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.