Inoculating Pilots Against Loss-of-control

 - April 8, 2019, 1:22 PM
The Expanded Envelope Exercises keep costs down by using ordinary aircraft rather than the specialized aircraft for upset prevention and recovery or simulator time. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Ed Wischmeyer has spent endless hours trying to figure out how to prevent pilots from losing control of their airplanes and crashing. His inspiration comes from fellow pilots and not wanting to keep adding to the list of friends who have died in accidents. He was also inspired by the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Founder's Innovation Prize competition, which incentivizes entrepreneurs to create products and techniques to help prevent loss of control (LOC), with winners recognized annually at the EAA AirVenture show.

That contest, however, seems to be overly focused on gadgets, and Wischmeyer believes there is a better way to “inoculate” pilots against the dreaded LOC disease. What he has developed is a series of exercises that any flight instructor can teach to new and experienced pilots. These exercises are designed to help pilots get more comfortable flying outside of their comfort zone while remaining within the aircraft’s normal or utility envelope that is generally considered safe.

Wischmeyer calls his concept Expanded Envelope Exercises (E3), and their biggest benefit is the low cost of implementation. While upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) is hugely beneficial, it is expensive, and it’s not likely that a large percentage of pilots will ever be able to experience such training. UPRT usually requires special aircraft, highly trained instructors, and a suitable location. There is a recent trend to offer UPRT in simulators that are modified with software that allows flight into the stall regime, and this is also effective. But affordability is also an issue here; a day’s worth of UPRT in a full-motion simulation can cost thousands of dollars. And again, a highly qualified instructor must teach this type of UPRT.

The E3 concept, which is still in testing, consists of a series of flying exercises that are relatively simple for an instructor to learn and then share with students during initial training or with experienced pilots, say, during a flight review or proficiency training. It should be noted that similar work is underway by the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE), under its new “CFI-Proficiency Initiative” or “SAFE CFI-PRO” effort.

Wischmeyer’s intent, once the E3 exercises are fully developed, is to recommend that flight instructors (CFIs) either demonstrate the E3 exercises during their own checkrides or that they have limited privileges until they demonstrate E3 mastery. For example, a new CFI might not be able to get an additional instructor rating until endorsement by an experienced E3 CFI. The same would be true for being qualified to teach pilots for their commercial certificate, to provide endorsements for flight reviews, tailwheel, complex, high-performance, and high-altitude operations, and perhaps the ability to sign off student pilots for certain privileges. “These ideas obviously need fine tuning,” he said.

The LOC Challenge

The problem with LOC and trying to teach pilots how to prevent it is that to most pilots, the concept is meaningless. Although the NTSB included LOC on its Most Wanted list in 2017-2018, the Board dropped LOC from the 2019-2020 list. Still, safety advocates cite ongoing high LOC accident statistics, and a significant number of accidents do result from LOC.

Part of the problem is that pilot training has shifted away from basic stick-and-rudder skills to more management of the avionics and systems. Pilots are being trained to be comfortable within a narrow portion of the normal flight envelope.

“Lots of pilots get nervous at plus-30-degree banks, or they never learned full rudder or aileron deflection,” Wischmeyer said. “That’s part of what E3 does,” helping get pilots comfortable flying in an expanded yet still safe envelope. “It’s an ongoing philosophy. People say we don’t teach stick-and-rudder anymore. E3 is a descendant of that, and it answers the question: how could we teach stick-and-rudder skills?”

The E3 exercises don’t get near aerobatic maneuver limits. But by teaching pilots to get comfortable with flying their airplanes up to and not beyond pitch and bank limits where aerobatics start, pilots will have more “cognitive availability to handle other events,” he explained.

In Wischmeyer’s submission for the EAA Founder’s Prize, he explained “cognitive unavailability.” Another way of putting this is the computer geek’s reference to “brain cycles,” which makes an analogy between human brains and computer processors, suggesting that when all the brain cycles are being used, few remain to focus on, say, avoiding a stall-spin accident. Some pilots call this “tunnel vision,” when the brain focuses exclusively on some aspect of flying and ignores all other input (such as audible warnings, flashing lights, etc.).

According to Wischmeyer, “Data suggests that LOC occurs when the pilot does not or cannot process all of the available cues and information. This phenomenon is called cognitive unavailability, an innovative concept, casually based upon concepts such as cognitive overload and cognitive resilience. If the airplane is uncompromised, the pilot is unimpaired, and there are no freak atmospheric events, then LOC is almost always a result of cognitive unavailability. LOC occurs in ‘scenarios where pilots should have been able to get the airplane on the ground but were unprepared or distracted.’ This concept recognizes that cognitive unavailability contributes in the same way to LOC, regardless of whether the underlying cause of cognitive unavailability is IMSAFE, channelized attention [tunnel vision], cognitive capture, task completion error, startle factor, confusion or task saturation, or anything else.”

