I’ve got an attitude problem, it’s unusual

I’m always impressed with the amazing abilities of the human brain. Today I experienced how the brain sets priorities for the body. I spent 30 minutes doing unusual attitude recovery drills on a moderately turbulent day. I felt fine while in the air, I think it was because my brain knew I had to focus on flying. Once I was on the ground my stomach went a little sour. I wasn’t close to being sick but I wasn’t exactly feeling great. Enough of that, here are the flying lessons I learned today.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with unusual attitude recovery, it’s performed while you are “under the hood” which means you can’t see outside are flying using instrument references only. The purpose of the exercise is to simulate a condition at night or inadvertent flight into IMC (instrument meteorological conditions, aka flying into a cloud). During the disorientation you could experience turbulence, confusion, or a distraction. This could even be brought on by being poorly trimmed, which means you are fighting the controls to maintain attitude. You get distracted, let the controls go for a second, and the plane does whatever it was trimmed for.
You need to quickly recognize that you are in an unusual attitude and recover before things get worse.
The instructor takes control of the plane and you close your eyes. The instructor attempts to “trick” you and your senses doing various maneuvers that puts the plane in an attitude other than straight and level. Then he tells you to open your eyes and gives you control back. It’s your responsibility to quickly identify the attitude you are in and return to a straight and level controlled attitude.
At first it was a really strange feeling, like closing your eyes on a roller coaster, except when you open your eyes you need to figure out how to keep the train on the rails.
Unusual Attitudes Track
After a couple attempts, it actually turns into a surprisingly fun and challenging exercise. I was hoping to have a video covering both external and instrument views to better explain the process but somehow one camera turned on in my bag and drained the battery (I have great footage of the inside of a flight bag if anyone is interested). I’ll get a reliable setup for the next round. For now I’ll just explain the process.

When you open your eyes and take control, the key is to quickly identify your attitude. Are you in a climb or descent? Are you risking a stall or pushing Va or Vne? Are you in a bank?

Recognize – these instrument scans need to happen quickly, but make sure you know what you are looking at and process the result and don’t just look

  1. The airspeed indicator, altimeter, and attitude indicator can give you a quick status of whether you are climbing or descending. Airspeed can be a quick indicator. Speed decreasing=climb, speed increasing=descent. Greater the rate of change represents a steeper attitude. The important point is that you shouldn’t focus on a single instrument, your need to use everything you have available. The airspeed  is important to identify whether you are at risk of stall or overspending, and the altimeter is critical if you are approaching terrain.
  2. To identify whether you are in a bank, refer to the attitude indicator horizon and the directional gyro heading.

Recovery of nose-high orientation (speed is decreasing, you are climbing)

  1. Quickly apply power to prevent additional lose of speed and recover to a sufficient speed.
  2. Pitch down to prevent a stall. Plus you may start climbing more once you apply power, depending on how low the power was before.
  3. Monitor the attitude indicator horizon and turn coordinator while leveling the wings using coordinated controls.
  4. Adjust power and trim as needed to maintain level controlled flight.
  5. Continue monitoring instruments for controlled attitude, speed, and heading.

Recovery of nose-low orientation (speed is increasing, you are descending)

  1. Quickly reduce power to prevent additional lose of altitude and prevent excessive speed.
  2. Monitor the attitude indicator horizon and turn coordinator while leveling the wings using coordinated controls. It’s important to level the wings before pitching up. If you are in a steep turn and attempt to raise the nose, you risk increasing your rate of turn which would increase the load on the wings.
  3. Gradually (as to prevent stalling) raise the nose to level.
  4. Adjust power and trim as needed to maintain level controlled flight.
  5. Resume breathing and be glad you didn’t see the view looking at the ground approaching.
  6. Continue monitoring instruments for controlled attitude, speed, and heading.

The key during the recovery is to not trust your senses, even if you think you have spidey senses. Depending on the orientation and the corrections you need to apply it’s easy to confuse your senses. Today I noticed while recovering from a steep bank that my body was telling me I was level while the turn coordinator and attitude indicator said otherwise. Stop listening to your body, it’s like the VSI, it will catch up after a slight delay.

I’m still in the learning process, which includes replaying my lesson once the video renders. I’ll add anything I missed when I post about the next outing. The process and human effects are discussed in the FAA Instrument Flying Handbook if you want to read more.
After just a single session, I can already see the value of improving the reaction time and muscle memory for proper recovery. This is probably something that you should keep current on throughout your pilot life. In case it’s not obvious, the Airplane Flying Handbook recommends “Recovery from unusual attitudes should also be practiced, but only on dual flights with a flight instructor.”. Did someone really think it was a good idea to practice this on solo flights? I’ll definitely being leveraging X-Plane to help build on this. Maybe I’ll let my wife take the controls for a bit, that should be good enough to get into an unusual attitude. 🙂

I also tried a new IFR hood today. I didn’t like the flight school’s hood since it was too easy to sneak a view even if I wasn’t trying. Some of the challenge was my height and a tall angle of view to the instruments. I took a leap of faith and invested a whopping $5 (luckily it was free shipping) to checkout The Best IFR Hood. Sure it got a few strange looks around the office, but it worked out great. It was easy to put on and take off without removing my headset or sunglasses, it was light weight, and I could adjust it as needed to completely block out the outside view. I’m sure I already generated some orders, too bad there’s no room in the $5 to cover my commission.


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