Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Upset Recovery Vs. Aerobatics

How upset do we have to be to get good training?

Anyone can do the job when things are going right. In this business, we play for keeps.
—Ernest K. Gann

These days, whenever I pick up an aviation magazine, I catch an article about how important stick-and- rudder skills are in primary flight training. My favorite aviation writers "get it." The consensus seems to be that there's a widening gap between learning good airmanship from the beginning of flight training versus playing catch-up and fixing bad habits later.

For the past few years, "upset recovery training" has become a nice buzzword in the aviation industry. Upset training—recovering from unexpected unusual attitudes—is a good thing, but I've been trying to understand why it isn't all just called aerobatics. Some people, like me, think it's just semantics, but the industry is promoting it as something a little different. Semantics or not, the approach taken by the flight training industry over the past two decades dictates a marketing strategy that appeals to ultra-conservative and safety-conscious attitudes. The word "aerobatics" must seem a little too wild, when in fact, it's precision flying at its best.

My friend Randy Brooks teaches upset training for a living. He has tried to convince me through charts, diagrams and a lot of acronyms that upset training and aerobatics are really two different things, and he makes a lot of good points. Randy is the president and founding member of Upset Training & Recovery Training Association (UPRTA). UPRTA states that the primary objective of aerobatics is "precision maneuvering capability," while upset prevention and recovery is "safe aircraft upset avoidance and recovery." They both lead to the same outcome: "improved manual aircraft handling skills." Randy notes that the biggest difference is the "startle effect," where aerobatics deals with planned outcomes in maneuvers, but upset training deals with unexpected outcomes. In my mind, his best argument is that akro is performed in VMC only, while upset recovery can be done solely by reference to instruments.

The concept of "upset training" gained ground in 2008 when airline industry leaders and safety experts strongly suggested to the FAA that they needed to fix some of the mistakes pilots were making in Loss of Control (LOC) accidents. The prime example was the Colgan Air crash, where the NTSB cited pilot training as one of the leading causes of the accident. Since then, the FAA instituted new rules requiring upset training, remedial training and expanded crosswind training, and raised the total time requirements for pilots on a commercial carrier.

LOC accidents are overwhelmingly the number-one cause of fatalities in worldwide commercial aviation. NTSB Chairman Debra Hersman cited LOC accidents at the primary threat to air safety in 2011. And, let's not ignore the other recent horribly spectacular accident, Air France flight 447, which stalled something like 72 times before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. The BEA, France's aviation accident investigation bureau, concluded that pilot error was to blame as a result of the crew making inappropriate control inputs that destabilized the flight path, failing to follow appropriate procedures for loss of displayed airspeed information and lacking understanding of the approach to stall, failing to recognize the aircraft had stalled and consequently not making inputs that would have made it possible to recover from the stall.


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