Recent, high-visibility loss of control inflight (LOC-I) accidents involving business aircraft reinforce the importance of effective upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) for pilots. But what kind of training is most effective?
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the answer lies in a mix of classroom and simulator instruction, combined with in-aircraft experience with aircraft upsets and stalls through scenario-based and maneuver-based training exercises.
In 2014, ICAO issued these recommendations in its Manual on Aeroplane Upset Prevention and Recovery Training and provided updated LOC-I guidance to ICAO member states. However, the FAA currently requires UPRT only for Part 121 commercial airline crews.
“Airlines fly into larger airports with more standardized approach procedures than the satellite airports commonly used by business aviation. The risk exposure [to an aircraft upset] can be significantly higher at these smaller airports.”
David Lawrence Senior Aviation Accident Investigator, NTSB
David Lawrence, senior aviation accident investigator for the NTSB, noted a disconnect with that approach.
“Airlines fly into larger airports with more standardized approach procedures than the satellite airports commonly used by business aviation,” said Lawrence. “The risk exposure [to an aircraft upset] can be significantly higher at these smaller airports.”
Despite the lack of an FAA mandate for such training for Part 135 and 91K operators, the NTSB strongly recommends UPRT for business aircraft flight crews. This call is echoed in the NBAA Safety Committee’s 2021-2022 list of Top Safety Focus Areas for the industry, which leads off with the need to address preventable LOC-I accidents.
“The alarming consistency of catastrophic outcomes in this type of accident continues to make its contributing factors a targeted issue for safety improvement by NBAA and aviation professional organizations across the globe,” the NBAA Safety Committee noted.
Lawrence views the ICAO recommendation for classroom, simulator and simulator LOC-I training as “a logical instructional progression. Learn about the aerodynamics, learn about the events and learn about what gets you into a loss of control [situation] that would require some type of recovery.”
However, while such training can be highly beneficial for pilots, Aviation Performance Solutions CEO Paul “BJ” Ransbury recommends that such training must first align with the ICAO-recommended approach, integrating on-aircraft UPRT with classroom and simulator training to properly overcome the “startle and surprise” response to a real-world upset event.
“Uniquely trained and qualified UPRT instructors are central to the long-term solution,” explained Ransbury. “We must continue to improve all interventions to address aircraft upsets, such as improved pilot monitoring, CRM, SRM, distraction, automation mismanagement, manual flight operations proficiency and flight path monitoring.
“In reality, however, and despite our best efforts within today’s paradigm, LOC-I still breaks through to flight conditions that pilots simply aren’t being trained to deal with effectively,” Ransbury added.
“We must continue to improve all interventions to address aircraft upsets, such as improved pilot monitoring, CRM, SRM, distraction, automation mismanagement, manual flight operations proficiency and flight path monitoring.”
Paul "BJ" Ransbury CEO, Aviation Performance Solutions
Another risk factor more common for business aircraft flight crews involves non-standard approaches, including low-level circling approaches as seen in the July 2021 crash of a Bombardier Challenger 605 at California’s Truckee-Tahoe Airport (TRK) and an accident involving a Learjet 35 approaching to land at Gillespie Field (SEE) near San Diego last December.
Emphasizing that the NTSB has yet to issue its probable cause findings in those accidents, Lawrence acknowledged such circling approaches can present added risk, but are not inherently unsafe.
“The main issue is that they just aren’t done that often, and there’s a higher risk as you maneuver the aircraft at a lower altitude,” explained Lawrence. “Pilots must stop and understand what the circling approach entails, because you won’t have as many ‘outs’ as you’re getting down low to the ground.”
Training to combat LOC-I must also address what can be contradictory indications of a developing loss of control event. Ransbury pointed to a 1998 incident involving a U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport approaching to land at Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean.
Multiple factors – including a nighttime approach in clouds over the ocean, apparent mismanagement of aircraft angle-of-attack and improperly seated wing slats on extension that, in turn, disabled the aircraft’s stick shaker stall warning system – led the flight crew to start climbing, not descending, at approach throttle settings.
