of the enemies defenses, sometime it pays to “dip your toe in the water” by circling ever deeper into their territory. This allows you loiter time in which to familiarize yourself with the battlefield. If there is a launch, you will likely be on the very edge of the missile’s engagement zone, so it will be easy to extend and defeat the missile’s energy.
Test Boundaries - Private Property Sign
photo by Phil Gilbert

9 – Practice Keeping your Eyes Out of the Cockpit
If you’re busy fiddling with your MFDs or reading the map on your knee, you obviously won’t be focused on what is outside your cockpit. Keep your MK-1 eyeballs outside as much as possible, or make sure your wingman is covering you.
Eyes Out - ostrich image
photo by Frank McMains

10 – Study Recognition Guides
Learning to recognize the overall shape of aircraft and military vehicles can be very handy — especially if you are hurriedly “looking through the straw” of the A-10A maverick display.

You can actually buy the US Army aircraft recognition flashcards here. (no affiliate)
Let me know in the comments, if you are aware of any free resources for this.

In Closing
If you are looking for any maps, checklists or data cards for a particular Sim or aircraft, let me know and I will find them for you.

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Do you use all of these approaches?

Have any other tips for the other Sim pilots here?

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