FlightSafety International and Gulfstream’s Upset Recovery Training
FlightSafety International teamed up with Gulfstream to create the first flight simulator programme to receive FAA qualification for accurately demonstrating the aerodynamic conditions experienced during loss of control. Robert P. Mark put himself through upset prevention and recovery training.
Try as we might, the aviation industry is not 100% accident free all the time. But that doesn’t mean we should or ever will stop reaching for the top of that safety plateau. Creating a safe flight involves bringing many moving pieces together, the most visible of which is usually the aircraft and the cockpit crew. Because research tells us human involvement in flight operations is linked to nearly two thirds of most aviation mishaps, the industry has always sought new and better ways to train pilot to avoid those errors long before they become accidents.
In June, FlightSafety International (FSI), one of the industry’s largest pilot training providers, stepped up its game to take a bite out of one of the biggest operational safety problems facing aviation today, loss of control. Essentially, loss of control inflight (LOC-I), or an aircraft upset, means that flight crews are sometimes faced with critical situations in flight, problems for which the current state of pilot training has left them totally unprepared. The result is an aircraft plummeting from the sky with the pilots baffled about what to do next.
People riding in the cabin might find the idea of a pilot unprepared for some emergency a bit heretical, but it does happen. One reason is the gaps in pilot knowledge that stem from the way we train pilots, a process that hasn’t changed much over the past 20 or 30 years, despite the proliferation of computerised cockpit systems that didn’t even exist when those training standards were created. Recent data from the Boeing Company confirms the biggest safety threat, by a sizable margin, is LOC-I. Many of the accidents can be traced back to their roots in pilot training. The data also shows that business aviation is not immune to the threat of a LOC-I accident.
A number of high-profile accidents, such as the loss of Air France 447 over the South Atlantic and a Continental flight at Buffalo in 2009, focused the industry on better pilot training and resulted in an FAA advisory circular, updated in April 2015, that specifically focused on upsets, with the goal being to prevent them at all costs, but to also offer pilots guidance on how to recover from an upset should one occur. Although the FAA recommendations apply only to the commercial airline, most business aviation flight departments have begun looking closely at how they can also implement similar training into their own operations. One drawback to the agency’s work however is that the guidelines don’t become applicable until 2019.
FlightSafety International made a business decision last year that with the number of LOC-I accidents around the world, the industry could not afford to wait four years before flight crews experienced the advanced training necessary to prevent or recover from inflight upsets. Working with aircraft builder Gulfstream that provided significant amounts of data to insure the simulator would perform like a real airplane, the G-550 actually, FSI created a realistic simulator representation of what crews might experience during flights that lead to potential upset situations. The simulator also trains pilots how to escape from upset moves should they encounter them by surprise.
This cooperative effort with Gulfstream earned FSI the status as the first simulator-training provider to receive FAA qualification for a machine that accurately demonstrates the aerodynamic conditions experienced during loss of control. In FSI lingo, the new classroom and simulator program is known as the Expanded Flight Simulator Aerodynamic Model for Upset Prevention and Recovery Training.
What new FSI simulator training is powered by Gulfstream aircraft performance data that until now had gone unused since the G550 was certified. In the pre-upset era training used for pilots of high-performance jets, the FAA’s original guidance was to avoid demonstrating extreme flight situations to pilots because, if performed in an actual aircraft, they were simply too dangerous. But the agency also believed demonstrating extremes might convince some pilots to push their aircraft and their luck, especially at high altitudes where aircraft performance is significantly different than closer to the earth’s surface. Finally, the simulators, until recently, simply lacked the vital performance data needed to accurately recreate the aircraft in flight. Of course, there’s also no risks to pilots, instructors, or people on the ground when you train in a simulator, nor is there even the possibility of damaging a valuable asset like an aircraft, while instructors attempt to train pilots how not to damage a valuable asset.
P1 was recently invited to spend a day at FlightSafety’s Savannah Ga. learning centre with their executive director of advanced training programs, Dann Runik. An aerospace engineer by education, Runik, who also happens to be an experienced business aviation and airline pilot, is the instructor for the upset and recovery prevention training (UPRT) program.