The E3 maneuvers aren’t yet part of any formal training program, and Wischmeyer doesn’t intend that CFIs simply adopt the maneuvers and begin training them. What he would like to see are industry experts, such as larger flight training university programs, take the concept and develop it into training that helps pilots fly safer. “My objective is to make these ideas succeed, not my program,” he said.

That said, Wischmeyer also believes that the current FAA Airman Certification Standards (ACS) that govern pilot practical testing come up short on teaching pilots what they need to know. “Broadly generalizing,” he said, “E3 is a response to a lack of what’s in the ACS. The ACS doesn’t want you close to the bogeyman—a stall—while E3 says if you get there, it’s not your first rodeo.”

Some of the E3 maneuvers are derived from types of flying that most pilots will never experience. For example, glider pilots often fly near or even into a stall while turning. So turning stalls is one of the E3 maneuvers. Others are simply exercises in controlling the airplane precisely and with more confidence.

As Wischmeyer explained in his Founder’s Prize submission, “E3 is an innovative concept of fun, enjoyable, and challenging flight exercises to reduce cognitive unavailability by expanding the pilot’s experience and comfort zone from the narrow middle-of-the-envelope presently taught out to flight regimes that may be precursors to LOC. E3 seeks to transfer more of flying from System 2, (implicit or requiring concentration) to System 1 (explicit or second nature). E3 exercises are within the capabilities of almost all ‘standard class’ airplanes. While upset training and spin training teach remedies for LOC after it has occurred, E3 vaccinates pilots against LOC before it occurs—easily, affordably, acceptably. And because E3 requires no hardware, the entire general aviation fleet is already E3-capable.”

Flying the E3 Maneuvers

According to the FAA, “A loss of control (LOC) accident involves an unintended departure of an aircraft from controlled flight.” LOC is the primary cause of general aviation fatal accidents, the FAA says.

By this definition, what happened during a night flight that I did a few months ago to regain night currency qualifies as LOC. I was flying in a Piper Cherokee 180 at 2,000 feet, and I looked down at the iPad mounted on the kneeboard strapped to my leg to find the frequency for an airport where I planned some takeoffs and landings. When I looked up, the Cherokee was in a steepening bank, the nose was down, and speed was increasing. This, Wischmeyer later confirmed, was the beginning of a spiral. I returned the wings to level then raised the nose and continued on.

The point is that the spiral could easily have worsened. The FAA notes that there are five precursors that contribute to LOC: disorientation can occur when continuing a VFR flight (intentionally or inadvertently) into instrument meteorological conditions; sometimes accidents occur when there is a distraction by something on the ground or in the airplane; an inappropriate response to an emergency event or “startle response” can delay or inhibit the pilot’s reaction to hazards that occur suddenly; rusty aircraft handling skills has contributed to loss of control, particularly in crosswind operations; inadequate risk management has led many pilots into situations where they lacked the skill to cope with the hazard.

My spiral could have developed further, with at least three of those precursors involved: disorientation, distraction, and inappropriate response. Could this have resulted in an accident, especially if it happened to a low-time pilot who hadn’t flown in a long time or otherwise was unprepared? Could these factors be related to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal LOC accident in 1999?

I have been practicing some of the E3 maneuvers in the Cherokee and also spent a day with Wischmeyer in Savannah, Georgia, learning more about the E3 concept and flying some maneuvers in his RV-9A experimental amateur-built airplane.

Compared to the Cherokee, the RV-9A is much more responsive and easier to fly precisely, but both airplanes worked fine for E3 maneuvers.

In the RV-9A, we did slow Dutch rolls, low-speed spirals, stalls while turning, 60/90 serpentines, vertical S’s, and runway sidestep exercises.

Some of these exercises are easier, while others require some practice. For example, the slow Dutch rolls specify rolling at a constant rate of one degree per second while using opposite rudder to keep the nose on a specific point, something that takes some trial and error.

For the low-speed spirals, we pretended that we were distracted while turning in landing configuration and then allowed the nose to drop. Surprisingly, we quickly lost 600 feet before recovering. As Wischmeyer pointed out, if we were turning base to final for landing, we would have hit the ground before realizing what had happened.

While in a steep bank, I tried stalling and recovering but remaining in the same steep bank. This took a lot of effort, and I ended up staying in the stall buffet for too long instead of stalling and quickly recovering. It was challenging to try to maintain at least a 45-degree bank while stalling and recovering.

The 60/90 serpentines require turning 90 degrees one way using a 60-degree bank with full aileron deflection then turning in the opposite direction. It takes practice to get used to using full aileron deflection.

Vertical S maneuvers again required lots of concentration to climb and descend at a specific airspeed with wings level.

