Retrain Your Brain: Confidence and Airmanship Training

Retrain Your Brain: Confidence and Airmanship Training

Retrain Your Brain: Confidence and Airmanship Training

Following my first exposure to Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) in early 2019, I gained a huge respect for this type of training in a real airplane. It teaches pilots an understanding of the edge of the envelope and allows the body to feel the associated G-forces. A year later, unable to find guidance regarding currency for this type of training, I turned to aerobatic superstar and friend of Twin & Turbine, Patty Wagstaff. 

When Patty is not performing in front of thousands of airshow spectators, she and fellow flight instructor, Allan Moore, operate the Patty Wagstaff Aviation Safety in beautiful St. Augustine, Florida (KSGJ). Patty and Allan fully endorse the idea that to be most effective, UPRT requires conditioning and currency. So, I promptly signed up for the Owner/Pilot Confidence and Airmanship Training to further sharpen my skills (and have some fun in the process!). 

Ground Training

To start, Allan defines the specific skills we will train. There is inevitably some confusion for the uninitiated when talking about UPRT vs. aerobatic training.

“Let’s think of the disciplines we cover in the owner-pilot course as two distinct families of maneuvering. Upset Prevention and Recovery Training is a group of maneuvers that has a strict G envelope: 100 percent of the fleet, 100 percent of the time and 100 percent of the scenarios can be recovered from in the +0.5 to +2.0 G envelope. To accomplish this, we will use a very short mantra – ‘Look. Unload. Roll. Recover.’ Everything that we teach for UPRT will follow those guidelines. Period. The next set of maneuvers that we will cover are aerobatic maneuvers. When we talk about aerobatic maneuvers, we are talking about events that are into the negative G’s and about 3 or more positive G’s.”

I find his definition helps eliminate the gray areas in my mind and gives an accurate representation of the training to come. This is a hybrid course that will fully cover the UPRT material then introduce some acrobatic skills for added understanding and comfort. Allan moves on to make another point. 

“Virtually every loss of control (LOC) event that we are able to look back on and study is preceded by a stall. This is curious because every pilot receives stall recovery training in nearly every certificate that they endeavor to obtain. So, let’s revisit the basics and define a stall: A stall occurs when your wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, and as a result, loses a portion of its lift.”

This information is very familiar to me and likely to every reader here. However, as he accurately stated, stalls lead to a large majority of LOC incidents, which account for the largest number of fatal accidents in all aviation segments. How could this be? Especially when you consider the information that he provides next.

“FAR 23 and FAR 25 state that following a loss of lift event, an airplane must have a pitch down moment. If an airplane doesn’t meet this requirement, then a stick pusher will be installed. In any case, the natural (or pusher assisted) pitch down following a stall generates a half G for about a second.”

Said another way, stalls are self-correcting if the pilot would allow the airplane to pitch down. So, what is happening? Why are pilots not allowing the airplane to follow its built-in characteristics and recover? The short answer is that our instincts get in the way. Patty explains this phenomenon in her article “Upset Prevention and Recovery Training: From Skeptic to Convert” (Twin & Turbine, June 2019). Allan explains it similarly today. 

“Every human likes to walk around at 1G. When we fall down we always clutch or brace. This reaction is built into humans from day one. When an infant is born the doctor will test its reflexes by holding it in their palm and then mimic a falling sensation. A properly functioning neurological system will cause the baby to tuck in and cry. This is called the Moro reflex, and while it’s called ‘startle factor’ or ‘clutch reflex’ in an adult, the reflex remains with us our entire life. When a pilot is exposed to less than 1G following a stall, our reflexes kick in and the response is the same…except there’s no crying in stunt flying!”

Patty has identified desensitization training as one of the keys to the school’s curriculum. This is the first time I have heard of this as a focus of UPRT but it resonates with me. We will conduct maneuvers repeatedly to train out the startle response to reduced G-forces. Once the abnormal feels normal, we give our brain the chance it needs to provide the appropriate inputs to correct the scenario. This also gives added validity to the idea that UPRT is as much a currency item as any other discipline; without practice and familiarization, our skills could deteriorate and reflexes could take over in the heat of the moment. 

