In-flight loss of control (LOC-I) is the leading cause of fatal accidents for both commercial and general aviation accidents. The FAA recently provided new guidance for stall prevention and recovery as well as modifications of Full Flight Simulators (FFS) to provide Extended Envelope Training (EET) – higher fidelity beyond the current limitations.
Some of the requirements went into effect in March 2019, with the remaining provisions going into effect in March 2020. The regulatory requirements are currently only directed toward FAR Part 121 airline training programs, but the FAA recommends that all air carriers, airplane operators, pilot schools and training centers follow the new guidance.
The Years Leading Up
In addition to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the National Transportation Board (NTSB) and AOPA’s Joseph T. Nall Report all state that stall/loss of control in-flight is the most frequent category of fatal accidents. Three of the most discussed accidents are Pinnacle Airlines Flight 3701 (October 2004), Colgan Air Flight 3407 (February 2009) and Air France Flight 447 (June 2009).
In response, the FAA changed how jet aircraft recover from stalls. Rather than powering out of the stall while attempting to maintain altitude, as previously taught, the new procedure was to reduce the angle of attack (as we had always done in general aviation airplanes and military fighter jets) and also to “annunciate stall.” This was to share information in the cockpit. For example, if one crew member was aware of a stall, they were required to share that information with others by stating they were stalling. Sounds like good CRM. This requirement was put into effect in 2012 with the implementation of Change 4 of the FAA ATP Practical Test Standards.
The new guidance in 2012 seemed promising, but pilots continue to stall and crash airplanes. A recent example occurred in March of 2018 when a Challenger jet departed to Dubai. While flying near the Persian Gulf climbing to Flight Level 380, the jet experienced a problem with the pitot tubes and Air Data Computer. The pilot’s and co-pilot’s airspeed indicators subsequently began to diverge. An EFIS COMP MON caution message (Comparator Monitor) appeared, and the pilot’s airspeed went above .85, past MMO. This also resulted in an audible “clacker” indicating an overspeed situation – a situation not very likely while climbing at this altitude. The captain pulled the thrust levers to idle and pitched up, stalling the airplane. This resulted in crashing the airplane and killing all 11 people on board. Another fatal accident that appears to be loss of control comes from Atlas Air Flight 3591. Atlas Air lost a Boeing 767 freighter near Houston, Texas on February 23, 2019 when a pilot, who became disoriented in IMC and turbulence, pitched the aircraft to 50 degrees nose down and exceeded 400 knots.
The Latest Guidance
The new guidance implemented by the FAA in March 2019 and March 2020 via AC 120-109A now requires all Part 121 Air Carriers to receive “instructor-guided, hands-on experience” in stall recognition and recovery. The ground training must include a review of stall factors such as weight, G loading, CG, bank angle, altitude, icing effects, inadequate monitoring of autoflight modes, airplane specific knowledge, and malfunctioning equipment. Simulator or flight training must include maneuvering without automation (autopilot and autothrottles), slow flight, climbs, descents, impending stalls, full stalls, upset recovery, airspeed and other malfunctions, task-based training, and scenario-based training. While airline pilots certainly had stall recovery training prior to the changes, the new requirements replicate training seen at a university flight school in a Cessna or Cirrus more so than an airline training program.
The FAA has also changed the stall recovery procedure. Rather than doing everything simultaneously, the FAA now directs the recovery to be done in sequence, with emphasis on reducing the airplane’s angle of attack (AOA). This is a drastic change from training before 2012 when we would “power out of a stall” in jets with minimal altitude loss.
Here is the new recovery procedure (2-5. RECOVERY PROCEDURES. AC 120-109A):
- Disconnecting the autopilot and autothrottle/autothrust systems;
- Reducing the airplane’s AOA immediately;
- Controlling roll after reducing the airplane AOA;
- Managing thrust appropriately; and
- Returning the airplane to the desired flight path.
Table 1 and “Notes” in the appendix of the AC provide the “associated rationale” for each step of the procedure. For example, reducing the angle of attack prior to rolling the wings level will allow the wing to return to flying, ailerons to become effective, and enable the airplane to roll to level in coordinated flight. This will also help avoid uncoordinated flight or a secondary stall. The AC repeatedly states: “Reduction of AOA must be paramount in all stall prevention and recovery procedures.” Some airlines have attempted to simplify the process by using the mnemonic:
- Automation off;
- Push (reduce AOA);
- Roll (wings level);
- Thrust (manage thrust);
- Stabilize (return to a desired state of flight).
How to Improve LOC Safety
Eliminate risky behavior.
- Eliminate risky behavior.
- Buzzing: Don’t do it.
- Distractions: Minimize.
- Impulsivity: Slow down.
- Panic: “Always Fly the Airplane.” Confidence comes from training.
- Do not deviate from standards: SOPs, AFM, AOM, FARs.
In his book “Redefining Airmanship,” Tony Kern states, “Flight discipline is the cornerstone of airmanship. 1) Violations of flight discipline have an insidious creeping effect on an aviator’s good judgment. 2) Flight discipline violations are contagious. 3) The best defense is a personal standard of zero tolerance for violations of flight discipline in any form.”
Steps for GA Pilots
Step 1: Be a student of stalls and loss of control.
- Read and follow the guidance in FAA Aviation Circular, AC 120-109A.
- Study the book “Stick and Rudder” by Wolfgang Langewiesche.
- Practice stalls with a CFI.
- Learn new stalls.
CFI candidates must learn a variety of stalls (power on, power off, takeoff/landing, cross control, accelerated, secondary, banking, etc.) Even if you are not training to become a CFI, you may seek the same advanced stall training as a CFI candidate to become more knowledgeable and proficient.
Step 2: Seek some basic spin training.
My local university flight school has a Super Decathlon that they use for spin training. The first spin I ever did as a CFI candidate years ago was a blur. But even after my third spin that day, I was no longer disoriented during a spin, and the recovery became simple.
Step 3: Seek aerobatic training.
If you really want to study this topic, seek some professional but basic aerobatic training. I have done this on more than one occasion and have always been amazed at what I learned in a short week of training.
Steps for Corporate Pilots
When you schedule your nextrecurrent training program, advise the training center that you would like to follow the FAA’s recommended training in AC 120-109A. I know that flight simulator instructors have many required tasks to complete during an FAR 61.58 PIC progressive training cycle, but they should be able to build in many of the FAAs Part 121 maneuvers during your next recurrent training.