You’ve just successfully completed another intensive multi-day course of simulator training. Once again, you’ve been through it all, just like six to 12 months earlier. Engine failures and fires, hydraulic and brake malfunctions, wind shears on short final, comm and nav radio breakdowns, blown tires and crosswind landings.

Sim training has long been recognized as essential to safety of flight. It’s so rigorous, it’s almost gained the stature of a professional rite. But sim training alone does not guarantee you have all the knowledge and skills to be truly safe in the cockpit.

“It’s all part of our company’s culture, the industry’s culture today. We’re told, ‘You don’t need to know that.’ Look, we’re all decent pilots. We just don’t have the tools to be great pilots,” says one regional airline pilot. “We just check boxes in the sim and go back to flying the line. Give us the tools!”

David Ryan, director of flight operations for a San Diego-based corporation and vice chairman of the NBAA Safety Committee, says, “Simulator training certainly is a required part of the process for skill sets. But even with scenario-based training, it’s a block-check exercise after 20 years, less of a new learning process.”

Ryan actually doesn’t discount the value of FAR Part 142 simulator training, especially when it’s customized for an operator’s specific needs. “In real life, we don’t need to fly the canned missed approach out of Memphis in our aircraft, even though it’s part of the sim syllabus. A lot of our arrivals at home in San Diego are at night, flown through the [coastal low cloud] marine layer. We need to know how to go around from San Diego-Montgomery or Palomar-McClellan, fly the missed approaches and then divert to Gillespie, Brown, Ramona or Lindbergh.” That’s the type of tailored sim training he wants.

Beyond that, he says, “There’s a whole laundry list of things you need outside of sim training, including upset training, SMS, CRM, international operations, hypoxia training and MEL [minimum equipment list] training, among others.”

As cofounder of Bombardier Safety Standdown, Ryan helped orchestrate the Montreal firm’s famed three-day course of knowledge-based training, including water survival skills, performing CPR and using automatic electric defibrillators, general first-aid skills, understanding aerodynamic and structural flight envelope limits, CRM and aviation psychology, fatigue management and cockpit discipline, and flight physiology.

The Basics — Applied Aerodynamics

Most simulator training involves controlling the aircraft relatively close to the ground, in the vicinity of certain airports, during approach, landing, takeoff and initial departure. While upset recognition and recovery exercises are included in most syllabi, loss-of-control mishaps, particularly ones that occur at high altitude, continue to be problematic.

Loss-of-control events indeed have overtaken controlled flight into terrain as the leading cause of fatal accidents in transport category aircraft. The NTSB in recent years has urged the FAA to require upset training for air transport pilots. Accident analyses indicate that stalls, ice contamination, wake turbulence and spatial disorientation, along with flight control malfunctions, are leading causes of loss-of-control fatal accidents.

One of the most notable and preventable loss-of-control accidents occurred in October 2004, when the pilots of Pinnacle Airlines Flight 3701 attempted to force the Bombardier CRJ200 they were ferrying up to FL 410. Trading speed for altitude, they stalled the aircraft and both engines flamed out. While they were able to regain control, they never let the speed build up sufficiently to air start the engines. They rode the empty jet down to a fiery crash near Jefferson City, Missouri, where they both perished.

These pilots, among many others who routinely fly in the stratosphere, were unaware of the risks associated with pushing to the edges of the high-altitude flight envelope. They lacked knowledge of essential high-altitude aerodynamic concepts, such as the characteristics of super-critical airfoils, critical Mach number and drag divergence Mach number, along with compressibility, shock waves and Mach buffet boundaries.

In the wake of Pinnacle 3701, it’s reasonable to presume that operators would have instituted more comprehensive high-altitude training programs for their flight crews. Yet, more than a decade later, commercial jet flight crews’ knowledge of high-altitude aerodynamics remains woefully deficient.

Recently, for example, the FAA imposed severe speed and altitude restrictions on CRJ pilots at one regional air carrier after flight crews were involved in more than a dozen incipient high-altitude stalls over several months. The carrier’s vice president of flight operations was compelled to send this letter to all of its CRJ pilots:

“. . . [E]ffective Monday, June 22 at 08:00Z, an amendment to our Operations Specifications will mandate the following operational limitations:

“CRJ200 operations are limited to FL 280 and below with a minimum cruise airspeed of 250 kt. indicated airspeed.

