“Keep it in tight.”
These words, sometimes uttered by frazzled tower controllers working busy traffic patterns, should set off a pilot’s internal master caution alarm. Loss of control is now the No. 1 killer in general aviation and a high safety priority on the radar screens of both the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA. As you might guess, the majority of fatal loss-of-control accidents occur in the traffic pattern, more often than not on the base-to-final turn where “keeping it in tight,” especially with a strong tailwind on base blowing across the final approach course, can be a prelude to disaster.
Maneuvering above a pretty patchwork of farmland in far northwest New Jersey recently, I was given permission — encouragement, actually, from my teacher, a former Navy F-14 Tomcat instructor — to do things with the airplane that no sane pilot should ever try in the traffic pattern. We were at a safe altitude in an airplane that could withstand just about anything I might dish out, so why not? I rolled into a 50-degree banked turn and cranked the little blue-and-white Extra 330LX around the sky — pulling, pulling, pulling, until wham! The nose sliced like a knife in an accelerated stall toward the verdant world below as we transitioned from controlled flight to something closer to a wild carnival ride.
Recovery in the Extra was no problem. Thinking about attempting the same maneuver in my airplane in the traffic pattern made me shudder, especially as I recalled accident reports recounting the misfortunes of pilots stalling and spinning in a steep bank. At low altitude, the consequences are often catastrophic.
As it was, I regained control, climbed back to 5,000 feet, and set up for the next series of maneuvers, all designed to improve my feel for the Extra — in the most fun way possible, of course. I performed aileron rolls, loops, crazy 8s (just what they sound like: greatly exaggerated lazy 8s in an Extra) and spins so dizzying that I had to take a moment afterward to make the world mercifully stop going round.
What a blast — and an eye-opener too. The ground instruction and flight training I received from Prevailance Aerospace was unlike anything I’ve been exposed to, whether training for a new certificate or rating, or gaining initial type training in a simulator. A primary focus of the Prevailance training syllabus centers on upset recovery but with a healthy dose of recovery techniques thrown into the mix for those inescapable scenarios when the airplane departs controlled flight and proper actions by the pilot are a must. The fact that I was doing it all in one of the baddest aerobatic airplanes on the planet was a bonus.
I’d heard that flying an Extra is easy; what’s hard, pilots say, is flying an Extra well. As soon as I took the controls climbing out from Morristown Municipal Airport’s Runway 23, I understood what that meant. Flying the Extra is a two-fingers-on-the-stick, think-it-and-it-does-it experience. It will ruin you for other, lesser airplanes. The word sublime springs to mind when searching for the perfect description of the Extra’s handling.
As we were heading back into Morristown after throwing the airplane all over the sky, I wanted to keep flying — and maybe never stop. The aerobatics and other maneuvers I got to try with my host — Prevailance Aerospace’s chief instructor pilot, Dean Castillo — were a blast, but I knew they were far from perfect. I could do better, and it would be oh-so-much fun to continue sharpening these newly acquired skills.
But that wasn’t the point of the training. The aim of this exercise was to learn the techniques and muscle memory needed to recover from an inflight upset as well as the practical knowledge to prevent a loss-of-control episode from happening in the first place — all while eliminating the “startle effect,” i.e. the shock of dealing with something unexpected and a tendency among pilots to either freeze or start moving the controls and flipping switches without first analyzing the situation.
Attending the upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) course alongside pilots from Honeywell’s corporate flight department, I was in stellar company. As you might imagine, Honeywell employs highly experienced pilots, the crème de la crème from the world of corporate flying, at its Morristown flight department. But operating at the ragged edges of the flight envelope isn’t something they do very often, even during training.
Prevailance Aerospace was formed by a group of former military aviators in Chesapeake, Virginia, all with fighter-pilot cred, to teach upset prevention and recovery techniques to civilian pilots, mainly corporate pilots. The chance to learn from former Topgun instructors in a real airplane — that, by the way, Prevailance Aerospace will bring to you — is a recipe that is proving quite successful.
The company isn’t the only UPRT specialist that teaches in real airplanes, but it is one of the only providers to utilize the Extra, which is easier than, say, a jet trainer to take to customer locations. Some upset recovery training programs require almost a week away from home base, factoring in travel. That makes the Prevailance business model appealing for corporate flight departments with flight crews who can’t spare a lot of time away.
“Finding open time to send pilots for training can be a challenge, even for the most safety-conscious flight department,” says Vanessa Christie, Prevailance Aerospace’s vice president for strategic development and a former F-14 Tomcat combat aviator. “Pilots can come to our Virginia headquarters or we can bring the training right to their home bases.”
There aren’t many quality providers that offer this kind of instruction, and most of them are located in the western U.S. Prevailance is focusing its resources on customers east of the Mississippi where there is no shortage of flight departments, and even individual pilots, that can benefit from this sort of specialized training.
The on-site, three-day UPRT program offered by Prevailance is the same course taught at the company’s headquarters. It includes three one-hour flights complemented by classroom instruction, mission briefings and post-flight debriefings, including review of inflight videos taken from wing, tail and cockpit cameras. I attended for one day to get a taste of the course and plan on heading to Chesapeake in the near future to finish up — and fly that incredible Extra some more.
