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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Words on Training

T.H.ursdays with Tom Hill

About 20 years ago we lost a fighter because the pilot didn't fly the aircraft out of the situation it was in. The young pilot flew his aircraft into a regime completely within the flight envelope of the aircraft but rarely visited by anyone. He was flying the aircraft the way he was taught, to maximize its performance. He was being aggressive to gain an advantage against his partner, just as he was encouraged. Yet, because of his inexperience, he let his aggression fly his jet just a little harder than he had before, leading to a situation he had never previously experienced -- he ran it out of airspeed going straight up. The result?

The unfortunate pilot applied what he thought were the right recovery controls. The aircraft didn't respond the way he expected. He got to his predetermined ejection altitude and ejected. Fortunately, the pilot survived, but the aircraft was a total loss. The rest of the story: this could have been prevented if our pilot had received the same training as his older comrades.

This pilot put his aircraft in an extremely nose high, low speed situation in the middle of 1 versus 1 training against another fighter. The result was what we call a tailslide. If you can imagine flying your aircraft straight up and running it out of airspeed, you can imagine eventually the plane is going to fall the way it came. If conditions are perfect, it'll fly directly backwards the way it came, i.e., the tail slide. (By the way, flying backwards through your own jet exhaust in a 50,000 lb. jet is pretty cool, among all the cool things you can do in a plane.) 

Most aircraft are not supposed to fly in these conditions. This specific fighter was designed to be inherently stable and difficult to depart controlled flight. The jet would almost always seek stable conditions, where the pointy end would fly forward if you let it even if it was going backwards like at the start of a tailslide. It's a flying quality we call "care free." But, not all is care free.

Unfortunately for this pilot, the jet swapped ends in a disorienting though entirely predictable manner. It flipped backwards, head over tail, then stabilized nose down inverted with our pilot upside down hanging in the straps. While this isn't that big of a deal if you're expecting it, our pilot had never been there before. To make it worse, his disorientation was accentuated by a little known flight control characteristic where the aircraft would try to seek level flight.

Being inverted, this meant the plane was actively pushing to level flight upside down in a subtle fashion. This made the pilot hang even more in the straps, leaving him confused and out of sorts, to put it mildly.

For those who haven't flown inverted, it's uncomfortable. Me? I hate it. It's not fun. Some people live for this. I'm not included in that group. In fact, I do what I can to minimize flying upside down, having my eyes bulge out due to negative g's. Our unfortunate pilot was in a completely unrecognizable situation. Even though the plane was flying perfectly, the situation was unfamiliar to him and he devolved to what he was taught in such an unrecognizable situation: "smoothly neutralize controls and release." It was probably the wrong thing to do in this situation.

All of this was happening quickly. It was dynamic, making it hard for our pilot’s mind to process what was going on. Even though the airspeed was slow, the aircraft was losing altitude quickly. The airplane was doing its thing, which eventually would have turned its parameters into something the pilot could recognized. Unfortunately, the plane reached the minimum ejection altitude with the aircraft seemingly out of control (unrecognizable flight condition), so he ejected and survived unscathed.

Here's the thing: This mishap was completely preventable. 
All the pilot needed to do was judiciously move the stick back to counter the negative g push caused by the aircraft's flight controls. He merely needed to pull a little on the stick to keep himself from being uncomfortable hanging in the straps. The aircraft would have responded. He would have immediately recognized the aircraft was flying and then would have recovered the jet using familiar control inputs. 
Unfortunately, he didn't because he lacked the exposure to these conditions. He was in unfamiliar territory. He did what he was taught, but what he was taught wasn't enough.

How did we let him get into this situation? I assert it was because, during initial training for his aircraft, he didn't get the opportunity to see how it would act in these situations with the oversight of an instructor.

Once upon a time, we used to do training that exposed new pilots to tailslides in this aircraft. But, somewhere along the way we dumbed down the training--not letting the airspeed go to zero or letting the aircraft fall backwards--so that no students were being exposed to these relatively benign but unusual flight conditions. He had a lack of exposure in other words. If he had just a little bit of this training before his mishap he might've realized, "Hey, I just need to pull back on the stick to recover from this because the airplane is flying even though it doesn't feel like it."

I think the problem we have as aviators, especially experienced aviators, is our inability to justify these training opportunities to folks who simply don't understand. It is hard for us to justify valuable yet intangible experiences to someone who is only interested in the dollars and cents. We have a problem relating why it's important our young pilots have broad exposure to many unusual flight conditions -- like sliding backwards in mid-air -- because if your aircraft can do it, it certainly will happen. Of course, flying backwards in your aircraft may not be a possibility, so insert your own flight condition like, say, stalls and stall recoveries. Then, you'll be able to relate.

I bring all this up because there is a general assault throughout our aviation professional communities against our training programs. Today's fiscal problems make these programs easy targets because training is expensive. The problem is we don't train enough already, as evidenced by the many mishaps attributed to pilot actions (or inactions). The challenge for us is this: How do you demonstrate the importance of these programs to those who can't understand aviation the way you do? How do we promote the importance of training that exposes pilots to many environments? How can we make it easy for decision makers to connect the dots about the importance of this?

When it's all about dollars and cents, the nuanced value of such training is difficult to quantify. We, the experts in this field, must articulate the importance of such things so it resonates with the non-expert. In the context of the themes of my last couple of articles about art and aviation, it is the same challenge as explaining the value of the Mona Lisa to someone who doesn't know art.

These are difficult and challenging times in the aviation business. Unfortunately, most people are not like Steve Jobs, who once said, "Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's not important." Our task is to show those who don't understand how important these things are.