“CRJ700/900 operations are limited to FL 350 and below with a minimum cruise speed of Mach 0.74 or 250 kt. indicated airspeed [whichever is less] . . . Compliance with these altitude and speed limits is mandatory.”

However, if this regional’s pilots were skilled at flying in the high-altitude environment, they could safely climb to and cruise at optimum jet altitudes for better fuel efficiency, lower direct operating costs and reduced carbon emissions.

Credit: CAEClassroom training or distance-based learning, while helpful, isn’t sufficient by itself. High-altitude loss-of-control and recovery maneuvers have to be practiced in the cockpit. Yet, practicing upset recovery in full-motion flight simulators has historically been of limited value because of the fidelity constraints of most of these training devices. Manufacturers incorporate actual flight data for most simulator scenarios. But once the machine goes beyond +/-60 deg. of bank, 35 deg. nose up and 30 deg. nose down, when slower than the first indication of stall and faster than Vmo or Mmo, its behavior is based upon wind-tunnel data and extrapolation, rather than demonstrated aircraft performance. In addition, no Part 121 or Part 142 training center flight simulators are capable of g loading or unloading.

A FlightSafety International Gulfstream G550 full-flight simulator recently became the first FFS to receive qualification from the FAA’s National Simulator Program for Upset Prevention and Recovery Training. To accomplish that, the training worked with Gulfstream to expand the simulator’s aerodynamic, flight control and motion models, using actual aircraft flight-test information, wind-tunnel testing and analytical data, including low speeds that replicate deep aerodynamic stalls and extreme high speeds.

Meanwhile, the limitations of legacy simulators have caused Ryan, among many other flight department managers, to have crews undergo upset formal recovery training in aircraft. Ryan uses APS (Aircraft Performance Solutions) LLC, with headquarters at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Delta Air Lines recently also selected APS to provide its senior instructors with upset training at its Dallas base. The training company also has operations in Amsterdam and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The APS course starts with computer-based training and ground school that teaches about the risks of loss of control in instrument meteorological conditions, how to recognize incipient loss of control and how to recover from loss-of-control incidents.

Students then practice recognition and recovery maneuvers in fully aerobatic Extra 300 aircraft. High-performance aircraft training in surplus U.S. Navy/Douglas TA-4J Skyhawks also is available.

Several other firms offer upset prevention and recovery training in high-performance aircraft. Lee Lauderback’s Unusual Attitude Training program at Kissimmee Gateway Airport near Orlando, Florida, for instance, provides ground school training that focuses on recognizing spatial disorientation and other illusions that can result from upsets. The program, which served as a basis for James Albright’s “Keeping Cool Through Upset” (B&CA, May 2015, page 63), also includes an introduction to the aerodynamics associated with upsets and recoveries, teaching students how to recover with the least altitude loss and stress on the aircraft.

Lauderback’s unusual attitude training is conducted in a tandem seat Czech Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross, a high-performance military trainer, modified with EFIS and a videocam system for debriefing. The L-39 exposes students to speeds, g forces and control loading typical of the business jets they fly. Lauderback also offers training in a two-seat North American TF-51 Mustang, enabling clients to experience the flying characteristics of the iconic World War II fighter.

Flight Research at the Mojave, California, airport is another firm that offers upset recognition and recovery training. Its ground school is one of the best, as it teaches students about transport category certification loads and limits, what happens when pilots exceed the aircraft’s certified flight envelope and how stalling angle of attack is influenced by Mach effects. Unusual attitude recovery flight training is conducted in several aircraft, including three North American NA-265 Sabreliners and a fully aerobatic Aermacchi MB-326 Impala jet, approved for spins.

Instructors at Flight Research emphasize the value of using Sabreliners and the Impala for upset recovery training compared to flying light, aerobatic aircraft.
“You can’t learn to drive an 18-wheel semi-truck by racing around in a Corvette,” says Scott Glaser, the firm’s operations manager.

