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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, 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. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


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.




  1. By early investment in good basic flying skills, fluency in critical manoeuvres & more time for training rather than checking

    1. So true. We all need a solid foundation to build upon. It's the fundamental of flying.

  2. Sorry I didn't reply last week, life was in the way.

    When I was an IP, I would do local proficiency flights with the guys. Engine-out, no flap landings, holding, Precision and non-precision approaches, ect.

    The profile also called for a go-around. On the very first approach after holding, to a VOR, circle to a planned normal landing. Of course I briefed the entire crew except the PF. On short final, I would ask the engineer if he saw the simulated bus full of nuns holding short of the runway. They always did, and then I would call a simulated bus full of nuns on the runway and then call for a go-around. It was amazing how many guys messed up a low altitude normal approach go around.

    1. No problem Rob, and thanks for the comment. We have had many cows on the runway, but never nuns. That's a new one. The problem with the surprise factor is that it always gets out to the other pilots and surprise is no longer.

      But when they are not expecting something... or more likely they are expecting something, such as you telling them they will land, they are thinking of one thing only. That's why they would mess up down low.

      I suspect this is a great example of why we should always be prepared for the unexpected.

      Thanks again for the comment.

    2. The olde bus full of nuns trick. I've seen a lot of those nuns in my career. Glad to know I wasn't the only guy so lucky

  3. This is a brilliant article, my airline is very good with these sort of situations.

    Every year we go to the simulator for something called a LOE (Line oriented exercise), the whole point of it is that you treat is like a normal flight, you put as much fuel in as you would in a real world situation and you set off on a normal flight.

    The instructor will then give us 3 failures of increasing difficulty levels, it can be something trivial like a computer reset, all the way up to dual hydraulic failures or more obscure situations.

    The way we are taught to deal with this is with a general problem resolution and decision making framework that can be applied to any situation.

    We use DODAR (Diagnose, Options, Decide, Assign tasks, Review), but I've heard quite a few others. If you take time to diagnose your failure correctly, generate options, decide on one and act, you will almost always have a safe outcome. If by the end you review your decision and refine it if necessary with the best option for the time, you will always find a close to optimal solution.

    1. Mariano, thank you for the great reply. The best part of the AQP programs are the LOEs. We have one of six or seven scenarios we could get, and never know which it will be.

      I have never used DODAR before. It's a great acronym to use. Can I ask you what plane you fly? The Airbus tells us the problem. We perform the computer checklist on the ECAM. Follow up with the book. Then find the best place to land.

      Thanks for a great comment.

  4. Great post! It can be hard training oneself to react right to the unexpected, I mean, it's unexpected after all. ;)

    1. So true Heather. I think training to know how to handle the plane in any circumstance is the best bet for success. But sometimes those surprises in life are not fun.

  5. Actually, I fully agree with "surprising" students. During my PPL training, my home airport was in Class B, so there was little opportunity for me to practice "losing an engine" in Class B. But once I became proficient, my instructor would randomly simulate failures while enroute or on approach to Class C and D airports. I could only expect that something would go down at some random distance and altitude but I didn't know what. This fully prepared me to act quickly so that after I had earned my PPL and was flying solo, I was able to react quickly and without "freezing" to a radio failure after clearance into controlled airspace and inexplicable loss of power upon landing. It helped immensely to prepare for the unexpected. It may have saved my life once or twice, but I don't know since I was mentally prepared for the unexpected.

    1. Zyola, Thanks for the great comment. This is wonderful from the student's perspective. Always being prepared is the key. My instructor would tell me, "You've lost your engine, where are you going to land?" It made me always think about my options.

      I do believe that we can train for the unexpected that will help us when something really happens. Thank you so much for your comment! You're the type of person I want to fly with.

    2. One of the hardest things to do is staying "engage" when on a long cross-country trip. One of the techniques I used to use was constantly updating where I would go if I had a "barn burner" emergency and needed to land, now. This constant updating was a source of distraction in a good kind of way. Nowadays, it's not as useful as before. Today's FMS and nav systems where you can list runways that meet certain parameters--e.g. 8,000 ft long runway--makes this constant search for emergency runways much easier and therefore less of a distraction. It's so easy I don't hardly think about "where to go" because the info is about two button pushes away from being presented.


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