As airspeed rapidly bled off, the C-5 entered a deep stall and rolled left and right to as much as 110 degrees of bank. The aircraft fell from 4,900 feet above the ocean through 1,500 feet as the crew struggled to gain altitude and bring the aircraft to straight-and-level flight with rudder inputs. Finally, the stricken C-5 started flying again at just 733 feet above a lagoon at the approach end of the runway.
“While the video reveals one crew member had situational awareness of the dire flight condition, the recovery was unnecessarily prolonged and arguably by some was accidental,” Ransbury said.
This mishap shows that unexpected – even chaotic – aircraft performance in stalled flight is not isolated to just small airplanes, and it can be difficult for pilots to understand an LOC-I event without experiencing one firsthand in a controlled training environment.
“It took several days of that [upset] training before it really sunk in [that] you must unload the airplane and get the wing flying again, whether it's upside down or right side up.”
Richard Meikle Executive Vice President for Operations and Safety, FlightSafety International
Richard Meikle, executive vice president for operations and safety at FlightSafety International (FSI), recounted his own UPRT experience in a jet trainer operated by FSI partner company Flight Research Inc.
Although Meikle had experienced an LOC-I event and recovery himself several years earlier when flying a commuter airline turboprop, “it took several days of that training before it really sunk in [that] you must unload the airplane and get the wing flying again, whether it’s upside down or right side up,” he said. “Until you really grasp that, and see it in action in the airplane or in the simulator, you can’t be prepared for it in the real world.”
Such lessons are particularly vital when combating LOC-I at low altitudes, such as when pilots try to tighten the base-to-final turn. That can lead to an aerodynamic stall in a skidding condition, flipping the aircraft over on its back at just a few hundred feet above the ground. The situation may be exacerbated as the pilot instinctively pulls back on the yoke, pointing the nose toward the ground.
In addition to integrating academic online and instructor-led training to include advanced class-specific simulation and type-specific virtual reality UPRT, Ransbury noted that on-aircraft training enables instructors to take pilots up to a safe altitude, enter an airplane upset condition and experience the results, all designed to ingrain the correct, time-critical response.
“Sometimes pilots need to see the consequences of incorrect control inputs and actions to get the full picture,” he said. “Utilizing purpose-built platforms, operating within robust safety margins, allows these lessons to play out safely, immeasurably benefiting the pilot in training.”
Furthermore, on-aircraft training also enables pilots to recognize common situations, such as a skidding turn traffic-pattern stall often seen in circling approach accidents. Ransbury emphasized that early recognition and prevention, before the aircraft enters an uncoordinated stall at low altitude, may be “the only way that even ideally trained pilots survive.”
By combining different approaches to LOC-I training, “you get a pretty comprehensive view of the issue,” Meikle said. “Simulators recreate low-level scenarios that you cannot safely replicate in the airplane, and in-airplane training allows you to feel the g-forces encountered when experiencing a real LOC-I event.”
That said, Meikle also acknowledged how the prospect of undergoing upset training may seem daunting for some pilots.
“Some psychological resistance to it is understandable,” he said, “and getting across that bridge is challenging for some. It was challenging for me.
“While jumping in the aircraft that first day was not high on my list of things to do,” he concluded, “by the end of it I’d found it to be some of the most effective training I’ve ever done.”
Reducing LOC-I Accidents in Business Aviation
Loss of control inflight (LOC-I) refers to accidents and incidents in which the pilot has temporarily, or completely, lost the ability to maintain control of an aircraft in flight. LOC-I typically results in an extreme deviation from the intended flight path.
Over the past 10 years, over 40% of fixed wing GA and commercial aviation fatal accidents occurred because pilots lost control of their aircraft.
The lethality of LOC-I, coupled with an overriding sense that its occurrence can be reduced through improved prevention, recognition and recovery skills, make this a targeted issue for safety improvement by the NBAA Safety Committee.