I’ve taught aerobatic and upset recovery courses to many aviators over the years, and almost without exception am told at the conclusion of training that it represented the best investment of time and money they’d ever spent on improving their skills and confidence as a pilot.
In recent years, the corporate, charter, and airline pilots have begun seeking out this kind of skill set as well. It’s a good thing, because as the Department of Transportation recently reported, some of today’s pilots may not have The Right Stuff.
Where the cockpit is concerned, modern light GA aircraft have a lot in common with the latest crop of business jets and airliners. Under normal circumstances these advanced cockpits add to safety. But when things go awry? Well, as our airplanes become more advanced, they also become more complicated, and that can lead to situations which are not covered by handbooks, manuals, and type-specific training.
We’ve all seen the result of unexpected system failures which were not handled properly by the crew. In recent years, Air France 447 suffered from pitot icing which overcame the tube’s heating element and caused air data errors. During the resulting confusion, the crew entered a stall at 38,000 feet which did not end until the Airbus impacted the ocean. Last December, Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501’s crew responded to a malfunction of the aircraft’s rudder limiter by pulling a Flight Augmentation Computer circuit breaker, which had the unintended consequence of disabling the autopilot. The pilots stalled the aircraft and it ultimately crashed into the Java Sea.
Just to show you that this isn’t something that only happens to “other people,” let me give you two examples of my own. I was flying a Gulfstream IV one afternoon when a wide variety of seemingly unrelated components began to fail. Over the course of 45 minutes or so, we lost air data computers, autothrottles, both autopilots, mach trim compensation, yaw dampening, pitch trim, the flight guidance panel, one altitude encoder, cockpit displays, a display controller, symbol generator, TCAS, an inertial reference unit, and many other elements.
Some of these items dropped offline completely. Others froze or began to malfunction. Some were annunciated on the Crew Alerting System, others were not. Now I knew these components were not on the same bus, nor did they have much in common except that they were electrically powered. Yet the electrical system appeared to be operating normally. We were in visual conditions and not far from landing, which added to the pressure. There’s no checklist for this situation, nor was it ever discussed or simulated during training. Do we land? The aircraft’s braking system is electrical. Should we hold?
Without getting into too much detail, this flight ended uneventfully, but by the time we did touch down, I was basically flying the world’s largest Piper Cub: nothing but a stick, throttle, a couple of analog gauges, and a window to look outside. And that was all I needed. As I recall, the failure was traced to a series of malfunctioning relays under the cockpit floor. Our success was a result of focusing on the basic task of flying the airplane. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do when you’re busy and unsure of what’s really going on with your (normally) trusty aircraft. Failures of this kind cause a rapid loss of confidence in the overall airplane. You’re constantly wondering what will fail next.
The second example was related by a friend of mine. After departure, she lost the #1 comm radio. Not a big deal — the jet has two of them. A little while later, that radio also failed. Over the next few minutes, the flight data recorder failed, followed by the slats, flaps, an AHRS, and other associated componentry. The crew was in instrument weather and flew according to lost communication rules, finally making a high speed, no flap/no slat landing at their destination. Their troubles were caused by a cracked potable water tank, which flooded an electrical equipment bay under the rear floor of the aircraft. Gravity being what it is, one might wonder why important circuit boards are located underneath a water tank… but that’s an issue for another day.
So what does this have to do with upset recovery training? Plenty. The odds of coming out of these scenarios in one piece is directly related to the pilot’s ability to retain control of a malfunctioning aircraft, and that’s when the workload falls heavily on his or her manual flying skills. Truth be told, today’s highly automated airplanes don’t help prepare us for situations of this kind. They do the opposite, physically flying the airplane for us most of the time.
You never know when sharp manual flying skills will pay off. In May of 2011, a Falcon 7X on approach into Kuala Lumpur experienced a rapid nose-up runaway trim condition which could not be stopped. The Falcon 7X was the first fly-by-wire business jet and had been in service for only four years, so this incident caught the attention of many people. It was serious enough that the entire 7X fleet was subsequently grounded. The final accident report was not issued until February of 2016, almost five years later, which should provide an indication of how complex the accident chain was on this event.
Oh, and the crew? They did it right, using a manual flying technique which, while it’s not taught in any type rating course I’m aware of, is taught by myself and others with an aerobatic background. In this case, the pilot learned it while flying Dassault’s other line of airplanes for the military:
While descending through 13000 feet, towards Kuala Lumpur, the elevator pitch trim began to move from neutral to the full nose-up position in 15 seconds time. This resulted in a sudden pitch up of the aircraft to 40° and the aircraft entering a climb. Initially both the captain (Pilot Monitoring) and the copilot (Pilot Flying) were both using the side stick in an attempt to regain control. The copilot then used the priority button to override the captain’s side stick inputs and asked him to stop. The copilot, a former military pilot with experience on Mirage IV and Mirage 2000 jets, then put the aircraft in a right hand bank to a maximum of 98 degrees.
Sudden, uncommanded full nose-up trim is about as bad as it gets when you’re talking about loss-of-control scenarios, yet the pilot was astute enough to remember that he could offset the unwanted lift by banking the jet. Have you been trained on this technique? The pilot had to deal with a beyond-knife-edge flight attitude, load factors as high as 4.6 G, and altitude which ballooned from 13,000 feet to 22,500 feet. What a ride that must have been!
I wasn’t able to locate an English version of the final BEA report, but the French original notes that “the Pilot Flying had performed this maneuver many times during his military career.” After 2 minutes and 35 seconds, the trim motor overheated and was finally cut off, allowing the crew to regain pitch control.
The investigation determined that a small soldering defect on one pin of a computer chip in the Horizontal Stabilizer Electronic Control Unit (HSECU) caused the nose-up instruction to be sent to the Tail Horizontal Stabilizer trim module. Think about the sheer volume of pins, solders, computer chips, and wiring in a modern airplane and you’ll start to realize that these aren’t far-fetched stories borne out of a science fiction novel.
As I said at the top, our aircraft are becoming more complex, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. This increases the likelihood of failures and scenarios for which we have not trained. If you’ll pardon the pun, when the chips are down, it’s usually the person behind the controls who determines whether the situation ends with a classic there-I-was hangar story or a fatal accident report.
Time and time again, we see that manual flying skills are as critical to safe flight as any powerplant or airfoil. Let’s keep ’em sharp.