It can be upsetting, but the attitude of most people, even smart ones (maybe especially smart ones), is that we’re stubbornly resistant to alteration, by the evidence. So here’s a fact about aircraft accidents that’s upsetting and that alters not only some cherished attitudes, but also airman certification standards, some aircraft airworthiness certification standards and our understanding of the human-machine interface on the flight deck as we move forward into next-gen aircraft. That fact is that LOC-I (Loss of Control In-flight) is the number-one cause of aircraft accidents across all segments of aviation, from Sport Pilot to ATP, ultralight to airliner, VFR to IFR, basic avionics to high-tech, automatic-everything avionics.
I was resistant to the notion that, regardless of training, experience and equipment flown, what pilots think they know and what they really know about aircraft control and the circumstances that can take away that control is incomplete, and that these conceptual and knowledge gaps are rooted in a variety of sources—from personal skill and competence to legacy training protocol to entirely new risk factors emerging from the underlying and hidden complexities of highly integrated and automated digital aircraft guidance and control systems.
General aviation pilots are well acquainted with and constantly warned about the most prevalent loss-of-control event for them—the stall-spin scenario, aka, approach to landing stall, infamous for occurring during an overshot base to final turn or the showoff buzz job. More often than not, it’s a greenhorn event, and the cause usually is pretty basic: The pilot exceeding their level of skill, poor judgment, distraction and emotional immaturity. This is Loss of Control 101.
Pervading the professional flying community is the attitude that commercial/experienced pilots are less prone, that the latest Integrated Display System, autopilot or Flight Management System, stick shaker, nudger or fudger will protect pros from inadvertent loss of control. While it’s true that more training, experience and some flight aids can augment a pilot’s skill and can reduce the workload during difficult flight conditions, the facts suggest otherwise. And change is coming.
Three high-profile accidents in fairly rapid succession challenged the attitudes that GA leads the pack in loss of control—that the bigger the plane, the more experienced the pilot, the more advanced the technology, the less likely loss of control.
In 2009, Colgan Air flight 3407, a DH-8 commuter flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Buffalo, New York, crashed into a house, killing the crew, all 49 passengers and one person inside the house. The Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 entered an aerodynamic stall, and the crew lost control and didn’t recover due to the pilots’ inappropriate response to the stall warnings. How could this be?
Six months after Colgan 3407—encore—Air France flight 447, a state-of-the-art Airbus A330, flying at night from Brazil to France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors. The investigation concluded the crew failed to recognize that the aircraft had stalled and consequently didn’t make appropriate control inputs in time to recover. The stall occurred at FL380. They had about four minutes to figure it out and recover. How could this be?
And, recently, in July 2013, on a visual approach into SFO, at 11:30 a.m. on a clear day with light winds, Asiana flight 214, a Boeing 777, undershot the runway, snapping off the tail section, as the rest of the plane crashed on the runway. Three people died in the crash, and the death toll could have been a lot worse.
So the unthinkable happened to high-time, experienced Part 121 pilots—in spite of their saturation with SIM training and regular checkrides. It happens to crews operating the latest in computerized and automated aircraft technology. Did we all miss something in training for our ratings? If it happened to them, could it happen to us?
To counter this reoccurring problem, the FAA is emphasizing Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT)—first, for the airlines, next, for spin-training requirements for CFIs, occasionally, as a type rating requirement for some VLJs and, finally, considering new equipment standards for award of aircraft type certificates, specifically, Angle Of Attack (AOA) indicators.
To find loss of control, this well-camouflaged killer tiger, to find its lair in the air, Plane & Pilot sent me to Advanced Flight Dynamics (AFD) located at Redmond, Oregon (RDU), field elevation 3,080 feet, for UPRT—unusual attitudes training on steroids. In this course, the steroids were administered in the classroom and activated in flight.
For context, my flight experience includes several years of crop dusting, skywriting over Orlando, and STOL and primitive operations flying Pilatus Turbo Porters in North Africa (requiring a Swiss Commercial Validation and Swiss flight check). I was a Part 135 King Air Charter and sales demo pilot. I’m an aerobatic hobbyist in power and glider aircraft, and I’m a CFI. I got as far as recognizable rolling 360s in a glider.
