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Why Upset Recovery Training Will Make You a Better Pilot

Upset recovery training (URT) has been a staple of military flight instruction in the United States for decades, but there is now growing awareness that the skills learned in such courses are valuable assets for business pilots as well. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued an Information for Operators (InFo) notice highlighting "the availability and merits of enhanced upset recovery training."

While the overall accident rate has decreased, the InFo document notes "the category of loss of control continues to outpace other factors as the leading cause of fatal accidents in the last 20 years."

Providers of upset recovery training point to the circumstances of the February 12, 2009, fatal crash of a Colgan Airways DHC-8-400 turboprop on approach to Buffalo, NY as an illustration of the kind of accidents that could be prevented by URT. A senior manager at one NBAA Member flight department said he is a believer in URT and has been actively researching providers while trying to convince his management to add such training for its pilots.

‘Realism’ Is Critical for Effective Training

While modern aircraft simulators are approved for training pilots how to perform multiple procedures and deal with a range of events, he said they are not the right tools for teaching pilots to handle unusual aircraft attitudes or upset recovery techniques.

A simulator is not "a realistic scenario," he said, because pilots do not experience the "G" forces nor the "fear factor" that would be present in an actual upset event. He mentioned three training providers: Aviation Performance Solutions (APS) at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, AZ; Environmental Tectonics Corp. (ETC) of Southampton, PA; and Calspan of Buffalo, NY, that offer realistic and effective upset training with different devices.

APS provides several URT classes with flights conducted in two-seat German-built Extra 300L aerobatic aircraft certified to +/- 10Gs. The aircraft are equipped with four digital video and audio cameras that record the complete flight for use as a teaching tool. APS trains hundreds of pilots each year, with course offerings ranging from a one-day introductory URT session, up to a three-day/five-flight package designed for professional pilots.

ETC provides training in a short-arm centrifuge that uses planetary motion to produce G forces and features 360 degrees of yaw. The simulator is configured as the left seat of a generic transport aircraft.

Paul Comtois, director of aircraft upset training and research at ETC, said, "99 percent of the time pilots are going to be in a benign environment that is relatively stable," conditions that a modern six-axis simulator can replicate well. But "when you get into emergency situations, that’s where you can get force loading on the airplane. I would say that the typical civilian pilot does not have that kind of experience" if they do not have a military or aerobatics background.

At ETC, pilots are taught basic stall recovery, understanding how to "unload" G forces from an airplane and what that feels like, activities that Comtois says, "You can only do in an airplane or these kind of simulators that can reproduce continuous G motion."

Calspan, a safety research company, got into URT more than a dozen years ago after the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board sought the firm’s help in analyzing the circumstances of USAir Flight 427, a Boeing 737 that experienced severe rudder problems, rolled and crashed while on approach to Pittsburgh.

Calspan’s two-day URT course combines academic instruction and flights in both an aerobatic Beech Bonanza and one of several specially outfitted Model 24 and 25 Learjets. The Learjets have a fully digital, hydraulically actuated control system that can be adjusted to provide the same force gradients of whatever model jet aircraft the pilot being trained normally operates. In addition to an instructor pilot, the Learjets are equipped with several computers, one of which is a predictive safety monitor. "So if the [pilots being trained] start to do something that exceeds the limits of the Learjet," the computer will intercede and prevent the aircraft from entering a dangerous situation, said Brian Ernisse, director of flight operations and a URT instructor at Calspan.

As a military aviator before joining Calspan, Ernisse said he "just assumed everyone had been upside down in airplanes before…if you were flying for an airline." But "that’s not the case," he said. "Most people have none of that, even with 10,000 or 15,000 flight hours."

Something Every Pilot Should Do

Over the past 25 years "there’s been a paradigm shift" in how the aviation industry trains pilots, Ernisse said. "We’ve moved from mostly flight training, which the military still does, to almost all ground-based training [in general aviation]." As a result "many people who come out of general aviation, flying straight-wing, low-performance aircraft, don’t understand the dynamics of flying high-powered jets with swept wings and T-tails."

NBAA Member John Hayes, a pilot for 19 years with about 3,800 total hours who currently flies a Cessna Mustang, took a URT course at APS several years ago and says it was "an unbelievably valuable experience." Hayes, who was then flying a TBM 700 turboprop, said he went into the course thinking, "Gee, how hard can this be, learning about how to turn an airplane upright? And I have to tell you, the ground school alone taught me more about stalls and spins and aerodynamics than I ever thought I would learn," he said. "I was actually stunned at how much I didn’t know."

Hayes, based in Bend, OR, was a founder of the Citation Jet Pilots organization. When speaking with veteran pilots, Hayes says he’s "equally surprised about how little people know about the flight characteristics of an airplane when it gets close to stalling."

In a stall scenario "a lot of folks, [when they] start to get upside down, they see the ground getting closer and the first reaction…is to pull back on the stick," Hayes said. "Of course, when you’re upside down, pulling back on the stick just puts you right straight down into the ground. And so being upside down and understanding that you have to push down and not pull…things like that are almost impossible to simulate in a simulator. And you certainly won’t feel the forces that are involved."

Hayes believes upset recovery training is so valuable "it’s something every pilot should do. It’s like instrument training – it makes you a better pilot, no matter what you fly or what conditions you encounter."

For More Information

The FAA strongly recommends that operators and training centers incorporate into their training programs applicable sections of the Airplane Upset Recovery Training Aid, a document that provides guidance on the development of upset recovery training.

Download the Airplane Upset Recovery Training Aid (25MB, PDF).

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