Emergency Upset Recovery

Several years ago I had the privilege of attending an Emergency Upset Recovery Training course presented by APS Training in Arizona. Designed to make pilots safer, this three day advanced training course covers the theory behind and practical handling of unintended and un-commanded loss of control in flight. Boy, is it an eye opener!

Standard flight training prepares you for all but the most extreme, surprising, dangerous and potentially life threatening aspects of piloting an aircraft. My own experience with several instructors over the years provided me with a baseline understanding of all “normal” phases of flight as well as with stalls and incipient spins. I remember my first stall to this day; it is a strange feeling to be in an aircraft that is no longer developing lift aka flying.

What I didn’t know is how much more emotionally taxing a fully aggravated inverted 14 revolution spin would be (imagine being on a merry-go-round, upside-down, holding on to the last few inches of the metal bar by your fingertips, all while plummeting towards the earth). Extreme airborne operational environments require extraordinary emotion management.

Handling these situations effectively requires an uncommon self-control, specialized knowledge and practical experience. The course consisted of both classroom-based theory and in-flight training in a fully aerobatic Extra 300L high performance aircraft. This highly capable and strong aircraft is designed to handle +/- 10 Gs, which, believe me, is more than you ever want to encounter in any phase of flight.

Emotion management is critical to safe piloting. Experience tells us that in times of intense emotion we don’t tend to think the clearest thoughts or make the best moves. If you’ve ever fallen head-over-heels for someone, for instance, or if you’ve worked your way into a fit of rage, you know in hindsight that your ability to deliberately control your thoughts and actions is markedly diminished.

Given these cognitive and behavioral challenges, I wonder if the FAA should require that all pilots wear mood rings, available for inspection by boarding passengers? Just kidding. Fortunately for us, certain psychological techniques and training programs can be used to improve a pilot’s ability to handle the unexpected in ways that greatly improve aeronautical safety.

As I went through the course, relearning the principles of aerodynamics, discovering the outer edges of the performance envelope of the aircraft we were using, and going through the paces while in the air (power on stalls, power off stalls, traffic pattern stalls, spins, wake turbulence, rudder, aileron, elevator, flap failure, aerobatic maneuvers and just about any other unusual attitude you can force an airplane into), I couldn’t help but think to myself, “what would I have done had I encountered this before receiving this specialized training?” While you can only guess at such things, I know that I am a dramatically safer pilot now, having completed the APS course.

How do you perform under great uncertainty or fear? Life is uncertain. The way you react to or handle the uncertainty that comes your way will has a tremendous influence on the outcome. As humans, we tend to react in largely predictable ways and that is especially true when it comes to how we handle surprise and crises. Knowing this, it makes sense to me to consider now, in the cool of the day, those tendencies so that we can better understand them and hopefully mitigate their negative consequences.

As they say, forewarned is forearmed. Here is the short list of tendencies for your consideration:

  • Selective attention – Under stressful situations, most people tend to narrow their focus, limit the number of cues they focus on and therefore perceive, which results in the development of an incomplete or unbalanced picture of what is actually going on. Acting on limited information often exacerbates the situation rather than remedying it.
  • Tunnel vision – Related to selective attention, tunnel vision or fixation occurs when an alarm sounds or an instrument is not reporting correctly. The untrained or careless pilot will naturally tend to obsess about that anomaly rather than continuing to focus on the big picture. Holistic thinking is tremendously valuable, especially in a crisis. And as the old saying goes,
    “where there is no vision, the people perish.”
  • “Hair on fire” reactions – In the absence of forethought or an alert state of mind, people tend to either freeze or panic. If psychological and controlled training environments can improve a pilot’s ability to control or properly channel the energy of his emotions under pressure, I imagine the same could be done in any field of human activity. The military uses this principle as do training organizations like Xe (formerly known as Blackwater). Research shows that we can be taught to react more intelligently and creatively.

With the right training you can come to rest relative to the unknown. Fear of the unknown drives millions of otherwise sane, competent and potentially creative into paralysis and frenzy, both of which are counter-productve in any situation. The first step in receiving this training involves understanding and I hope that our consideration today provides you a few starting points for developing a deeper understanding of what is required to be effective in any and every situation you might face in the days to come.