My attitude was confident, believing muscle memory and aerodynamic concepts were firmly welded together by 5,000 hours of practice and experience. My belief, my attitude: I had a thorough grasp of flying airplanes in all attitudes, especially straight and level and certainly on autopilot (where the biggest challenge often seemed staying awake). This loss of control beast seemed a paper tiger to me. The alpha in me snickered, while the adult in me whispered, “Hmm….”
Upset Prevention And Recovery Training
Advanced Flight Dynamics was founded by CEO and longtime certification test pilot David Robinson in 2014, designed to provide specialized upset training to a broad range of general aviation pilots and to address the leading causes of aircraft accidents. “Most insurance companies will reduce hull coverage premiums,” says Robinson, “because their data shows a reduction of incidents for UPRT-trained pilots.” Often, this reduction approaches or even fully covers the cost of the training, according to Robinson.
“The Fouga CM.170 Magister is the perfect light twin jet trainer to cover UPRT training for CJ and Eclipse category aircraft,” says Robinson, “and with the Decathlon, we cover GA piston pilot training, as well as teach preliminary skills for later application in the high-altitude jet.”
My AFD flight and ground instructor was Mike “Cuckoo” Kloch, former Marine Corps F/A-18 pilot, combat veteran and professionally trained Aviation Safety Officer (Naval Postgraduate School). Mike is a CFI/II/MEI and an FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Representative, with a Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University and two AAS Aviation degrees from Central Oregon Community College. He’s also a commercial- and instrument-rated helicopter pilot with NVG qualifications and authorized to issue endorsements for high-performance, high-altitude and tailwheel operations.
Up front, we cleared up one thing—UPRT is not aerobatics. While the aircraft will be put through maneuvers similar to aerobatics, the big difference is that aerobatics are expected, planned, practiced and willfully executed by the pilot—upsets are not. They’re nascent catastrophic events, unplanned, understood or unexpected. They’re a surprise—usually the result of a failure—and create confusion, i.e., the Startle Effect.
Our first day was spent in the classroom where, within 15 minutes, yours truly, self-proclaimed Aero Alpha Dog, blurted out his first wrong answer to a verbal quiz question. Game on/instant student/EGO off/humility activated/mind opened.
During the next 10 hours of groundschool, Mike took me on a detailed tour of the numerous genus and species of Upsets, and their varied expressions and contributions to loss of control events. Interwoven throughout the day were practical presentations of aerodynamic principles—several of which, for me, had drifted off-centerline over time. With concepts realigned and refreshed, paradigms recalibrated, the many lairs of the loss of control tiger were slowly being uncovered. Several answers to the question “How could this happen?” began to take form.
Pilots train for the unexpected, learn to expect the unexpected, plan to avoid the unexpected and, presumably, whittle down their personal definition of the unexpected as they simultaneously increase their personal definition of routine through experience. This should reduce loss of control, and it surely does, but, as evidenced by the accident record, it doesn’t eliminate it or the risk of it.
For starters, groundschool opened my eyes to the one main weapon the loss of control Tiger always uses—the raking claws that strike as it leaps out of its hidden lair—the Startle Effect. It’s always a surprise attack, and in those moments (and sometimes minutes) that it takes for the crew to sort out what’s happening, the game is won or lost. And how or if they sort it out in time is deeply rooted, not in total hours, but in something more visceral—in airmanship.
As we move up in aircraft complexity, we move away from hand-flying. As aircraft increase in reliability, many pilots become increasingly complacent. UPRT is all about increasing a pilot’s airmanship by refreshing aerodynamics and automation awareness, rubbing out complacency and getting reacquainted with the basics. Consequently, the first rule in recovery is shut off automated control systems; hand-fly the airplane. I learned the causes of loss of control were constantly evolving. With the increased convenience afforded by modern displays and flight control systems comes increased corrosion of hand-flying skills and higher intensity of startled consternation when a system fails in an unexpected and often unforeseeable way. A coupled approach is the opiate of the masses. Use it wisely and attentively.
