Upset Recovery Training: Not Just a Fad

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years”.

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980’s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day, actually. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

Clay Lacy has been flying an airshow sequence in his 1966 Lear 24 for many years.

Clay Lacy has been flying an airshow sequence in his 1966 Lear 24 for many years.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.

This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

  15 comments for “Upset Recovery Training: Not Just a Fad

  1. November 22, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Well said, sir! I don’t think it’s any kind of secret that I’m a big believer in hands, feet and head flying – and upset recovery training in particular. And I agree that one of the most powerful reasons for manual skills, paradoxically, is automation. When an autopilot is faced with a forces affecting the prescribed flight path, it does its best to cope. Often it will keep making control adjustments to the limit of abilities, then disengage. SNAP! So the pilot who says “If I wanted to fly aerobatics…” is missing the point. “Wanting to” may never come into it.

    • November 22, 2014 at 1:58 pm

      Exactly. Thats probably something I should have noted in the section comparing acro to unusual attitude training: the former is generally intentional, whereas the latter is, by definition, inadvertent.

  2. AirFrank
    November 22, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Great article. I recently completed a spin training course working toward CFI using a Super Decathlon. I can tell you that had my C172 entered an inadvertent spin, I’m not sure I would have recovered. Luckily the instructor flew the first spin so I could focus on what the plane was doing and not on flying it. I’ve since gotten comfortable with the spin and even got to do some aerobatics. Definitely going to do an unusual attitude course as well.

    • November 22, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      Pretty eye-opening, isn’t it? I love that about aerobatics — suddenly a whole world of attitudes and accelerations is available for exploration. I feel like I didn’t really have the same connection to the airplane before pursuing aerobatics.

      As far as your ability to have recovered from an inadvertent spin? That’s an astute observation. I’ve always found it odd that we send students off solo to intentionally perform various stalls, but don’t expose them to the natural result of a botched attempt. Imagine facing a spin for the first time when it occurs unexpectedly. The odds of remaining calm and taking prompt, correct action without previous training and experience are pretty minimal.

      • AirFrank
        November 26, 2014 at 3:19 pm

        I did a half-spin with my CFI during my private certification doing a power-on stall. Plane stalled, chopped the power but kept that right rudder in. Recovered within 1/2 turn but it was pure Cessna that save me that day. Even the instructor was like “nice recovery.” I never practiced power-on stalls while solo. Do now but not then.

        Love your website.

  3. November 22, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Yes, upset training is very valuable. The average corporate/airline pilot has no idea how to “unload” the plane and keep it flying when in an unusual attitude. Just a simple roll could go south very easily in our corporate planes. Lots of mass to keep moving and what’s right is definitely not natural to many, myself included. I’ve learned quite a bit doing upset training in the last couple years. Highly recommended to pilots of all experience levels.

    • November 22, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Exactly. Plus, without prompt and correct action, a minor upset can turn into a major one rather quickly. Especially in business aircraft, with their slow roll rates and low drag, Improper or delayed response can allow a recoverable situation to devolve into one where the aircraft’s velocity may make it far more challenging if not outright impossible to salvage. That’s why prevention is so important.

  4. Bob
    November 23, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Great article! Well thought out and articulated.

  5. Mahesh
    November 23, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for an informative article. How does a GA pilot go about finding a good upset recovery training program that doesn’t cost as much as the plane one flies? I have seen commercials for a couple, but they are extremely expensive and seem to be tailored to the turbine crowd.

    • November 23, 2014 at 11:25 am

      Excellent question, Mahesh. You’re right, many of these programs are geared toward jet pilots. There’s nothing wrong with that, but their employers sport a significantly larger training budget than the average GA pilot and as as you noted, those upset recover courses often reflect it.

      I’d recommend you look for “aerobatic training” rather than “upset recovery training”. There are plenty of flight schools out there using Citabrias, Aerobats, standard Decathlons, and other low-cost trainers who cater to GA pilots. If they provide decent aerobatic training, they should be able to provide upset recovery training as well, because an important component of aerobatic training is learning how to recover from a badly executed loop or roll. That’s the part you’re interested in.

      If you have a hard time finding an aerobatic training provider in your area, the International Aerobatic Club maintains a list of schools which might be helpful.

  6. AK
    December 4, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    While reading your paragraph about stuff flying around the cabin while maneuvering it reminded me of this accident- . A sobering reminder how things can go wrong in a hurry

    • December 4, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      I rememebr that accident. What a terrible way to go–victim of an XM antenna! FOD is a huge problem in aviation in general, and aerobatics in particular. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve been told about foreign objects becoming lodged in the controls. Heck, I even have my own story about a control system failure due to FOD:

  7. June 16, 2015 at 9:40 am

    Interestingly, the FAA does provide a definition for upsets, but not for “Unusual Attitudes”. The upset definition comes from the Airplane Upset Recovery Training Aid, which is available through the site. The upset definition was written for airliners, so it works for most jet aircraft, but not necessarily for props. It is an Unintentional attitude of greater than 25 degrees nose up, 10 degrees nose down, over 45 degrees of bank, or an airspeed inappropriate for the phase of flight. Stalls and spins are considered upsets, not just attitudinal disturbances. Also see the recently released Advisory Circular AC 120-111 on Upset Prevention and Recovery Training.

    • June 18, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out definition, Randall. I’m familiar with the Upset Recovery Training Aid but didn’t really think of it as being an FAA document per se since it was developed by the large aircraft airline industry. I believe the publication even notes that it was designed for airliners with more than 100 seats. But as you noted, it is a written definition.

      Unfortunately, AC120-111 did not exist when I published the post.

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