High-Altitude Flight Physiology

Rapid loss of pressurization is a highly unlikely event in turbine aircraft. It’s more likely you could experience a failure to pressurize after takeoff and gradual climb of cabin altitude. One cause might be that you’ve inadvertently skipped an item on a pre-takeoff checklist, such as not switching on the engine bleed to the pressurization system in a vintage Learjet or Eclipse 500. Several other business aircraft models have bleed air systems that normally are turned off during ground operations in warm weather to avoid heating the cabin.

Military pilots routinely undergo flight physiology training, including experiencing loss of pressurization in a hypobaric (altitude) chamber. They learn to recognize their own symptoms of hypoxia in the chamber while under the close supervision of instructors who accompany them. Most often, the symptoms of hypoxia are insidious. If you don’t put on your oxygen mask and start an emergency descent at the first sign of hypoxia, you may lose consciousness before you can recover.

Ryan says he requires all his pilots to complete hypobaric chamber training once. They then experience reduced oxygen breathing device hypoxia training every two years.

How essential is altitude chamber training? “Analysis of USAF Hypoxia Incidents,” a paper authored by Richard Island and Earl Fraley for the 1993 31st Annual SAFE symposium, provides clear answers. The authors note that more than 650 hypoxia incidents were reported to the U.S. Air Force’s safety center between January 1976 and March 1990, and of those, crews with altitude chamber exposure accounted for 3.8% of those suffering loss of consciousness. By contrast, untrained crews experienced a 94% loss of consciousness.

The NTSB notes that between 1965 and 1990 hypoxia was a factor in 40 civil aircraft accidents that claimed 67 lives. During the same period, the USAF lost one aircraft and one pilot due to hypoxia.

The authors also noted “the effectiveness of high-altitude physiology chamber training has been questioned.” Indeed, they acknowledged that chamber training only is one part of a comprehensive high-altitude physiology education program that should include “hyperventilation, decompression sickness, trapped gasses, vision and visual limitations” among other topics.

Still, the USAF statistics are compelling. Pilots who did not undergo altitude chamber training were almost 25 times more likely to lose consciousness because of hypoxia than those who had experienced a chamber run.

Experiencing the effects of a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD) is the next best thing to altitude chamber training. While it lacks the shock-and-awe of the rapid decompression event in the chamber, it can be valuable in teaching pilots to recognize the insidious effects of hypoxia.

Our first experience with ROBD was at Bombardier Safety Standdown, where we donned an O2 mask in a cockpit simulator on a stage in front of 500 people in the audience. Slowly, the N2 concentration of the gas mixture being supplied to the mask was increased while we were attempting to fly the simulator, program the flight guidance systems and respond to simulated ATC radio calls.

After missing several ATC calls, we raised a hand. That signaled the ROBD operator to turn on 100% O2 to the mask. Within seconds, we recovered. Then, watching a video replay on the scenario, we could see performance degradation occurring long before we recognized the effects of hypoxia and signaled for help.

To reacquaint his crews with the symptoms and hazards of hypoxia, Ryan has his flight crews undergo periodic ROBD training. Some Part 142 simulator training companies now offer ROBD training as an option.

High-Altitude Meteorology

The crash of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009 off the coast of Brazil focused the aviation industry’s attention on the potential hazards associated with high-altitude convective activity in the intertropical convergence zone, where the tops of mesoscale convective complex storms often reach FL 600 or higher. A half century ago, Joanne Malkus Simpson, a world-renowned atmospheric scientist, described the tropics as the “firebox” of the heat engines that power global weather systems. The “firebox” can push the tropopause to 56,000 ft. or higher, a level through which tropical thunderstorms often overshoot.

Herbert Reihl, Ernst Kleinschmidt and Horace Byers, among other mid-20th century meteorologists, taught us that heat energy and evaporation of ocean water in the tropics fuels the development of hurricanes and typhoons, as well as lesser storm systems.

The tropical heat engine also very much influences the formation of jet streams, which occurs between the boundaries of the three distinct circulation cells or zones: (1) equator to subtropics at about 30 deg. latitude (Hadley cell); (2) 30 deg. to 60 deg. latitude in the temperate zones (Ferrell cell); and (3) 60 deg. latitude to the poles (polar cell). Atmospheric temperature differences between the three zones cause jet streams to form near the tropopause. The greater the temperature differential between the two cells, the stronger the jet stream becomes.

