Building Awareness With the “Cooper Code”

Colonel “Jeff” Cooper, developed the “Color Code of Awareness” for the military to inspire self-assessment and vigilance. Warfighters know that situational awareness is just as important for success as physical skill or conditioning. A tuned-up awareness is critical for pilot safety too. “Fat, dumb and happy” is no way to fly safely. Unfortunately, we *do* see this attitude with lots of flying where the purpose is solely enjoyment when there is no obvious threat. It is only self-discipline that enforces a higher level of awareness and keeps us re-engaging our “what if” thinking for critical phases of flight. Awareness is something we can practice every day and in every situation- we don’t have to be flying.

Situational awareness is a mindset that you have to purposefully cultivate. You want to get to the point that it’s just something you do without having to think about it. To get to that point, you have to practice it regularly…Don’t be paranoid, just mindful.

Code White in this system represents total relaxation, the basic “fat, dumb and happy” where a person is not on guard or self-aware. This level is appropriate for viewing NFL with a beer, but a highly vulnerable awareness state inappropriate for any complex or demanding task. Code white is the most common human mental state;  “human screen-saver” mode. Psychologists call this the “default mode” as is most often internally focused and characterized by “mind wandering.” Psychologists estimate we spend 70% or more of our time on “autopilot.”

Code Yellow is “relaxed aware;” scanning and vigilant. Awareness in Code Yellow is wide-ranging but not specifically directed, kind of like ATC radar. Once we focus on a specific threat (“I smell smoke”) the mind moves to Code Orange – target acquisition. This state is “game on” with a higher attention level and a more narrow focus. This “specific alert” gathers more data but introduces some vulnerability because some global awareness is lost with focus. Code Red is characterized by intention – a plan is generated and action is taken. This is where the aviation paradigm “Perceive-Process-Perform” can be integrated. Aeronautical decision making is the best option within the constraints of time, equipment and processing power. Remember, “the perfect can be the enemy of the good.” Time to do that “pilot stuff.”

Code Black was added by the Marine Combat Warrior Program and is a state of too much stimulation or panic. This is a natural neurological state driven by instinct to assure the survival of the body when we are overwhelmed and panic. This state automatically prioritizes survival circuits like breathing and muscle activity (shutting down digestion, narrowing the focus etc). Unfortunately, here the brain is swamped with cortisol and adrenalin preventing consciously-directed action: “immobilized by panic” or “overwhelmed by fear.” We are consciously out of the game at this point.

As you can see, for a pilot engaged in flying, awareness at the Code White or Code Black level is inappropriate and harmful. Unfortunately, the fatigue of long hours or just boredom forces the mind down into the Code White level of awareness. The human neurological system needs novelty and surprise to remain alert; hours of “sameness” dulls the senses. Here is where self-discipline is critical to keep awareness in the yellow.

At the Code Black level, a pilot is overwhelmed by the “startle response.” Ideally, a perfect scan repeatedly switches from code yellow to orange “macro/micro scan” attending to details, tasks, and investigating hypothetical or potential problems (what if). It is essential to continuously shift back to “the big picture” about every two to three seconds. Remember “landmark accidents” like Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 where exclusive focus on a small problem led to loss of all situational awareness.

This is a good time to explain that the human mind really cannot “multi-task.” We only seems to do this by ‘task-switching.” It is a maddening fact of life that whenever we engage with fixing some detail, we get blind-sided by a surprise in the environment we missed due to our narrow focus on a problem (texting and driving). In flying, we best accomplish multiple tasks by switching “micro to macro,” in a very disciplined manner; tune a radio, then wide view for control, then back to the next specific task.

I personally add “meta” to my scan to add the time-line into the scanning process. “What’s next?” is always important since we are always moving and the most important thing after control is the next thing; “micro/macro/meta (timeline)”.

If all the ducks are mercifully walking in a row and I have a few extra neurons to spare I also personally add self-analyzing and looking for “blind-spots or counterfactuals” to my scan. This is actively challenging the plan in action to see if I missed something.  This is Don Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns.” This actively scans for “did I miss anything here?” and “am I thinking straight?” In a crewed environment, this might be an actual verbal question if it is a critical planning item. How many times do we fool ourselves by engaging in a plan and it either is on totally the wrong track or there was something important that was neglected that might change the whole situation (no fuel available at that destination I diverted to…) So “how can this go wrong” without being too paranoid is a good question to ponder occasionally. But conscious competence is a whole different blog. Practice your awareness and stay safe out there!


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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