Flight Training Part 1 

We level off the Extra 300 at 4,000 feet, and Allan jumps straight in with a couple of stall demonstrations using only a reduction in angle of attack to recover. While I shadow the controls, he brings the power back with the nose just slightly below the horizon, then pitches up to the horizon to get a good control feel as the aircraft decelerates. He then pitches again to bring the nose up into a landing attitude, and then one final pitch up to bring the nose up a few more inches. Predictably the aircraft gives a little buffet in protest and then the nose drops. Allan is sure to point out the half-G feeling for about a second before beginning to bring the nose back up. I have a go at a few of these stalls before we move on.

Next, Allan uses the same setup but adds a 30-degree bank to show a turning stall. With very similar results we see that there’s nothing notably
different about stalling while in a coordinated turn. Following my turning stall practice, Allan demonstrates something new to me that can really only be shown in an aerobatic airplane. We enter a turning stall, recover, and then he immediately pulls the stick back again to induce a second, then third, then fourth stall. With each stall, the nose drops further and further below the horizon, illustrating very clearly that the aircraft truly can stall at any attitude, even with the nose pointing directly down at the ground. I’m thinking just how cool this is to observe when Allan transfers the controls back to me to recover. “Look. Unload. Roll. Recover.” Recognizing and suppressing the startle reflex, I successfully do as I’m told.

Next, Allan demonstrates a stall with yaw. He follows the same turning stall procedures but points out that he is adding only a half-ball worth of yaw. Even this small amount of yaw is enough to agitate the stall to the point of starting a spin. As the aircraft rolls over in protest, Allan releases all inputs before the spin can fully develop and I suddenly find myself at the controls of an inverted dive. Reciting the mantra myself this time, I recover the aircraft. 

Again, Allan takes the demonstration a little bit further by showing the amount of yaw that can be generated naturally by the airplane if not countered correctly. We lift our toes off of the rudder pedals as he adds and reduces power, observing the nose move left and then right. Similarly, with our feet still flat on the floor we use the control stick to roll left and the nose yaws to the outside of the turn. Both of these yawing moments produce a yaw greater than a ball-width deflection on the inclinometer which, as we just saw, was more than enough to aggravate a stall into a spin. This is another demonstration that I have never seen illustrated so clearly before but has made a big impression.

Having seen the ingredients that can lead to a spin, I set up using the same simple stall initiation, add some rudder pressure in the last few seconds of the stall, and the Extra’s wing rolls us over and enters a spin. I continue holding these control inputs to be sure that the spin fully develops. After a full rotation in the spin, I talk my way through the spin recovery: P.A.R.E. “Power – idle. Ailerons – neutral. Rudder – opposite rotation. Elevator – forward to break the stall, then center the rudder pedals before recovering from the dive.”

Allan notices that I have subconsciously used a bit of left aileron as I am pushing in the left rudder on the recovery, so I work to counteract this instinct in the next few spins. This again impresses on me the importance of staying “current” on my UPRT. Counteracting the subconscious is tough work.

To round out our flight, we do a brief introduction to aerobatics in the form of a two-point aileron roll. Allan explains that if we were performing this maneuver to the right, we would trace an uppercase “D” with the nose of the aircraft. With that image in my mind, I begin by bringing the nose up, pausing briefly to allow the aircraft to come back to 1G, then roll the aircraft to inverted just as we are passing the horizon and stop the roll there. From here it’s time for the training to kick in. I look to find the horizon, unload to be sure that I am not pulling the aircraft any further into the dive, roll right 180-degrees again to bring us back right side up, and then recover by pulling the nose back to the horizon that I had found.