Back at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, Wischmeyer asked the tower for permission to fly S-turns on final approach. He then gave me instructions to line up first with the left side of the runway, then the right side, then to line up on short final with the centerline, then to land one expansion joint to the right of the center line. This exercise was just more practice at flying precisely. We flew two flights that day.

After experiencing some of the E3 maneuvers, I agree that it makes sense to offer CFIs additional tools to help their students gain confidence in and extend their flying skills. I think the maneuvers also give CFIs something new to teach students, either as a way to bring pilots back for more beneficial training or as something to demonstrate and practice at flight review time, but as a separate event.

Where To Next?

Wischmeyer isn’t trying to create and market the E3 maneuvers as a packaged system ready for use by CFIs, but would rather encourage industry members to take on the task of proving their effectiveness and promoting their use. To that end, he is working with aviation universities that have done some work with E3, and he is hoping to expand the interest beyond the initial universities that are now exploring E3.

In fact, Michael Hollister, assistant professor at the Utah Valley University (UVU) School of Aviation Science, coined the term E3, and he has been working with flight instructors at UVU on testing the maneuvers. Hollister is planning to devote significant time in the next few years to helping develop E3.

“As a CFI,” he told AIN, “I have believed for some time that the FAA—well-intentioned though they may be—have been moving away from past training requirements that actually create a better-prepared pilot. In other words, I believe training is too benign these days and the industry is doing a disservice to those we award a pilot certificate to.”

Hollister has flown more than a dozen flights trying out E3 maneuvers with volunteer CFIs, whose average flight time is about 600 hours. He has flown nine exercises with the CFIs, with his favorite the 60/90. “This exercise provides the highest level of sensory input for the pilot, while requiring full aileron deflection to a 60-degree bank and a 90- degree turn. Once reached, the pilot then immediately rolls the aircraft in the opposite direction to 60 degrees of bank and turns back 90 degrees to the original heading. I am of the opinion that a training program that goes beyond the certificate, but short of upset recovery or aerobatic training, is a very viable and warranted endeavor. It has been my experience that those pilots I have flown with, CFI’s who are now teaching the next batch of pilots, all needed and benefited from even their one-time exposure to E3 during our flight together.”

The value of E3 is that it exposes pilots to flying closer to the limits of their aircraft while adding confidence and more appreciation for their aircraft’s capabilities, he explained. “A student pilot never once being required to experience a stall while in a 45-degree bank, and then recovering while still in a bank, is an example of the disservice I spoke of before. Such a flight condition is, of course, not required currently.”

We all remember being told that our first pilot certificate is a license to learn, but as Hollister points out, there is no requirement that pilots continue learning until they get involved in professional flying. “If professional pilots are required to go through annual recurrency training where, in some cases, deficiencies are being found during situations most would consider 'Pilot 101' stuff, I find it curious that for most in GA, once you have the certificate, it’s ‘have a good life, be safe.’ I know there is the flight review, but honestly, is that really enough? I don’t think so. Wouldn’t it be great, or at least a step in the right direction, if a certificated pilot could participate in an E3 training (refresher) course, without having to go upside down, pulling g’s, while flying airplanes that fly nothing like the airplanes the pilot actually flies?”

Hollister sees E3 helping the aviation industry, especially with the pilot shortage forcing operators to lower experience requirements. “If there is an increase in voices throughout the industry advocating for better training and even those going beyond the minimums required, I believe the fewer safety issues the industry will see in the coming months and years.”

At LeTourneau University in Texas, pilot students earn their private pilot license in American Champion Citabria taildragger trainers. According to Flight Science Department chair Bruce Chase, LeTourneau students already learn more stick-and-rudder skills than most new pilots, but he is discussing the E3 maneuvers with university leadership.

“We’re on the same page with a lot of this,” he said. “Some things, like stalls in a turn, we’re already doing. Other maneuvers are new and interesting, and I can see where they could be valuable.

“Philosophically, we’re very much in agreement with what Ed [Wischmeyer] is trying to do. We think the pilot training aspect is more important than another technological piece. Another warning or annunciator is just another thing to get ignored in periods of high stress.”

Meanwhile, SAFE launched its CFI-PRO program at the Sun ’n' Fun show in April. The workshop, designed for CFIs, is a two-day event, with ground and flight training, with the first scheduled October 2-3 in Frederick, Maryland. Cost is $375.

According to SAFE, “The program offers CFIs a path to improved skill, knowledge, and confidence in aerodynamics and aircraft control, especially in the less-often-explored areas of the normal flight aerodynamic envelope.

According to SAFE executive director David St. George, the training doesn’t involve aerobatics or upset recognition and recovery but “offers CFIs a chance to explore seldom-visited corners of the flight envelope.” He added, “We have a tested syllabus and use only normal and utility category aircraft and stay within their limitations. Since typical pilots use only about 5 percent of a standard category aircraft's flight envelope, there's lots to explore without going aerobatic.”