Runik explained the classroom academics we’d be covering over the next four hours. As an instructor myself, I assumed most of the information would review topics I already knew, which turned out to be accurate. Runik said my initial observation on the content pretty closely matched that of others who’d experienced the training. But Runik added that most pilots told him they also appreciated the depth of the aerodynamic discussion because while much related to topics they’d once been taught, they also realised they’d forgotten quite a bit over the years, not to mentioned Runik’s added insights as an engineer.
The classroom topics included both low and high-speed aerodynamics that detailed events leading to an aerodynamic stall of the wing, as well as operations above the aircraft’s maximum operating speed, aircraft turn performance at high altitude, general aircraft stability and finally, upset identification and recovery control techniques. The academics were followed by two hours of G550 simulator training to reinforce the UPRT ground school.
What stuck in my mind long after I left the Savannah classroom that day was the new-found respect FSI, Gulfstream and others within the industry have gained for one of the most basic tenants of learning to fly … managing angle of attack. Every pilot has read about it and explained the physics behind making certain that the wing continues flying at all costs. When the critical angle of attack is exceeded in any aircraft, as it was in the Air France 447 or Continental 3407 mishaps, the aircraft falls from the sky. After four hours of ground training at FSI, I felt a new sense of understanding of not simply what happens to an airplane in flight, but why. Without knowing the why behind the aerodynamics that keeps an aircraft flying, simulator training is of little value … no more than an academic regurgitation of facts. But this rote memory learning is how most pilots continue to be trained today.
The fun of upset and recovery training – yes, learning is intended to employ a little enjoyment now and again – really began when Runik and I climbed aboard the G550 simulator. Inside, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the multi-million dollar recreation of Gulfstream’s aircraft and the G550 itself, except the notion that no matter what we experience, the training posed no risk to anyone.
With no previous experience in Gulfstream products, Dann Runik was concerned the training might actually result in a bit of a negative training impression, one in which I left Savannah doubting my skills more than reinforcing them. Once the simulator was running, Runik recreated a number of aircraft control problems that would challenge any flight crew just to warm up. He saved the UPRT work for a bit later in the lesson where I’d have a chance to actually experience how a G550 would react if I, as the pilot, exceeded the aircraft’s critical angle of attack.
We eventually opted for one of the most critical situations – losing control of the aircraft in high speed flight at high altitude, something of course, that I’ve never experienced in real life. We took the G550 to 49,000 feet as Runik set the aircraft to recreate a scenario we’d discussed aerodynamically in ground school.
There I was, flying along at night at high altitude when, for a reason I never did have time to think about, the G550 suddenly rolled upside down to the left. My first instinct, prior to the training, would of course have been to pull the control wheel back, or add full right aileron as I watched the earth spin before my eyes. But I also knew now that was absolutely the wrong reaction. I then tried to reduce the angle of attack by pushing the control wheel forward assuming I’d stalled. That almost worked, but the aircraft now began spiraling to the right. That’s when it got away from me for a bit as I quickly found myself severely over controlling. The ground I saw out the windows and the instruments on my primary flight display almost began to blur. I thought to myself quickly, “So this is what being out of control really looks and feels like.”
I felt my heart race as Dann suggested I relax my efforts on the control wheel but keep the nose of the aircraft pointed down. The last time I remember glancing at the altimeter, we were screaming down through about 30,000 feet. About then, as we began to enter a portion meatier portion of the atmosphere that allowed the Gulfstream’s wing to begin flying again, the rolling slowed. I kept the control wheel forward and felt the aircraft begin flying again as I slowly began to recover from the dive. As we returned to level flight I looked over at Dann and realised my breathing was only now beginning to return to normal. Then I began to smile a bit realising what I’d just experienced and learned … not to mention lived to tell about. I’d also learned that if the aircraft stalled at 49,000 feet, my recovery didn’t need to be instantaneous like it did when we used to practice stalls in the simulator at 15,000 feet. My recoveries improved considerably over the afternoon.
I believe that any pilot who passes up the opportunity to experience the realism of upset and recovery training in a simulator like FSI’s when it’s offered is crazy. In fact, everyone who flies should experience upset prevention and recovery training because, except for the actual UPRT instructors in the world, none of us will be even half as good as we think we will be at recovering should our airplane suddenly stop flying.