With all of this fresh in my mind, Allan makes a few points. First, being inverted and nose low is not something most pilots are accustomed to, so doing this maneuver helps us to build up a tolerance (desensitization) to these sorts of attitudes and lessens our startle reflex. He also points out that through the entire maneuver we never went into negative G’s, which is surprising to me. The feeling simply cannot be replicated by a simulator, so we give it a few more go’s to set the sensation in prior to heading back to the airport.

Flight Training Part 2 

With the foundation laid by Allan, now comes the masterclass with the namesake of the academy: Patty Wagstaff. Allan is a teacher at heart, with a knack for breaking the complex down to its base parts. At the core of Patty is a performer. This was immediately made clear on the takeoff roll. 

“After takeoff, I always hold the nose down and let it accelerate. I don’t rush to get into a high deck angle climb because I can’t see anything like that, and I’d rather have more speed if something happened.”

And she wasn’t joking. As I’ve observed her do from the grandstands at numerous air shows, just after breaking the ground, Patty holds the nose over and tracks down the centerline only feet off the runway. With the departure end rapidly approaching, she releases the forward pressure and the Extra shoots skywards. “Plus, this way is more fun,” she adds. I’d have to agree!

Once we reach the practice area, the format of the flight is similar to my first. She spends a few minutes observing how I handle the airplane with a few basic aileron rolls. “I really like to teach aileron rolls first because it forces people to use the controls independently, which is something we rarely do,” she says. This is something I saw for myself in my spin recovery when I incorrectly used aileron while applying rudder pressure.

At this point it feels like I am working my way through a progressive check in which she is checking my knowledge, skills and comfort with the maneuvers that she knows I already covered on my earlier flight. Where she sees the chance to add to my understanding or improve on my performance she does. And when there’s nothing to be added, we move on. Thanks to Patty’s cool attitude, I have no nerves about the maneuvers as she asks me to fly them because we are training to proficiency. In this way, we work through many reputations of stalls, turning stalls and spins in pretty short order. With the UPRT portion completed and validated, this left us with some time to focus more on the aerobatics portion of the course. 

In general, the second flight of the course is  a review of the first with a focus on spins, along with more aerobatic maneuvers – if the student wants them. This being my fourth aerobatic training flight, I ask Patty to check my fundamentals so we can work on expanding my aerobatic repertoire. With rolls already completed earlier, the obvious skill to work on next is loops. Patty instructs me through a 3G pull, pointing out where I should be looking for visual cues as we progress. She then suggests a half Cuban 8 before progressing to the full Cuban 8. Mimicking the same 3G pull from the loop, we pull the Extra up through a little over half of a loop before performing a 180-degree aileron roll on a 45-degree downline to bring us back to right side up. 

Next, we simply stitch two of those maneuvers together to complete the full Cuban-8. To add complexity, Patty talks me through a half reverse Cuban where we pull up on a 45-degree line, roll to inverted, then pull ourselves around the remainder of an inside loop. A slight variation on the original maneuver, but it gave me a good opportunity to work on rolling to inverted as well as elevator control from low energy to high energy in the loop.

Somehow, I made it to this point in the flight before it struck me just how unique it was to be sharing the controls with a U.S. and international aerobatic champion and inductee to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Any maneuver that I could come up with to request, there was quick “OK!” before she was talking her way through the next mind-bending procedure while I struggled to stay conscious. Later, Patty listed out each maneuver we completed and it was not brief: rolls, loops, half Cubans, half reverse Cubans, Immelmanns, rolls on top of loops, humpty bumps, hammerheads, vertical point rolls, inverted spins, upright flat spins and inverted flight. 

I wish I had the space here to include in-depth detail of each maneuver and how it made positive impacts on my aviation skillset, but suffice it to say that I gained everything I was hoping for and more from the aerobatic portion of the course. It solidified in my mind that the benefits of learning aerobatics along with a UPRT course is twofold in training my body to handle G’s and react correctly and safely to unusual attitudes – all while having fun. And pro tip: If you get the incredible opportunity to fly with Patty Wagstaff and she offers a low cruise along the beach – take her up on it!  

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