Value of URT


A Response to an article by Mac McClellan in Air Facts, “Why Upset Training Just Doesn’t Work.”

By Bruce Williams IAC 27782


Mac is a careful writer (and thinker), and he makes several good points about URT that echo arguments long made about other areas of flight training, especially spin training. But his central point is based on a straw-man argument that the URT and aerobatics communities may have inadvertently helped him set up.

I hesitate to put words in Mac’s mouth, but I think he meant, in part, to raise a key issue with URT courses. Namely, that URT students often seem to think the training will allow them to escape an upset in most (all?) circumstances. And some URT providers and advocates at least imply that the training can deliver on that goal.

But just as with spin training, we know that's not the case, at least in the specific circumstances Mac wrote about. If an airplane, at or below traffic pattern altitude, departs into an incipient spin or flips inverted, nose-down, it's unlikely that even a well-trained, experienced aerobatic pilot could recover before the aircraft hits the ground. That’s particularly true of larger aircraft such as business jets and airliners.

But that's not why "spin training" and are URT are valuable. "Spin training" (except for aerobatic pilots practicing competition spins or learning how to recover from botched maneuvers) is really about avoiding spins—learning what causes an airplane abruptly to depart controlled flight, and what those circumstances look, sound, and feel like, so that you can anticipate and prevent dangerous situations from developing. Should things get too close to the edge, you will have had some experience taking the correct actions to stop the sequence before it develops into an unrecoverable upset. We practice slow flight and stalls in basic flight training for the same reasons.

In my experience as a URT instructor, URT accomplishes several worthy goals in addition to the benefits mentioned above.

First, flying basic aerobatic maneuvers and a variety of stalls, spins, and departures from controlled flight (that are safe to perform only in an aerobatic aircraft) clarifies abstract concepts about angle of attack, stalls, load factors, and the like.

A good URT course also emphasizes how to correlate the training to real-world situations you might encounter, even in a business jet. For example, the pilots of a Challenger 604 jet upset in the flight levels by the wake of an A380 super jumbo in 2017 (see an account of the incident here: might have benefited from URT.

URT also vastly improves the confidence most pilots have in using all of the flight controls as necessary to make the airplane do what you want it to do, even in more ordinary circumstances, such as landing with gusty crosswinds. In that respect, URT is just like training to fly tailwheel airplanes, gliders, multiengine aircraft, floatplanes, etc. It expands your knowledge and skills, regardless of the type of aircraft you usually fly.

In addition, URT addresses a key issue that affects pilots in all stressful situations, but especially in loss-of-control incidents: Startle factor.

You're unlikely to respond effectively the first time the airplane suddenly departs stable flight, wings-level or from a standard, coordinated turn, into an overbank that exceeds 45-60 degrees (not necessarily > 90 degrees or inverted) with an abrupt pitch down.

Every flight instructor has seen the startle effect in action when students first experience stalls. In fact, I often see the startle factor (and its cousin, anticipatory dread) when I ask flight review customers—many of them experienced pilots—to demonstrate even basic stalls. At the break, a wing drops, and the instinctive response, heightened by the fear of a spin, is applying aileron against the yaw-induced roll.

Another, more dramatic example, emphasizes the key point about the startle effect. In my experience, even after a student and I brief recoveries from inverted and watch a couple of videos, and even after I demonstrate the maneuver, many (> 50 percent) of pilots try to recover by pulling through what amounts to a split-S. That instinct, driven by the startle factor, is strong.

An incident from 2006 (NTSB incident (SEA07IA019) is a specific example of how the startle effect can almost lead to disaster. A C172 on a long final approach encountered the wake turbulence from a B747 (in fact the Dreamlifter variant) that was flying an approach to a parallel runway. The wake flipped the student and instructor, and, as the NTSB report notes, “Recovery was completed about 150 feet above the terrain.”

Now, Mac would probably argue that proper training would have ensured that the CFI would recognize and avoid the hazard in the first place. Heroic measures shouldn’t have been necessary. Indeed, the NTSB report cites the instructor’s decision-making and failure to avoid the situation as the probable cause.

But we can’t always anticipate or recognize every potential hazard (think back to the Challenger 604 incident), and in this incident, with which I’m familiar, the startled instructor pulled the airplane through a recovery resembling a split-S. Had the upset occurred just a little later during the approach—and therefore at a lower altitude—the outcome would have been another fatal LOC accident. URT might have improved the margin of safety, however, given that this incident occurred outside the traffic pattern at a relatively high altitude AGL.

To help illustrate the key point about startle factor, here's a link to a series of videos on my YouTube channel (BruceAirFlying) that show stalls, spins, and related maneuvers.

For example, here’s a loop that includes several accelerated stalls—a great lesson for the student in how and why a wing can stall at any attitude and any airspeed.

And here are a couple clips that show recovery from inverted, using an aileron roll (eventually with one-and-half-rolls from upright to inverted) to simulate the disorientation you might experience during a wake turbulence encounter or similar upset.

First a demo:

Now the wrong way:

And finally, some practice rolling out such an encounter:

For a more detailed discussion of my point of view on URT, here's a link to an article I wrote for the November 2017 issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine: The Right Formula.

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