T.H.ursday with Tom Hill
Hi, all. I’m back. Awesome ten day trip, which included a stop near Flagstaff to hang with fellow dual-sport motorcycle riders for a few days. I also spent three days up in Yellowstone National Park, my first visit there. It was a great trip with much needed downtime. However, my idea of downtime includes lots of things filling the day. Thanks to Karlene, her Thursday post, the startle effect, provided the inspiration for this week’s contribution by yours truly.
The training she highlighted concerned an exercise in which the focus is about surprising the student. The post reminded me of stories colleagues have shared with me over the years on that subject. The theme of the stories was that students would "freeze up" when given unexpected emergencies. Let me explain.
My friend tells this story: He would re-qualify an experienced pilot in the T-38 by making him suffer through unexpected inputs, such as the simulated failure of an engine far from the field. Normally when we conduct simulated engine failures, we’re in the local pattern right next to the airfield. After the first couple of fumbled attempts at dealing with such an emergency, an experienced pilot was well prepared for further such simulations. My friend would shake things up as a kind of graduation exercise by simulating a failed engine 50 or more miles away from the field. Inevitably, this non-standard emergency would cause the student to “freeze up,” as in “Hey, we didn’t practice that. That can’t happen!”
What’s interesting is this simulation is really simple to deal with. The instructor pulls one engine back (T-38’s have two engines as you know) and says, “You’ve suffered engine failure of the left engine.” You push up the other engine to maintain controlled flight. You ask a couple of questions as to other indicators that might explain why the engine failed. You pull out the checklist to make sure there are no other things to clean up. Then you fly to the airfield using one engine instead of two. Easy peasy!
Unfortunately, the nature of this simulation tended to make guys freeze up because they hadn’t walked through the scenario before, even during home study. Many guys would spend too much time in the checklist trying to read stuff they already knew. Despite needing extra time to read the checklist, they wouldn’t adjust their approach to the field to buy extra time. Then, they’d mess up the approach into the field by delaying their descent. This would always result in a steep fast final approach with the power of the operating engine pulled way back in an attempt to keep the speed under control. As you may know, this is a really bad technique in this situation. Students tend to misjudge when to push up the throttle, resulting in either a fast touchdown, i.e., a long overshooting landing, or a short dropped-in hard landing, or worse.
I am a big fan of this type of training though sometimes I’m a bit amazed we need it. When I give this type of exercise, I only use simple emergencies. Still, my students seem to make things more difficult than they need to be. I suppose it’s because of the unexpected nature of the simulation, which can make anything seem more dire than it appears.
Here’s a thought to start a discussion: What if the majority of our training was about unexpected emergencies, instead of having just a “module” of surprising situations among all the other things in a training program? How about making the core tenant of emergency procedure training be all about the unexpected? Once you get through the competent application of critical action procedures, how about spending valuable training time on untimely normal emergencies, instead of working through the many these-have-never-happened-before-but-it’s-possible-they-can emergencies?
When I was initially qual’d in the F-15, we worked through this never-happened-before-but-it’s-possible emergency called the “Double Engine Stall Stagnation” during simulator training. Here's the scenario: While attempting a high altitude, high speed intercept, both engines would theoretically stall or stagnate, requiring immediate action. You transitioned from climbing high on an intercept with both engines producing afterburner thrust to immediately dumping the nose to keep airspeed up because both engines quit. Eventually, you needed to restart both engines. Inevitably, the main generators would drop off line causing all the primary instruments to fail. Of course, we were in night/instrument conditions making us transition to the backup gauges. After dancing with the throttles through a very detailed procedure, you recovered the aircraft.
This was a difficult emergency to learn. It required aggressive action and a reasonable degree of coordination to get all the steps right. Unquestionably, if there had been a real Double Engine Stall Stagnation in a simulator, I felt confident in handling it. But (and here’s a big but), to my knowledge there has never been a Double Engine Stall Stagnation in the operational world, ever. Why did we spend so much time on this emergency? Probably because it was difficult and it was in the checklist. Could we have spent more time on realistic training including more “normal” emergencies in unexpected situations? You bet.
I’m sure there are many ways to improve our training. And I agree that a healthy dose of the unexpected is necessary because I have found many pilots have difficulty adapting to the unanticipated.