16 thoughts on “Emergency Upset Recovery

  1. Mac

    Loved this: “fully aggravated inverted 14 revolution spin . . . (imagine being on a merry-go-round, upside-down, holding on to the last few inches of the metal bar by your fingertips, all while plummeting towards the earth).”

    I’ve been enjoying the topics these past few days! In my experience, flying airplanes helps develop a stable focus on the outer while horsemanship helps develop a stable focus on the inner. And both are enhanced by a relaxed focus in the present moment.

  2. Colin

    I really enjoyed reading about this topic. One thing I always like to do is try to foresee what a person’s reaction will be in an emergency. You never really know until it happens, but there are always clues. I think that taking a training course like this (or even role playing common scenarios that might happen in day to day life) are well worth their while. Thanks for bringing this subject to our attention.

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  4. I wish I would have thought of the mood ring thing when I had four teenagers in the house some days could have been so much easier.

    The APS training sounds awesome and completely crazy. I love how you related the experience to problem solving in life. At our home we try to look at present problems or situations and put them in the perspective of the big picture. Will it matter 5 or 10 years from now and is it worth our time now? Great post!

  5. Great Post! “Emotion Management” should be a required course in high school and in college. As an educator, too often, I see boths students and staff who could benefit from such a course.

    From a student perspective- they’re dealing with an incredible amount of peer pressure combined with family issues. I was interrupted just now by the sound of an angry student tossing a chair in the hallway. How’s that for time? And the staff- Although the staff hold the required credentials for their positions, quite often- the credentials don’t prepare educators to effectively respond under “uncertainty and fear” resulting in poor outcomes.

    I attibute 20 years of gaming experience to my ability to handle moments of uncertanty.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  6. mchoya

    Your post makes me realize this type of emotional management training should be at the top of the list when it comes to societal need. Of course, I can only start by taking responsibility for myself, but as I was following the implications of that out I saw the vast potential of problems that could be solved at personal, interpersonal and social levels. Major food for thought!!

    1. Flight training during my teen years provided ample training in this regard. There are many other ways to develop emotional maturity and I agree, they should be emphasized as a part of a well-balanced upbringing!

  7. Henry Frey

    Thanks for the insider’s perspective on the APS Training. I really enjoyed it. Some react to the small things with the physical and emotional stress symptoms as a “fully aggravated inverted 14 revolution spin”. We wear out quickly on that basis and cause a lot of unnecessary stress on our environment, and for what? Great suggestions you present for consideration!

  8. Doug

    I wish there was an Emergency Upset Recovery Training course for business. In this economy I could have used it. Great post. Great analogy. The training sounds incredible. Do most professional pilots go through it?

    1. I don’t think that many pilots do. The small group I trained with included two military pilots and an airline captain. All three were awed by the experience as it is not something you encounter in traditional flight training programs.

  9. Brad

    Love this post Gregg – reminds me of Wilderness Emergency Medical Training from years ago. We were taught to assess trauma situations, evaluating resources and maintaining long term vision – wilderness rescues take time and the scene is typically not pretty – overreacting doesn’t help, it only interferes with rescue efforts.
    We were encouraged to practice drill and rehearse, practice drill and rehearse – however I found that nothing completely prepares you for the real deal but I was better able to work the situation at hand – otherwise I might have only contributed to the ciaos

  10. Foxglove

    I have to admire the prior generation’s fortitude – most folks over history faced the uncertainty of even basic living requirements – was there going to be enough food to feed the family – today, tomorrow? Every day life was fundamentally uncertain, and those who tended to fare well did so by their attitudes. Living is not just surviving, it has more to do with keeping a sane and balanced mind, and having consistently stable emotional attitudes in life. Folks before us were grateful for whatever they were able to coax from nature, whatever their beliefs were to gift them. I can only imagine how long a demanding attitude would have lasted back then.
    I’ve been reading some classical literature these days, harcking back to those days not too long ago, and I see the essence of your words reflected nicely. You better believe there is uncertainty today here in the West, in developed countries, and we must encourage the right fortitude to engage with life constructively.
    Thank you

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