Jet streams can be thousands of miles long, hundreds of miles wide and 5 to 6 mi. thick. The boundaries of the Hadley, Ferrell and polar cells meander due to winds and weather variations, plus local heating or cooling over land or water masses. Thus, the paths of the jet streams can resemble rivers. The polar jet can wind between 30 deg. and 60 deg. latitude while the subtropical jet can wander between 20 deg. and 35 deg.

In winter, when polar air masses are colder, the strongest jet streams form, ones created at the boundary of the Ferrell and polar cells. Depending upon temperature differences in the winter, polar jet speeds can reach 100 to 250 kt., or faster. The lack of atmospheric heating at higher latitudes results in a lower tropopause. Thus, polar jets typically occur at 17,000 to 33,000 ft.

Subtropical jet streams, formed at the boundary of the tropical and temperate circulations, generally are weaker than polar jet streams because of lower temperature differentials between the two zones. Warmer temperatures cause the tropopause to be higher. Thus, subtropical jet streams typically flow at 36,000 to 52,000 ft. Subtropical jet streams typically dissipate in summer months and polar jets weaken.

As clear air turbulence often is associated with the shears between the cores of the jet streams and slower flows in the adjacent circulatory cells, it’s essential to know how to detect if or when you’re going to encounter it. The steepest wind shears, along with the steepest outside air temperature gradients, usually occur on the high latitude, or cyclonic, side of the jet’s core. That’s the north side in the northern hemisphere. Sharp wind gradients also are present at and above the tropopause. Thus, if you want to ride the jet to speed you to your destination, you’re least likely to encounter clear air turbulence if you approach the core from the anti-cyclonic, or south side, of the jet stream and from below the core of the jet.

Infrared satellite images often can show the locations of jet streams. Cirrus clouds often form on the lower latitude side of the jet stream core. Constant pressure charts and wind/temperature charts also show the locations of jet streams.

A thorough understanding of high-altitude weather can make the difference between a smooth, safe, swift flight and a potentially hazardous trip that subjects the aircraft and it occupants to needless risk.

Investment in Continuing Education

Beyond the basics of high-altitude aerodynamics, flight physiology and meteorology, there are dozens of aviation industry safety meetings each year that offer participants deep dives into other topics. These can include icing and international operations, first aid and CPR, wildlife strike threats and cockpit resource management, along with automation addiction, crew scheduling and fatigue management, and improving situational awareness. Equally valuable is the free time between sessions where participants can “hangar fly” with others to discuss challenges they share in their aviation organizations and come up with solutions.

Bombardier Safety Standdown is one of the most valuable forums for learning and exchanging information. The Flight Safety Foundation, trade associations and government organizations also sponsor learning enrichment seminars.

Many aviation organizations send one or two representatives to such industry forums, after which they return home and report what they’ve learned to others at all pilots meetings.

However, participating in such learning enrichment programs requires a substantial investment beyond what flight departments spend on simulator training. One aviation manager quipped, “We had to move the decimal point in our annual training budget” to accommodate the extra training. Today, the flight department spends nearly 10 times as much on professional education, including considerably more on simulator training.

Some aviation organizations are unable or unwilling to make such a major financial commitment, even though attending such programs would substantially improve operational safety margins. But there are many other continuing education options.

There are dozens of distance-learning programs for education while at home or on layovers. King Schools, for instance, offers courses on RVSM pilot certification, oceanic RNP and international flight operations, plus MNPS, ETOPS and P-RNAV/B-RNAV, along with RNAV pilot qualification, ADS-B and crew resource management, among many other programs.

For flight departments on the leanest budgets, there are dozens of online resources available for free through the government, educational institutions and trade associations. Exchange of information through affiliated group websites and social media also can boost technical knowledge. All it takes is a willingness to invest time in knowledge enrichment.

Simulator training indeed is essential, but it alone simply isn’t sufficient to provide flight crews with all the skills and knowledge needed to assure the highest safety margins. The most critical supplement knowledge elements revolve around the high-altitude operating environment. But there are dozens of other aspects to operating jet aircraft that require comprehensive study as well.

True pilot proficiency demands commitment to learning during one’s entire professional aviation career. It’s an investment that can save your life. B&CA

This article appears in the August 2015 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation with the title "Fully Educated."