“Be careful out there. These kids will try to kill ya,” my instructor said to me after he signed me off for my multi-engine instructor (MEI) checkride. Having just completed my own series of engines-out training and seeing my own reaction, I understood what he meant about how unsuspecting our human nature is.
Years before, when I was earning my multi-engine rating for my initial commercial pilot’s certificate, I’m sure I either didn’t have enough rudder or had too much on my first simulated engine failure after liftoff. The first time an instructor yelled “Simulated engine failure!” and pulled my right power lever to idle, this uninitiated pilot was caught way off guard.
“I have the flight controls,” they’d say shortly after, relieving me of myself. Fast forward to my years as an instructor and being the one doing the power pulling, I fully understood what my MEI instructor meant.
He was right. Without fail, every time I pulled someone’s power to idle on their first engine failure after liftoff, they all froze. Naturally, I wondered about this. Even though we discussed it at length on the ground, and rehearsed it multiple times in the simulator, I noticed that each student experienced an initial “shock” at the event and either delayed or overcorrected for the deviation.
While I was able to intervene, I noticed how my students’ reactions, if left untreated, morphed to a series of actions that have led to prominent accidents within the last decade. In each case, pilots were surprised by an unexpected stimulus, which was followed by either ineffective or, in some cases, inappropriate recovery actions, resulting in an aircraft accident.
- In 2009, Colgan 3407, a Continental Airlines passenger flight, crashed into a house after an aerodynamic stall. The NTSB later determined the crash was the result of the pilot ignoring stall warnings. In all, 50 people died. During an instrument approach, the airplane’s stick shaker caught the pilots off guard when they encountered icing conditions, and in less than 30 seconds, the pilots, unable to properly figure out stalled condition they were in despite the airplane’s prompt, pulled when they should’ve pushed and flew the plane into the ground in a panicked state.
- In 2019, an Atlas Air flight, operating as Amazon Air from Miami on its way to Houston, crashed during the approach. I recall landing off an airline flight in Kingston, Jamaica, and shortly after seeing the news, thinking: “Was this the same airplane I saw at its gate in Miami just hours earlier? How did this happen?” It turns out the first officer inadvertently activated the go-around button, and being caught off guard, became disoriented, panicked, and instinctively dove the nose down, thinking they were in a stall. In less than 18 seconds, the 767 plunged into Trinity Bay, east of Houston. Two pilots and one on the jumpseat died.
- When an U.S. Air Force Bombardier E-11A, a converted business jet, was reported down in January of 2020, the Air Force reported that, while flying at 41,000 feet, the crew of the aircraft was terror-stricken by a left engine failure and made a rushed preliminary assessment. In less than 25 seconds, the crew reasoned to shut the right engine off, creating a dual-engine out scenario. The incident was further compounded when the crew chose to fly to a field outside of its possible reach, crashing shortly after. Later, when a civilian crew that was part of the accident investigation team was directed to recreate the situation, it was noted that the proper emergency procedure would take just two minutes to complete.
Startle and Confusion: An Iconic Duo
I usually talk about these incidents with my students as we were approaching the segments of our multi-engine training where we would be practicing how to deal with emergencies. My goal is to go beyond simply doing checklists to instead understand a certain human element that had seemed to take over even the most experienced crews, regardless of hours flown or type of flying.
I noticed this trend while reading NTSB reports of these accidents, and beyond the usual suspect of “Human Error,” there was a reoccurring theme: “startle” followed closely by “confusion, a pair that could strike more fear than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Interestingly, in all the accidents, the crews onboard had more than 3,000 hours of experience. Furthermore, after the military crash in 2020, I was quickly dissuaded of any perceived special abilities of mine to ultimately stay calm under pressure. I wondered what it meant to be startled, and why couldn’t even the most experienced pilots escape it in crises?
Your Brain on Startle
Startle is the inescapable, automatic human reflex when we perceive threats. How much we react is tied to the stigma we have tied to the perceived threats. Similar to an instinct, these reactions can either serve us for good or bad.
How would you react if ATC radioed: “Opposite direction traffic, 12 o’clock, same altitude, 5 miles”?
Instinctively, you would turn right. In this scenario, that would be the right thing to do, and though it is a threat, an experienced pilot, with an “evolved instinct” would not lose much composure over this. Using the same scenario, a newer pilot on their first flight might dive aggressively, being goaded on by an “imagined instinct” that the oncoming traffic will certainly hit them.
So, in very simple terms, when the brain is startled, the way we react is tied to how we frame the situation we’re in. Naturally, the body in fight-or-flight mode will pump levels of adrenaline throughout a person’s body to the point of momentary incapacitations. Studies have been conducted on pilot brains on “fear-potentiated startle” that how cognitive functions decrease and become more automatic.
What does this mean for pilots?
First, you can’t escape being startled. It’s the very definition of being caught off guard. Maybe you’ve reasoned by now that your reaction can be mapped on a spectrum based on how much danger you think yourself to be in.
You may have also noticed that I included how long each accident above took, from the “startle event” to the end.
We pilots ought to slow down in an emergency.
In fact, the last thing you should do when you’re most stressed is to react right away. When you’re most startled, your brain is trying to assess the situation, and the last thing you want is to react to an imaginary threat. Put differently, each crew in the accidents knew what to do intellectually, but they could not get ahead of themselves.
It is important to relax, observe, then confirm.
Reducing Startle: Just Another Day At The Office
At this point, you might think all is hopeless, because how do you overcome a reflex?
Elsewhere, in incidents going right, I’ve listened to emergency crews handle engine failures in flight with the composure of ordering drinks from Starbucks. How do they do that?
I’ve always said to my students that the airplane is their workplace, and just like a printer going bad, emergencies in the airplane can’t afford to be more than a day at the office.
In other words, we fear what we don’t know.
So, the trick is to reduce the “don’t know” factor. This means more scenario-based training in simulators, completing a regiment of abnormal and emergency situations, beyond the bare minimum of what is required to pass a checkride.
The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), in discussing the Colgan incident, reasoned that if the pilots were introduced to various levels of stalls, the pilots might be able to detect more correctly which airfoil was actually stalled and recover uneventfully.
Still, a more nuanced discussion is necessary. Human factor specialists have reasoned that no pilot reaction to a startling event is inherently wrong because flight, after all, isn’t a natural thing for humans.
After the Colgan crash, the NTSB made a large number of recommendations that have served the industry well, such as mandating upset recovery training to build pilot resilience to what could go wrong in flight.
On another hand, could it be that more automation is necessary to alleviate pilots of themselves?
Michael Wildes is an aviation professional with an appreciation for all things aviation, media, business, and philanthropy. A 2016 Embry-Riddle graduate, Wildes has his bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, and currently works at the university’s flight department as a flight check airman. He’s also served as an assistant training manager and quality assurance mentor. He holds MEI, CFI, and CFII ratings.