How well equipped are airline and business jet pilots to cope with a loss-of-control incident? It is a question that has perplexed the industry for two decades, but which was brought starkly home by the crash of Air France flight 447 in 2009, when the Airbus A330 pilots – confused by the messages they were getting from their instruments and disorientated – entered an aerodynamic stall at 38,000ft and failed to recover the airliner before it plummeted into the Atlantic, claiming 228 lives.

Since then, aviation authorities have given a higher priority to training crews to recognise the warning signs of and recover from aircraft upsets. Loss of control in flight, or LOC-I, remains the biggest cause of fatal airliner accidents, and both the European Aviation Safety Agency and the US Federal Aviation Administration have issued rules to mandate airlines to provide upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) for pilots.

Noting that LOC-I events are rare but almost inevitably deadly, EASA joined with the International Air Transport Association to unveil new training requirements in May 2015 that came into effect one year later. “A number of accidents in recent years have demonstrated that loss of control remains a major area of concern for aviation safety and should be tackled with the highest priority,” said EASA executive director Patrick Ky at the time.

The training industry has responded with courses aimed at meeting the EASA requirement, among them UK training and recruitment specialist Resource Group. It is offering an e-learning programme originally designed for business aviation operator TAG Aviation. According to Resource Group UPRT expert and director Capt Dominik Waser, the course is designed to “give pilots back the skills and knowledge of high-speed aerodynamics” that may have been lost in many years of flying highly automated airliners.

Waser likens many experienced pilots’ reactions to impending or actual aircraft upsets to “riding a bicycle but not knowing how to do it any more”. While flightcrew learn to react to an aircraft in unusual attitude as part of their normal recurrent training, what is lacking is a knowledge of how aircraft behave when out of control, and an awareness of what might be going wrong before an upset happens, especially in an automated environment designed to forgive errors, he says.

“Technology has improved to prevent pilot wrongdoing,” he says. “But if you stall, the fly-by-wire won’t help you.” Upset recovery training involves three stages – awareness, recognition and recovery. “We are giving pilots the tools for awareness and recognition,” he says. “If you have to recover, you have done something wrong. Simulators are quite limited when it comes to practising recovery and if you train in a device not designed for this, you can have a false sense of security.”

At the same time, the simulator technology itself has been changing. Earlier this year, Alaska Airlines became the first to obtain FAA accreditation for a CAE Boeing 737 simulator able to represent flying in an extended aerodynamic envelope. Last year, CAE claimed to have qualified the world’s first simulators equipped with EASA- and FAA-approved UPRT instructor stations, a necessary addition when training pilots in “real life” situations.

Using advanced level D simulators, with enhanced motion control, will allow pilots to train not only to approach a stall, as they can in a level C device, but to go into full stall recovery, maintains Greg Marshall, vice-president of global programmes for the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation. He echoes Waser’s point: “That level of fidelity isn’t there in a level C,” he says. “If you don’t have the right fidelity, it can lead to negative training, because pilots aren’t experiencing what a full stall is like.”

However, Marshall maintains that theoretical training is also vital when it comes to UPRT. “A lot of it is about recognising the onset of reduced airspeed and the onset of stall conditions at high speed at high altitude as well as low-speed stalls,” he says. “The key is recognising the signs, the conditions that can lead to an upset situation. With AF447, the crew lacked situational awareness. If a stall condition had been recognised, they may have put in place the appropriate inputs.”


Air France 447: if the crew ha recognised their situation, could they have recovered?

Sipa Press/REX/Shutterstock

Most pilots, says Marshall, learned the characteristics of a stall and how to recover from one or a resulting spin when they do basic flight training. “Now they don’t demonstrate a stall or get you to recover from spins. That is probably an issue. When you learn to fly, a lot comes from your experience in initial flight training, and if you are not learning these skills that can be a problem further down the track.”

The big four airliner manufacturers are also recognising the new emphasis on preventing rather than just reacting to high-altitude upsets. A third revision to an 18-year-old series of training manuals jointly issued by Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer will be the first to focus chiefly on prevention. The document also broadens the definition of aircraft upset from specific parameters on nose pitch and bank to “any aircraft state that needs recognition and action by the pilots”.

Business aviation has been at the forefront of the new approach to UPRT, with CAE and FlightSafety International both introducing specific UPRT training programmes for the sector. In June 2015, FlightSafety became the first to offer an FAA-approved business jet simulator designed for upset recovery training: a Gulfstream G550/GV. It has now expanded its UPRT programme to include the G450 and G650, plus Beechcraft's King Air 350, the Cessna Citation CJ3 and Pilatus's PC-12.

“Our aircraft type-specific courses include manufacturer-approved techniques and procedures for recovering from upsets due to aerodynamic stall, as well as high-speed events in excess of certified maximum speeds,” says Dann Runik, FlightSafety's executive director, advanced training programmes. “Pilots safely experience historically accurate upset scenarios while very low to the ground as well as night and instrument meteorological conditions which would be far too dangerous to do in an aircraft.”

Earlier this year, French investigators issued a report on a 2011 incident in Kuala Lumpur that illustrated the importance of upset recovery skills. The first officer of a Dassault Falcon 7X used a technique learned as a fighter pilot to regain control of the trijet after a nose-up pitch-trim runaway during a descent to the city’s Subang airport, during which the aircraft climbed from FL130 (13,000ft) to FL220, pitched to 25° nose up and suffered a drop in airspeed from 297kt (550km/h) to 200kt.

After the first officer, who was flying, tried unsuccessfully to correct the pitch, he resorted to a bombing manoeuvre he picked up while flying Dassault Mirage combat aircraft, banking at a high angle to bring the pitch under control and stabilise speed before control was lost. France's BEA investigation authority credited the first officer for his improvisation during the 2min 36s incident, and praised the coordination and resource management of the crew in dealing with the potentially life-threatening upset.

The incident perhaps indicates that whatever the technological capabilities of an aircraft – both the A330 and Falcon 7X feature fly-by-wire controls – and a crew’s knowledge of its systems, when it comes to an upset, it is the pilot’s ability to recognise early and deal with an approaching stall that is central to avoiding a loss-of-control situation. The new emphasis on UPRT in the industry is designed to ensure that commercial aviators have these crucial skills in their toolkit.

Source: Flight International