The Importance of Upset Training for Flight Crews

In an era of constantly improving aviation safety, loss of control — in flight (LOC-I) continues to result in preventable tragedies, maintaining its position as the No. 1 cause of aviation fatalities. From 1994 to 2003, LOC-I accounted for 36 percent of accident fatalities in commercial jet aviation, and in the following 10-year period, from 2004 to 2013, it represented 38 percent. Meanwhile, over that last decade, commercial aviation’s second-leading cause of fatalities, controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), declined by almost one-third, from 29 to 20 percent. In fact, LOC-I is by far the leading cause of all aviation accidents — whether in turbine or reciprocating, or certificated or experimental aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration says LOC-I accidents also exhibit a recurring causal factor: "the pilot's inappropriate reaction to impending stalls and full stalls." Moreover, the agency asserts "some pilots may not have the required skills or training to respond appropriately to an unexpected stall."

That's why civil aviation authorities and safety experts worldwide recommend upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) as the key to reducing LOC-I accidents. Though unusual attitude training is required for a pilot's license, a recent FAA Advisory Circular on Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (AC120-111) stresses the need to "expand upon this certification training throughout a pilot's career." Experts contend the need for maintaining these skills is greater than ever. Automation in the airline cockpit has reduced time spent hand-flying. Concurrently, the de-emphasis on manual control can put corporate aviation at even greater risk, as these aircraft often operate at small airports, make circling approaches, and are sometimes operated with a single pilot, all of which increase the risk of LOC-I. Throw in the chance of ice contamination, wake turbulence, spatial disorientation, autopilot failures, energy mismanagement and flight-control malfunctions, and the need for quality pilot training becomes clear.

As early as 1996, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the FAA require airline and charter flight crews to train “in the recognition of and recovery from unusual attitudes and upset maneuvers.” With LOC-I remaining a problem, effective March 2019, the FAA will mandate all U.S. airlines to provide hands-on, full stall training to pilots. In the interim, a growing number of operators are going further and giving crews airborne upset training. There’s no reason any operator concerned with safety shouldn’t do the same.

Though UPRT can be conducted in either a simulator or aircraft, airborne training is recognized as superior. The International Civil Aviation Organization's UPRT manual states that simulators are "incapable of providing the complete exposure to conditions synonymous with preventing or recovering from an LOC-I event," while airborne training "provides experience and confidence that cannot be fully acquired in the simulated environment alone."

Vanessa Christie, a former U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat instructor and combat aviator, and now Vice President for Strategic Development at Prevailance Aerospace Safety Academy in Chesapeake, Virginia, is in a good position to appreciate the differences. “A simulator can’t replicate the surprise, startle and physiological response that a sudden loss of control in a real airplane does,” Christie says. Prevailance Aerospace uses the Extra 330LX aerobatic aircraft for its UPRT, and its instructors are all former military fighter pilots and Top Gun grads. But no matter what aircraft a pilot typically flies, UPRT doesn’t require heavy iron. ICAO says upset training “should not be focused on aeroplane-specific performance or features,” but on “general principles of understanding and techniques, which may be applied to a wide range of aeroplanes.”


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