Is it imperative to do UPRT training in an airplane? After being exposed to the Prevailance course, I would say it can’t hurt, and some of the reasons should be obvious. Even the highest-fidelity simulators in the world, for example, can’t fully replicate how an airplane behaves in an upset far outside the normal flight envelope — though sim training certainly is beneficial. Also, Castillo notes that the brain reacts to simulated training differently than in-airplane training. The physiological experience — the sights, the sounds, the feel — of out-of-control flight can’t be experienced and absorbed the same way in a simulator.
“There really is no substitute,” he says. “You can simulate it all you want, but you know, and your subconscious knows, that at 5 o’clock you’re going to meet up with your sim partner in the lobby, you’re going to have a beer and go get a steak. That’s a fact. That is the way your mind and body work. When you strap into the Extra and put your toe into the unknown, it has a different psychological effect.”
Boy, does it ever. Training in the airplane for me drove home the lessons in a way no simulator ride ever could, mainly because it was 100 percent real, from the tightness of the straps being cinched down as I donned my parachute and the smells of hot oil and avgas, to the G-forces that felt like a great weight on my chest and the rumble of the Extra’s ferocious 315 hp Lycoming IO-580. From the moment we lifted off the runway and soared skyward, the experience was viscerally compelling in ways simulators can’t replicate.
An important element of the training is the added stress of flying a fully aerobatic airplane, pulling those hefty Gs and grunting from your abdomen to keep the blood circulating in the upper portion of the body. The experience wears you out. Castillo warned the class that after each flight we might experience sea legs, fatigue and a dull headache. He was right on all counts. But increasing a pilot’s stress level — deliberately and in a controlled way — is also a fabulous way to build the confidence needed to recover from an upset event. The aim is to give you the actual experience of an upset so when it happens for real, you can deal with it because you’ve been there and done that, having been exposed to a multitude of upsets in training.
There’s also value in learning to slow down in an upset. Prevailance calls it training to act between “a moment and a minute.” In other words, you learn to reject your basic instinct to react immediately to an upset, and instead take the time to analyze the situation and consciously decide what the proper recovery techniques should be.
“We don’t want you to have fast hands in the cockpit and start throwing switches until you understand what’s happening,” Castillo says.
To gain that ability, Prevailance exposes customers to “edge of the envelope exploration” and light aerobatic training. The idea isn’t to turn a student into the next Sean Tucker flying a routine at an airshow, it’s to expose him or her to a full array of UPRT scenarios, be it a mountain wave-turbulence upset, wake turbulence on departure, jammed flight controls or inadvertent autopilot disconnect, along with a variety of spins for good measure.
What is an upset anyway? Interestingly enough, this is a topic the aviation industry has struggled with. Essentially, an upset is the airplane doing something you didn’t anticipate — and for a brief period of time, you are merely a passenger. By definition, an upset isn’t that radical: it’s a pitch attitude greater than 25 degrees nose-up or 10 degrees nose-down, a bank angle greater than 45 degrees, or airspeed “inappropriate” for the flight conditions.
So what are the leading causes of the loss-of-control epidemic we face today? An over-reliance on automation is one, exacerbated obviously by a degradation of hand-flying skills as we’ve become too accustomed to setting the autopilot, following the magenta line on the flight display and kicking back. In the regimented airline world, maintaining stick-and-rudder skills to a high degree of proficiency probably isn’t as critical (or even realistic) as it is in general aviation and corporate flying.
The LOC danger zones are stalls on approach, accelerated stalls while maneuvering in the traffic pattern and missed approaches in IMC. Of course, our No. 1 goal as pilots should be to avoid loss of control that requires the use of our superior upset recovery skills. It’s important to be able to recognize a flight-attitude excursion and arm yourself with the skills that allow for a proper and timely recovery. Prevailance employs a composite upset recovery procedure technique that involves three primary steps. The first is to “uncouple” — in other words, turn off the autopilot. Next, you want to neutralize the flight controls. This isn’t the time to be yanking on the yoke or mashing the throttles. Which leads us to step three: Analyze what is happening before reacting.
Once you understand the situation, then you can act accordingly by, say, pushing to unload the wing, adding power and rolling wings level. After recovery, don’t forget to reset the power and reconfigure the airplane for the given phase of flight.
During my time at the controls of the Extra, I had the chance to recover from all kinds of unusual attitudes and simulated upsets. Spins were by far the most aggressive of the maneuvers we tried, particularly when Castillo established us in a spin and added in “pro spin” control inputs that had us winding like a top. (I took a pass on the chance to try an inverted flat spin.)
Should UPRT in real airplanes be required during recurrent training? Some say yes. The International Civil Aviation Organization wants in-aircraft upset recovery training to be mandatory within five years, and there’s a push to make it a requirement in the United States as well. One of the biggest opponents to that idea, interestingly enough, is the Air Line Pilots Association.
Descending to a pattern altitude, Castillo took the controls of the Extra and let me know to expect an unusual arrival. He asked the tower for a right midfield break, a request the controller was glad to accommodate. As we reached the center of the airfield, Castillo flicked the stick and, with military precision, put us into an aggressive descending 360, making a perfect touchdown on Runway 23.
“I see you’ve never flown that thing,” the controller quipped over the radio as we taxied clear of the active. Castillo radioed back in his best “aw shucks” drawl, “I’m just doing the best I can.”
It turns out Castillo’s, and Prevailance’s, best is very good indeed.