Surprise Yourself For More Proficient Flying

The Extra NG is an almost wholly composite airframe that allows for ­aerodynamic adaptations beyond what shaped and riveted metal can provide. Extra Aircraft

I remember flow states, during times of stress in the airplane, when time slows down just a bit—enough to help me manage a given situation deliberately and appropriately.

There is no flow today.

Flashing back to two days ago, I recall a comment that has lodged in my mind, and I work hard to apply those words to the situation at hand: “It’s just a position in the sky that you have to deal with.”

So says Mike Burke, instructor for Prevailance Aerospace in Chesapeake, Virginia, as we’re finishing up the first ground session of a three-day upset-prevention-and-recovery training course that I’ve signed on to; UPRT trains pilots to recognize and recover from unusual attitudes and aircraft upsets. We would be preparing to head out to the airplane to start into it, except for the scuds of what was once Hurricane Isaias trudging across the airport.

The syllabus calls for three instructional sessions, each followed by an hourlong flight in one of the school’s Extras—a 330 or 330LX. Fortunately, I’m in a class of one, and the training is designed to flex for just such occasions because the UPRT flights need to be flown in good VFR conditions, with enough ceiling, visibility and cloud clearance for the tasks ahead.

We soldier ahead through the second ground session. By the time we begin tackling the third, the weather has cleared to CAVU. Vanessa Christie, founder and president of Prevailance Aerospace, helps me strap into the seat-pack parachute we’re required to wear for the aerobatic maneuvers ahead. Though I’ve put on my own pack dozens of times, the company takes the extra precaution of assisting its customers in the move, to ensure that it’s on just as tightly as it needs to be and to help pilots get into the front seat in what may be a relatively unfamiliar situation.

The Extra 330 and 330LX were selected for the training because their aerodynamic margins lay well outside the envelope in which we’ll fly. We’ve specifically reviewed the 330LX’s maneuvering and limiting airspeeds, along with the fact it’s rated for plus or minus 8 Gs with two people on board. Nothing we’re going to do will take us intentionally above 4 Gs or below minus 1 G—so we’re well within the airplane’s capabilities.

I’m up front—the Extra is flown solo from the back—with only a handful of instruments in front of me on the panel. The Sandia attitude indicator has the breaker pulled because I’ll be recovering from each upset visually during this course and to keep us from having to reset it. Burke has all the navigation in the rear cockpit and a native’s familiarity with the airspace near us, which feels the nearby presence of Naval Air Station Oceana (Burke’s a retired Navy pilot). He’ll taxi out and take off so I can focus on the tasks ahead; this isn’t a training session to get me checked out in the 330LX, which takes a certain amount of finesse to handle on the ground. The flights to come will make me want to revisit the airplane, though. It’s a sweet companion for the next few hours we’ll spend together.

The first flight is spent reviewing basic aerobatics—wingovers, aileron rolls and a loop—plus nonviolent upsets, involving recoveries from just past the standard aerobatic limits of 60 degrees of bank and 30 degrees nose up or down. I find it relatively easy to apply the steps I’ve been taught to recover—but I’ve seen these attitudes before in an airplane.

My moment of truth comes on the second day, during our third flight overall. Normally, Prevailance doesn’t plan for two flights in a day for most pilots because of the stress involved for the body and mind. But weather has forced our hand a bit, and I’m game to try the third flight after a good morning session doing spins, more aerobatics and bigger upsets.

UPRT contains enough acro to whet a pilot’s appetite for an Extra NG. Extra Aircraft

The last flight in the syllabus, like the others in the program, flexes to meet the student’s progress at this point. Burke recognizes that I’m beginning to tap out as I slow down during aerobatic moves that were coming together well just a couple of hours prior. When we get to the upsets, he gives me the first—past the vertical and a slow recovery to wings level. Then, after a bit of rest, he sets up a simulation of the rapid-roll sequence experienced by a Challenger 604 crew after they encountered the wake of an Airbus A380 over the Arabian Sea in January 2017.

There is no more flow. I stop in my tracks as he leaves the 330LX inverted. I’m unable to verbalize the first word of the checklist, “uncouple.” Eventually, I flail through a roll to wings level. But it’s clear I have hit my limit. I just smacked right into my personal wall, where the startle factor froze me in place. We spend some time afterward just flying around, and I get my mojo back as we practice a few more upright spins—which I find strangely comforting in their normalcy—and we return to base. Mission accomplished.

The Root Cause

The Prevailance program derives the structure of its syllabus from years of accident analysis and searching for the root causes of those that bent metal and took lives. Scenario-based training—such as that used in the Advanced Qualification Program—has been used in the airline industry and replicated throughout commercial aviation. So, those pilots coming into Prevailance’s course from large flight departments, such as PepsiCo’s, as well as airline flying find familiar territory in the training, which was derived in part using this structure.