After class, we spent time with cockpit familiarization and flight planning for the next day. I was itching to take it on, eager to review, revise, fine-tune and go hunting for the lair. I was a little uptight, worried about the preverbal screw-up, as in ending up in an unplanned spin or confusion under instrument spin entry and recovery, or, yes, just looking like a bonehead.
The first few flights were in AFD’s 210 hp ACA Xtreme Decathlon 8KCAB, rated at +6/-5Gs, featuring fully inverted systems with a symmetrical wing and MT Composite Aerobatic constant-speed prop.
After takeoff and as we began climb-out to 10,000 MSL (about 7,000 AGL), Mike put me through some preliminary warm-up exercises, the first of which were Dutch rolls with the objective of holding the nose on point, in theory, a simple maneuver that requires a fine touch. The next exercise was even simpler, yet more profound, in matching aerodynamics with practical control manipulation. Entering a fairly steep climb from level flight, I was to pitch over to offload the wing at 0.5 G—no more/no less—and return to level flight. The objective was to imprint what one-half G feels like. Then we flew some (not so) lazy 8’s to further calibrate the organic G-Measurement Device (gluteus maximus), make friends with the airplane and butt-bond with the seat. He put me through stall series, rolls, spins and one maneuver I had never done, and didn’t do very well. Mike taught me how to dive-bomb. This exercise reasserted the paradigm that we’re flying the wing (not the plane) by directing the lift vector. This exercise, along with holding a 0.5G pushover, did, I think, the most to fine-tune my flying skills.
In the Decathlon, we worked through a stall series up through to spins and rolls, then went through recovery from extreme unusual attitudes. The drill was simple; Mike would take control, I would tune out, Mike would put the airplane in an extreme attitude and return control to me by commanding, “Recover!” Then we’d do a quick post-maneuver critique and do it again until it came together.
After VFR exercises, I went through recoveries under the hood, with a Dynon electronic Artificial Horizon as my reference. Frankly, I was surprised at how intuitive recoveries from fully inverted flight or developed spins were on instruments. But it was during these exercises that I got a better dose of the Startle Effect and an appreciation of distracting physiological sensations (G-forces, spinning, increasing noise, hanging from the straps) that I can’t imagine even a Level D/Type 7 simulator duplicating. (A note about these full-motion flight sims: They simulate aircraft systems that crew can control and provide force feedback for the pilot’s flight controls. They also provide motion feedback to the crew in all of the six degrees of freedom, but not—yet—fully 360˚, so no inverted and certainly no G’s.)
The final day, we went up in the Fouga CM.170 jet for 45 minutes to replicate some of the maneuvers at higher altitudes (16,000 feet) at jet speeds. The differences? Faster buildup of speed and G’s, a smoother ride, a little touchier/squishier at low speed in thin air—and a bigger smile.
My big smile gave way to a huge lesson in upsetting circumstances, as the door suddenly opened for a pounce by the tiger. I was flying from the front seat and had sole access to the glass integrated NAVCOM audio panel. Time was up, meaning fuel was low. We broke off and headed for home. Descending out of 16,000 feet, switching to ATIS and not really very familiar with the Redmond Frequencies, I got mixed up on the audio panel; we were transmitting on one frequency and listening on another. It’s important to note that competence baseline for this flight wasn’t my past experience over the years; it was my cockpit checkout and 45 minutes of stick time in a plane I had never flown. Not all experience is germane to the upsetting circumstances that may occur. And, there I was, fiddling with the audio panel, trying to pull up the tower as we rocketed down toward the 5-mile control zone boundary. A small glitch in a routine task rapidly claimed a huge chunk of my attention, opening the door to the tiger’s lair. Fortunately, this time, the tiger was asleep. My new awareness of the elements of loss of control helped me recognize this small crack in the door to loss of control. Had I been alone, approaching a terminal, head down, fiddling—was I really in control?
Of all the insights, lessons and experiences of this sample Upset Prevention and Recovery Training, one cardinal insight stands out: With the right attitude, every flight is a lesson.
There’s a whole new world outside of the 11% comfort zone—take a guided tour and drive the tiger away.
