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Overloaded Pilots and Situational Awareness—A Commentary by Ken Harbaugh ’08

The following commentary originally aired on the March 16, 2007 edition of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Overloaded Pilots and Situational Awareness
By Ken Harbaugh ’08

Commentator Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot, says that accidentally killing one of your own is just about the worst thing that can happen for a combat pilot. But pilots are overloaded with sensory input - it's amazing that they maintain any situational awareness.

Every time a friendly-fire incident hits the news, especially one in which American aircraft are involved, part of the story is always missing.  I don’t know enough about what happened on March 28, 2003, to pass judgment on the American pilots who attacked a British convoy.  I am not defending or condemning them.  Let me tell you what it’s like, though, to be in the cockpit when events are unfolding on the ground. 

I was a Navy pilot for nine years, and flew numerous combat reconnaissance missions in hostile environments.  In these situations, you are literally overloaded with sensory input.  You have up to a dozen different conversations running together on your radio.  Picking out the important information is made even harder by the incessant static, and the fact that some frequencies are encrypted, making voices seem staccato and unnatural.  There might be other tones blaring in your headset – audible feedback from your aircraft systems, or surface-to-air missile warnings that often turn out to be false alarms, but sometimes aren’t.  And all of that is just what’s going on in your ears.  Seeing what is happening is even harder.  At a high altitude, you can’t tell a tank from a tractor.  At a low altitude, things are going by so fast it’s hard to focus on anything.  Add up every other overloaded sense, and it’s amazing that pilots maintain situational awareness at all.

I flew a slow, ugly, reconnaissance plane.  Even traveling at a fraction of the speed of the fighters, and not having to worry about attacking enemy targets, it was virtually impossible to get a complete picture of what was happening on the ground.  And I wasn’t enduring nearly the kinds of physiological stresses that the jet pilots deal with.  Still, this is their job, right?  We pay fighter pilots to kill bad guys, not good guys.  Accidentally attacking one of your own is among the worst things a pilot can do.

In the first Gulf War, an alarmingly high percentage of allied casualties were the result of friendly fire.  Part of this statistic was due simply to better reporting.  Part of it was due to the incredible lethality and speed of advanced weaponry – once an attack has begun, it’s usually too late to prevent casualties.  But in modern warfare, the cost of not acting aggressively and decisively might be even higher. 

In one of the worst incidents of the last war, an American A-10 warplane, the same kind involved in the 2003 American-British friendly-fire incident, attacked what it thought to be an Iraqi armored column.  Nine British soldiers were killed.

Mistakes in war are inevitable.  Some are inexcusable.  Pilots must be held accountable for their actions, no less than anyone else.  But before passing judgment, it’s important to understand a little of what they must deal with in the cockpit.