Each session picks apart an accident scenario and puts it into context. You might ask the question, what does an Airbus A321 accident have to do with flying my Cessna 172? More than you may think. You have an autopilot now for much of the time, and the first step in breaking the accident chain in most scenarios is to “uncouple,” or release the controls from the grip of the automation. The “uncouple” beginning to the sequence I practiced in the A380 upset is a perfect example. That’s just one correlation and a programmed move that we should be ready for in the event of an upset.

But, in general, we’re not ready. A recent informal poll conducted on Twitter asked pilots: “How prepared do you feel you are for serious emergencies (of any type)?” Fourteen percent said, “Very prepared,” in terms of procedures, flying proficiency and systems knowledge; but 47 percent said they could “sharpen up a bit,” and 33 percent said, “Not as much as I want to be.” Unfortunately, 6 percent said, “I’ll just deal with it.” (Results come from @sharigirltn’s #FlightDeckMonday Twitter poll posted on September 21.) With that attitude, we can almost predict those who will confront a real emergency and fall short.

Instead, we need regular training sessions to tap into those skills and keep them fresh. There’s evidence too that we need at least some of that training to be in the airplane, as opposed to scenarios practiced in the sim alone. “You are much more invested in a positive solution,” Burke says, pointing to the reality that, no matter how realistic the simulation you’re in, you can always revert to the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card: the ability to stop the simulation and go home.

As Christie puts it: “There is no way to replicate the sight, sound and feel of an upset or spin without experiencing it in an aircraft. Only if you’ve experienced both in an aircraft—and put your body into the physiological response of startle—can you replicate the recovery procedures when you need them. Pilots can be surprised in a simulator, but they won’t have the true manifestation of startle and without that, they can’t learn how to mitigate it.”

Strapped in and ready to go, the author departs for the next flight in the UPRT syllabus at KCPK in Chesapeake, Virginia. Stephen Yeates

Use It or Lose It

So I was trained up, right? Good to go? Not so fast. Six weeks later, I’m going through the motions in the airplane I’ve been checking out in, and I find myself working a bit to recover from the first unusual attitude given to me by my back-seater. I struggle to recite cleanly what had come to me readily by the close of the training in my summer session with Prevailance.

We know from trials conducted by various groups that the “stickiness” of mnemonics is critical when expecting pilots to apply them in flight following a training session. In a research study conducted at the Netherlands Aerospace Centre in 2016, seasoned flight crews—both short-haul (Boeing 737NG) and long-haul (747-400)—from the Dutch airline KLM were given ground-training and flight-simulator sessions to determine how well they adopted a course of action meant to mitigate the effects of startle and surprise on the flight deck. The abnormal-situation recovery plan taught within this study followed three steps: relax, observe, confirm—known as ROC. Roughly 70 percent of the crews came away from the training confident that ROC would help ensure they took the proper course of action following a startle event.

If mnemonics are straightforward—simple is not necessarily the right word—and unambiguous, they stay in a pilot’s mind a lot longer than a complex and abstract string. Compare two that you probably have heard before. GUMPPS: gas, undercarriage, mixture(s), prop(s), pump(s) and seat belt (with a C added in there in the event you have cowl flaps or carb heat to manage). It’s applicable in some way to every piston-powered airplane you’ve flown, and it forms a word that doesn’t mean anything else. Contrast that with the DECIDE model, a vintage mnemonic taught in legacy aeronautical decision-making texts. Each of the words within it is too abstract to be memorable, and in case of an event in the airplane, you’re just not likely to pull it out because your brain is already on step three by the time the event is underway.

So, was the sequence I learned in the UPRT course meeting those criteria of straightforward and applicable? Yes, but because this was a relatively newly learned skill, and I didn’t get up and practice right away, I needed additional reinforcement. That delay could translate into our lives from a combination of factors that we all face in some degree or another—such as a busy work schedule, stressful life events, illness or loss of memory as we age.

Indeed, the startle-and-surprise episodes we practiced in the UPRT course were only a few examples of myriad instances in the airplane where a pilot might panic, freeze or act impulsively. This also forms the psychological basis for the course itself, even though only a selection of scenarios is covered in the airplane. “Really, we are solving people problems,” Burke says, not aircraft problems. You can nail the process by which you can move through a startle response and apply it to a multitude of situations.

In the end, that’s what I needed to solve for myself: the very human response I had to the A380 upset and roll sequence. And the practice should continue, repeatedly and regularly, as long as I fly.

