I recently joined my local chapter of The Well Armed Woman, which as the name implies is a resource for female gun owners. I am one of the nearly 5 million Americans who purchased their first firearm in 2020; women comprised 40 percent of all first time gun purchases. Like many of these women, I finally decided it was time to take ultimate control of my personal safety and security, so that I can better protect myself and my family in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.

Last weekend I attended my first TWAW chapter meeting at Gateway Rifle and Pistol Club, where I am a member. (If you’ve ever heard gun shots while standing on the ramp at Herlong Airport, you’ve heard people practicing at Gateway.) I am 49 years old and I’d estimate at least half of the 30 or so women at the meeting were older than me and were experienced shooters; the rest were middle aged newbies like me. The keynote speaker, Amanda Wilson, gave a presentation on developing our situational awareness — a topic that resonates with me as a pilot. She taught us about the Four Levels of Situational Awareness, developed by Col. Jeff Cooper.

Most people spend their days in Condition White, with their faces buried in their phones, oblivious to what’s really going on around them. When someone is in this state, they are extremely vulnerable and unprepared to handle any form of danger. We’ve all been guilty of this because our phones entice us with so many distractions, and it’s difficult to stay focused all of the time.

Ideally we want to operate in Condition Yellow, where we are relaxed but alert, constantly aware of who and what is around us. We want to always be prepared to identify, assess and respond to a given threat. For example, when I go to the grocery store, before I park the car I scan the lot for any unusual activity. Are there peddlers walking around, anyone who looks like they might be drunk or high, or anyone who looks like they might be about to rob the store? I try to park my car such that I can pull forward out of the space without obstructions. As I get out of the car, I scan the cars around me to see if there are any people doing anything unusual, and if so, I will move to another area or abandon the lot altogether. I try to avoid looking at my phone when I’m out shopping, especially when I’m with our daughter, unless I’m responding to an urgent call or a text. I never let her out of my sight, not even for a second. When I’m in the store, I’m paying close attention to who is nearby, observing their behavior and body language. I’m aware of who’s wearing a mask and who isn’t, because it’s more difficult to gauge the facial expression of someone whose face is covered. I make eye contact and assertively make my way through the aisles. I’m always aware of where the nearest exit is. I use self-checkout if it’s available so that I don’t get trapped behind other people in a line; I can quickly drop my items and get out if needed. Have you ever noticed that self check-out is almost always the closest to the exit?

In Condition Orange, we have become aware of a potential threat and are actively developing a response plan. I’ve had more than a few “orange moments” while out in public, but never a red. In Condition Red, you have determined that the threat is real and you are prepared to act upon that threat using whatever means necessary.

There is a fifth condition noted in this graphic, Condition Black, in which panic sets in and the individual loses the ability to function effectively. This is where people make deadly mistakes. The best way to avoid black if you see red is to run. Put as much distance and time as you can between you and the threat.

I believe the four primary levels of awareness apply to anyone who is flying in an airplane, whether as the pilot or as a passenger. If you’re the pilot in command, you are solely responsible for the safe outcome of the flight, and by necessity must operate in Condition Yellow at all times. You are hopefully enjoying the experience of flying by yourself or with passengers, but at the same time you are constantly scanning the aircraft instruments, and the sky, for potential threats such as engine or other aircraft system anomalies, traffic, and adverse weather conditions. The pilot in command must also pay attention to the health and well being of any passengers onboard the flight. Without realizing it until now, I’ve often described what amounts to Condition Yellow to students as having a “background process” running in your brain at all times, much like a computer.

The difference between Condition Red on the ground and in an airplane is you can’t run away from the threat while you’re flying. You have no choice but to confront with the situation and not allow yourself to deteriorate into Condition Black.

Pilots and gun owners have a lot in common. Like good pilots, responsible gun owners prepare for the worst but hope for the best. No law abiding gun owner wishes to get into a gun fight with a bad guy, but we train and prepare for this unlikely scenario so that if we ever have to act in Condition Red, we have a fighting chance of survival. It’s the same reason why pilots train for an engine failure immediately after takeoff.