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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 23, 2013

Startle Effect

T.H.ursdays with Tom Hill are interrupted today by his being on a 10-day trip. He is camping on his bike in a very remote area. He will be traveling toward Flagstaff, and Yellowstone NP.  Tom will return next week with wonderful stories and more great photos. 

Today... I am sharing a story a blog reader had sent me. I am curious from instructors, and students alike, what do you think of the Altoid training?

"Sometimes with new students, I would take a prescription bottle filled with small Altoids, and tell them I had a heart condition. These were Nitroglycerin pills, and if they made me nervous, I would take them in flight.

As soon as they rotated, I would pour the whole bottle in my mouth, and once we got to 3-4,000 ft AGL, I would act like I passed out, and start to press the right rudder.

When they started to panic, I'd come to recover the plane, and say, "Just messing with you. You're doing fine."

Good times. They would be back the next day hungry for more."

While this appears unorthodox, there was a time when we did unusual attitude training. One pilot would close his eyes, and the other pilot would put the plane in an unusual attitude. The pilot flying would open his eyes, digest what he saw, and fix it. Not quite like instilling fear that your instructor died...but we did have to recover. And yet in hindsight, I did have a captain fake death on his landing in a 747 and I had to take over the plane. This was during my 747 type rating in the simulator.

Funny story interruption ... Recently a friend had told me of a time he had been in the simulator doing this type of unusual attitude training. One pilot closed his eyes, the other pilot pulled, yanked and banked, dove and added rudder. Then the instructor said, "Go ahead and recover." The pilot who'd had his eyes closed began working the controls, but to no success. They were going in. 

The other pilot looked at him. Squinted. And then said, "Hey dude. Open your eyes." 

Truth is stranger (and often funnier) than fiction. 

The reality is, the FAA is now encouraging airlines to include a module in training with a "startle" factor involved. Startle the pilots and see how they react. The final report from AF447 referred commented that the startle effect and the emotional shock at the autopilot disconnection may have been an attributing factor in the pilot's inability for a proper reaction. 

I am not sure if this startle factor was relevant in this case. We train pilots daily how to deal with emergencies. If you can say one thing about pilots who leave the school house, they don't crumble in the face of their plane having a hiccup. Nobody ever plans to get a V1 engine failure on takeoff. That would be startling. But pilots handle that successfully, even when it is a surprise. We are trained to respond and take action, the pilots who can't handle the surprise, are normally weeded out before they get to the line. 

The real question is... why and when did we stop giving 'unusual attitudes' during simulator training? Perhaps that was all that was necessary for the pilot monitoring in AF447 to be able to figure out what was happening to the plane.

Instructors...what are you doing, if anything, to prepare your students for the unexpected? far can your instructor go before he/she crosses the line with the startle factor?

For another great read on this same subject, check out The Startle Effect

Enjoy the journey!
XO Karlene


  1. Hi, Karlene!

    In re: Altoids Man...appears unorthodox?? If the CFI for my next BFR pulled that on me it would be the last time I got into an airplane with him/her. That's WAY over the line.

    I assume that "startle factor" is easier to induce in a sim than from the right seat of a 182. The sim instructor can creatively fail combinations of systems while the in-flight GA instructor is limited in the things that can be safely presented. That said...a working re-definition of "startle factor" could be "brain freeze in the face of dissonant inputs, that interferes with appropriate problem recognition and resolution". That appears to be what happened to the AF447 crew. And you're right, out on the line this should be a non-factor. If susceptibility hasn't been trained out of our ATP's, we are doing it wrong.

    From my amateur status, I'll offer two thoughts.

    One, it's an old problem. Go re-read the sequence Ernie Gann wrote in FITH about the grizzled old Captain lighting matches in his face during an approach to minimums in godawful wx. Stress experienced becomes a stress level that's manageable.

    Two, the old adage has it that the first item on every emergency check-list should be "Wind the clock". (Remember windable clocks?) Are we failing to teach our pilots how to break the link between the onset of stress and the production of adrenalin? Can you do that in the sim?

    Here's a question for you. No matter what gets thrown at you in the sim, you know, deep down in your pre-historic lizard-brain, that there is no way you can die, no matter how you foul up. In a real airplane, the inner lizard knows that you're playing for keeps. Is this a factor that sim training neglects? Does it matter?

    As always, Karlene, your post provides great grist for reflection.

    Keep safe,


    1. Hi Frank, Thank you so much for the great reply. I do believe that in the simulator... even though we tell the pilots "you are in a real plane" and the simulators are so advanced... that the mind knows they can't die. And yet, I don't know if a pilot consciously thinks that while dealing with an emergency.

      I believe we are so focused on the task, that's the last thing we think about.

      However, in a pilots mind, if they lose their job because they couldn't handle a situation in the simulator, adds stress. Those who think about failure, don't focus on flying. In a plane, those who would think about death... same result. I just haven't experienced that in any real life situation before.

      The reality is, some pilots perform better in the plane than the simulator. The stress of the check does them in. Bu if they can handle the sim check stress, they will handle the flight situation stress.

      Airline pilots don't generally freak out with an unexpected situation. Not that it's the airline... but the experience level. But's not in the demeanor of the pilot either.

      Some people faint at the sight of blood. If a doctor did, they would be weeded out early in their career. I suspect it's the same with pilots too.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts!

  2. I think it's still in my old schools syllabus for the jet transition in a CRJ200 aircraft to do some jet upset recoveries.

    It was fun.

    1. Yes... I always thought it was fun. I am glad you still have that in your syllabus.
      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Actually, I think the Altoids thing is funny...but maybe not a place for it in the student cockpit! I can definitely see some students never going up with him again!

    "Startle effect"...not sure I like the sound of the FAA "mandating" that, either. The Federal Government "regulating" that sort of "maneuver" sounds ridiculous at best--Draconian at worst. And, realistically, there's only so much you can do with a sim.

    As you know, Karlene, over our thousands of hours in the cockpit, we've been "startled" many times...and went on to solve the problem(s). There is often a human-factor pause—a "denial moment"—before the brain kicks in...but I don't see this EVER being "solved" by "startling" pilots in the sim!

    With this exact point in mind, I strive, every single takeoff, to be consciously prepared for that real-world "V1 cut". A challenge, to be sure, but at critical moments we would be wise to rise above the impulse of complacency and truly be "prepared" to be "startled!"


    1. Eric, There is only so much you can do with the sim. Perhaps giving the unexpected would be more like it. The problem with training, once the first few crews go through, the 'surprise' events are no longer surprises.

      But just as you pointed out... every takeoff we are prepared for the what if. So if we are prepared for the unexpected... then there is no startle. Besides, pilots don't freak out and burn up because they were startled there was a fire. They deal with it.

      I think the term might be lost in translation. Mostly...I think they were trying to justify (or soften) why the pilots did not know how to fly, were confused, and simply did the wrong thing.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. I like the idea, it gives them a "oh crap" moment. But at the same time, in a real airplane, you can only do so much [unless you have an area where you can totally just shut off all the engines and may be some hydraulics and let the student figure things out and glide the airplane into safe landing in a near by field].

    1. My instructor gave me headings, we were doing airwork... then told me "We're lost. What are you going to do now?" I dialed 121.5 and pretended to key the mike, gave my call sign and said, "My instructor is lost. This is an emergency."
      He about had a heart attack. This was before headsets, and he actually thought I did that. Perhaps I gave him the startle effect.


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