“There is no way to replicate the sight, sound and feel of an upset or spin without experiencing it in an aircraft." Stephen Yeates

A UPRT Syllabus

The basis for the Prevailance Aerospace syllabus is found in the advisory circular covering UPRT, AC 120-109 “Stall Prevention and Recovery Training,” and aimed at meeting the Part 121 flying requirements in AC 120-111, “Upset Prevention and Recovery Training.” Compliance at the airline level is mandatory as of March 2019 under the FAA; the requirement under the European Union Aviation Safety Agency became mandatory in April 2019, including basic UPRT within initial pilot training for the commercial pilot license and airline transport pilot license.

The core of the recovery process lies in this step-by-step procedure:

  • Uncouple (autopilot off, if using)/neutralize/analyze
  • Push to unload
  • Roll to recover
  • Power adjusted as needed
  • Steps to return to the previous phase of flight, if that makes sense

What can you do if a full-up UPRT course isn’t in the cards right now? Take a look at the following sample accident scenarios, and discuss them with your instructor in your next periodic proficiency session.

* February 2012: At Melbourne International Airport (KMLB) in Florida, a Cirrus SR22 crashed in the traffic pattern maneuvering to follow another airplane.

* January 2017: A wake-turbulence encounter occurred between an Emirates A380 flying from Mali, West Africa, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a Challenger 604, with the Challenger’s diversion to Muscat, Oman.

* June 2009: Air France Flight 447, en route from Miami to Paris, experienced an upset following thunderstorm penetration.

The NG’s engine is the 315 hp Lycoming AEIO-580-B1A, tuned for aerobatic flying. Extra Aircraft

A Next-Gen Acrobat: Extra NG

Unveiled at the EAA AirVenture 2019 to great fanfare, the latest execution of Walter Extra’s vision is the Extra NG, an almost wholly composite airframe that allows for aerodynamic adaptations beyond what shaped and riveted metal can provide.

“This goes back five years, when my world was perfect,” Extra said in an interview during that event. He explained the basis for the concern he had before in creating an aerobatic airframe using composite materials. “One of the qualities of this construction comes from the tubular fuselage, because steel construction leaves you some remaining strength in case of partial overload, which may happen during an airplane life for several reasons. [The airplane] may incur a load case that the design was not meant for…by somebody running a forklift through the fuselage or by hitting something in flight.”

Extra has wanted to work with carbon fiber, however, because of the design possibilities it shows. “The good thing about carbon is the high [elasticity] modulus and the high degree of stiffness, which enables you to make three-dimensional surfaces with comparably low weight—but if you exceed the strength of the material, the residual strength is zero. The stuff is brittle, and if it breaks next to you, you may not only lose the protecting environment that you have been sitting in before, but maybe [you’ll be] hurt by all these little splinters that all of a sudden work like a saw or a knife. And this kept me away from carbon fuselages for a long time.”

At the time of our talk, Extra was waiting on confirmation on the patent, so he was naturally a bit circumspect in our conversation. “I came up with a very blunt and a very easy technical approach to inhibit the disadvantages I just described. That’s part of the safety concept of this airplane now.”

The drivers of the design are different for an aircraft that’s meant for aerobatics as opposed to going from point A to point B; control balance and maneuverability take precedence in a different way than you may think. “For an IFR platform, you don’t want an airplane that is easy to disturb,” Extra said. “But in an aerobatic airplane, to the contrary, you want a stable platform that you can disturb. And that’s sometimes misunderstood, in my opinion. I always thought that the less attention you needed to fly an aerobatic airplane, the more attention you have left for your sequence, and that keeps you busy enough anyway. The focus, then, is on making an easy-flying airplane. Then when you make a control input and have to cut in, they allow for whatever deviation from the flight path—you need a maximum of maneuverability but you also need reasonable stability. That makes for an easier-handling airplane.”

Elements of the controls make other shapes possible because of the carbon. “There are natural limits to sizes of ailerons because, at some point, the wing is going to twist against the aileron inputs, and then you will not gain efficiencies. You can carry this much further with a high E modulus. And that’s the advantage of carbon.”

The NG’s engine is the 315 hp Lycoming AEIO-580-B1A, tuned for aerobatic flying. “There’s not much choice,” Extra said. The company has used that engine for a few years; it replaced the Lycoming AEIO-540 they had been using. “Rock solid.” To Extra, as a pilot, you don’t want to bother with technical issues. “When I got into aerobatics, it was normal to fly for 30 minutes and then work on the airplane for two hours. At the time, we took the electric starters out, we took the generators out, the batteries out—we didn’t have radios. We made the airplane as user-unfriendly as possible. You needed somebody to prop you, and starting somebody with a hot fuel-injected Lycoming engine is real fun. I got to the point [where] I said, ‘I don’t want to spend my life working on airplanes—I want to fly.’ So, I tried to increase usefulness, and now I think we are down to—it’s safe to say—put fuel in, check oil and wait for the next 50-hour inspection. And in the meantime, just go out and have fun.”

This story appeared in the December 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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