Note from Tom: The circumstances of this scenario were modified from real life circumstances and changed for several reasons. The lessons from this mishap as I see them are the same, nevertheless.

Note from Karlene... photos from my Alaska Adventure September 2013


  1. Tom, during my adventure on your post, I was hooked and asked myself why a fighter jet was handled to that poor fellow until... The last paragraphs answered my questions.

    Have you heard about the Single European Sky? Just the first part of the development would cost 30 billion euros (quite expensive). The initiative has a great purpose... To unite the European skies and make it work at an international level, which would save billions of euros annually to its economy and lower Carbon emissions. The European Commission failed to approve this initiative due to lack of interest and focus on bringing Europe back online from the economic crisis. They thought it would cost too much.

    I think, for now, the best we can do is to promote. Like you just did, but in a wider scale.

    When I come back with my website (a much better version, for sure), I will open a section of awareness about these "mishaps". We have to raise awareness, and I think many pilots are also unaware about this or even don't even take in to relevancy.

    Thank you so much for this great post!


    1. Thank you for the comment, Alex. There is lots of "penny wise, yet pound foolish" out there. I personally believe our pilots are not as capable as those introduced to flying 20 or 30 years ago simply because they hadn't been forced to do everything by themselves. Today's automation requires a tremendous amount of ground and flight training to enable pilots to use the new capability. But, the emphasis seems to be more about the automation and less about the craft of flying. To make matters worse, the automations can make us less aware of what the plane is really doing. As I've said before flying can be art. It's a craft and it requires diligent practice to be done well. And, we all want our pilots to do the flying thing "well".



  2. Alex, Thank you for the comment!

    And Tom... this is a great post. Okay, they all are. But this resonates with me because with the advancement of automation we do teach less on how to fly the plane. Once upon a time we taught unusual attitudes in the heavy jets. I often wonder if AF447 pilots had received that training would the outcome have been different?

    Who is to know. But no training is overkill.

    Thank you for a great post!

  3. i am the least qualified to comment on this, my dream is to fly one day, but i am passionate ad vocative about training, you hear people asking about the merits of passing their IFR ratings when they might never need the rating, they have the resources and opportunities, but look how they reason, joe.

    1. Joe... I totally know what you mean about training. Do I have a treat for you. From Sunday Sept 29 -Oct 4 we are posting Instruction Moments. I'm featuring all the blogging information posts and linking to them... you'll love them. Thank you so much for your comment!

  4. Tom,

    Thanks for this insightful and timely reminder of what we should be doing. I was trained as a UH-1H captain in the early 90's. At that time the captaincy training syllabus included low-level (250' AGL) 180-degree auto-rotations, and NOE (50' AGL) 90-degree auto-rotations, assuming that as a military unit, we would be required to operate within these height regimes, and as such we could be faced with emergency situations requiring these skills.

    In fact, one day I had a governor high-side failure at about 250' AGL, and eventually had to perform a low-level 180-deg. auto which saved the aircraft and the 7 people on board. Success of training! However, about a year later, my unit lost an aircraft and almost lost 2 pilots in a training accident whilst performing this exact manoeuver.

    The immediate Command reaction was to ban low-level emergency training, a situation which persists up to the present.

    The unit has also upgraded equipment, going to a more automated aircraft, with auto-pilots and FMS and GPS systems. Now pilots no longer have the requirement to be intimately familiar with their area of operations, as the GPS and FMS will "always" get them where they need to be.

    The unit has now gone through a few "generations" of pilots, so that now it no longer has pilots who know what a low-level or NOE auto look like, or who have the ability to navigate by references at 50' AGL (or below), much less have the ability to train their successors in these skills, even though the operational missions and mission profiles have remained the same.

    To prevent the cost of potential losses in the controlled training environment, we have now exposed our aircrews to potentially preventable losses in the wide variety of operational situations they face on a daily basis.

    It is my sincere hope that someday soon, without a loss of life, the importance of a complete training syllabus will be impressed upon Command, and we can start to produce pilots who are again fully capable of performing their missions.

    1. Thank you so much for the wonderful comment! And with your sincere wish, I have the same for the airline training environments. With the increase of automation there is a direct decrease in training because of this automation. Hopefully we will find a balance without the loss of life too.
      Thanks again for the incredible comment. I will be sure to let Tom know it's here.

    2. Thank you for the great comment.

      When I flew with the Canadian Forces as an exchange person (US guy flying with the CF) we flow low level every in our CF-18's. Even if we were going to do high altitude training we would often take-off and flow low to the training area then climb to conduct our planned training. After that, we would descend to low altitude for the return leg. We did we do that? It was because the Canadians back in those days put a tremendous emphasis on low altitude tactical aviation. It was great fun flying like that all the time, in all honesty.

      Of course, there was a substantial risk when flying low like that. Exposure to birds is one of many things. Still, we were really good at flying low. In fact, I've never been so good at flying at those altitudes at high speed as I was then.

      As I left the Canadian Forces to return to the US over 10 years ago, they were in the midst of a tremendous budget drill and were exploring all options. One included abandoning low altitude flying as a tactical option. The reasons were sound though the issue was once a operational environment is given up and all the tremendous capability/skills associated were lost, it might never return if ever the course needed to be changed again.

      I bring this up in that I totally concur training needs to support the mission, whatever it might be. We shouldn't be doing training activities that don't help the mission--no matter how fun it might be. But, if training is reduced but the operation isn't changed, that's a problem. It's a tremendous problem.

      Unfortunately, the "new normal" will be the reduced training regimen. People will forget how things used to be. It's the "old heads" who need to stay engaged when problems arise so that when supervisions asks "how do we get fix this", the old heads can say "we can do "xxx..." and it worked".




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