Learn more about Advanced Flight Dynamics at advancedflightdynamics.com. Lou Churchville is a commercial pilot, writer and marketing communications professional. He holds single and multi-engine land, instrument, glider and Certified Flight Instructor ratings.
1. Below 1,000 AGL in a skidding left-hand-turn, cross-controlled stall, what should your first recovery action be?
(a) Simultaneous stick briskly forward, level wings, then power
(b) Release control pressures, increase power, then wings level
(c) Simultaneous level wings, stick forward and power
(d) Level wings, stick forward, power
2. In the above scenario, what’s your most likely stall evolution?
(a) High-wing stalls first, plane rolls and nose breaks to the right, entering a spin
(b) Both wings stall and aircraft enters a falling leaf descent
(c) Low-wing stalls first, nose pitches down and aircraft rolls sharply left and enters a spin
(d) Nose pitches down, wings roll level
2. In normal or utility category day-to-day flight operations, of the total possible flight envelope (pitch and roll), approximately what percentage of the envelope do aircraft normally fly within?
4. Considering the total controllable flight envelope, what’s the lowest airspeed a wing can move without stalling?
(a) At the indicated airspeed for power-off stall listed in the Aircraft Flight Manual
(b) At the indicated airspeed for power-off stall with full flaps indicated in the Aircraft Flight Manual
(c) At “0” indicated airspeed
(d) At the airspeed where the wing exceeds its design critical angle of attack
5. What movement(s) are required for a spin to occur?
(a) Gyroscopic precession
(e) b and d
6. Which primary instrument is the most reliable indicator of the direction of a spin?
(a) Flight director
1. (b) At 1,000 feet AGL, you don’t have a lot of time
2. (c) No-brainer
3. (c) That’s right, 11%; this includes training maneuvers, stalls, steep turns, etc.
4. (c) Talk to your CFI
5. (e) No-brainer
6. (c) Needle
SUMMARY OF CHANGES AND RESOURCES
As you doubtless know by now, the FAA has issued new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for the Private Pilot certificate and instrument rating that take the place of the longstanding Practical Test Standards. The FAA has also revised the knowledge test and the questions that compose it to adhere to the ACS standards.
The FAA’s awareness of and commitment to ending loss of control accidents are clear in the changes that affect Parts 23, 25, 61 and 121 and Part 91. The current minimum standards for practical test performance of tasks won’t change generally—the change is to a holistic approach, adopting an approach to the test and to grading it that more accurately represents the way we fly in the real world, the knowledge and tasks associated with a typical flight, and arranged in the sequence that occurs in a typical flight (i.e., pre-flight, pre-start, taxi, takeoff, climb, shutdown, etc.). Also new to the ACS is the addition of risk assessment and mitigation/management assessments, further building on the foundation of scenario-based learning.
While formal Upset Recovery and Prevention Training in an aircraft isn’t required for pilots, CFIs must have spin endorsements moving forward, and Part 121 airline pilots are required to have UPRT in Simulator Training. Current Level D (FAA)/Type (ICAO) simulators feature upgraded motion to more closely replicate the sensations associated with inverted, skidding and other extreme flight attitudes. The Feds love AOA (Angle of Attack) indicators, and that may be one new requirement for Part 25 airliners. The market will probably demand AOA in Part 23 aircraft sooner than regulations do. Some VLJs have a defined UPRT as part of the Type Rating requirements.
For a complete description of these changes, visit the FAA at faa.gov/training_testing/testing/acs/.
FAA REGULATIONS HEADINGS
Part 23. Provides airworthiness standards for issuing a Type Certificate to airplanes in normal, utility, aerobatic (up to a max. takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds) and commuter categories (max. takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds).
Part 25. Provides airworthiness standards for issuing a Type Certificate to transport category airplanes that include jets, lowered aircraft with 10 or more seats or a max. takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or more, and propeller-driven aircraft with more than 19 seats or a max. takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds.
Part 61. Provides Airman Certification Requirements for private pilots, flight instructors and ground instructors.
Part 91. General operating rules for all aircraft.
Part 121. Provides a set of rules for scheduled (airline) carriers.