Question of the Month: How Can We Be Better Prepared for Unexpected In-Flight Situations?

As club safety officers, we, your Flying Clubs Crew (Steve and Drew) regularly use the FAASTeam WINGS program’s Topic of the Month (ToM) and we present the provided material—generously tweaked and localized—during club safety meetings.  Then, every month, in the Club Connector safety section, we provide downloadable PDFs of our PowerPoint slides to ensure that other clubs’ safety officers always have something useful and meaningful to present at their clubs’ monthly meetings.  This month’s safety section is here.

You can find more on our recommendations for flying club safety and proficiency programs, in the May 2020 Question of the Month and Flying Clubs Radio Edition 8.

We adhere quite closely to the FAASTeam ToM theme, but we take the opportunity to add experienced-based content and local stories to make the presentations a bit more relevant to our audience.  Sometimes—only very occasionally—we find ourselves pondering the provided material, and the topic of the month for February 2022 FAASTeam was one of those occasions.

Now, taken as a standalone subject, the February ToM—"Expanding Your Horizons: Stall, Spin and Aircraft Upset Training” seems reasonable enough.  The basic premise is that you can (and indeed will) expand your knowledge if you undertake such training—no argument there.  But to understand our position (that of a more linear progression up the incline of experience), you need to look back at the January 2022 ToM, “The Startle Response”.  This was a very good treatment of the deep-rooted human psychological and physiological responses to surprise.  We learnt that these evolved responses can indeed save us if we are confronted with a startle event.  The rub is, of course, that we have evolved as ground creatures and the flight, fight or freeze responses will not do us much good in the air—in fact these very responses that may keep us alive on the ground could kill us in the air. 

In our version of the January ToM presentation, we pushed beyond the initial slides and looked further than the startle response itself, towards actually trying to do something about.  You can find the presentation, here.  By understanding more about the human response—ingrained things such as “limbic highjack”—we determined that we need to train further in order to embed in our heads some more appropriate responses.  Essentially, that we need tools to overload and supplant our evolved reactions. 

In aviation we talk a lot about “reverting to our training” as a way to help us handle various situations, but of course this will only work if we have actually performed the appropriate training.   Moreover, we will only be better at handling unusual events if we have trained and practiced for them—that is, the unusual events.  Note the two parts to this:  we must first train to deposit that knowledge in our library of experience, and then we must practice it, regularly, to keep it “in our heads”—to ensure that we can actually pull it out, quickly, when needed.  We (should) be doing this with “emergency procedures” listed in the POH, and we (should) be practicing these regularly…at least every 24-calendar months as part of the ritual of the flight review, although that really doesn’t quite cut it as “regularly”, does it?

Anyway…the February 2022 FAASTeam ToM is now available, and in its unabridged form, is entitled: "Expanding Your Horizons: Stall, Spin and Aircraft Upset Training”.  It is a very good reminder of loss of control accident statistics and, as you would expect from the FAASTeam, it emphasizes the need for proficiency training…but it then launches into the benefits of aerobatic and upset recovery training as if this was the only way forward.  This got us thinking.  Just coming off the January ToM, are we saying that the best way to train for in-flight startles and other unusual situations is to do extreme maneuver training? 

Don’t get us wrong here—and remember that Steve’s club, the Westminster Aerobats Flying Club, enjoys flying an Aerobat—we fully support and encourage pilots to expand their horizons and widen their comfort zones by doing different types of training, and we applauded the FAASTeam for recognizing that different can be good…but does it follow that this has to, at least initially, involve loops, spins, rolls, and so on? 

Furthermore, from Steve’s experience conducting flight reviews, a large proportion of certificated pilots state “oh…I don’t like that” when asked to do 45-degree steep turns and the rather tame straight-and-level slow flight and power-off stalls.  How many of these pilots then, realistically, are likely to enroll in a full-blown upset recovery course, and of those, how many will do it beyond just a checked-off bucket-list item and remain proficient, long-term?  So, rather than suggesting that people undertake extreme types of training that most will probably not enjoy (or positively recall), perhaps we could get close to the desired result—safer, proficient pilots who stand a better chance of getting out of tricky situations— by working on more familiar maneuvers, but differently.  Put another way, apart from accidents resulting from complete spatial disorientation and those people who “try” aerobatics without any training, isn’t it more likely that pilots will get into situations such as inadvertent level stalls from slowing down without flaps on an extended downwind, or potential stall-spin accidents from overshooting final due to a tailwind on base?  If the answer is yes, and we believe it is, we suggest that before we launch into full-blown aerobatics where every sensation is going to be new and intense, perhaps we should strive to perfect the maneuvers that we should already know and, well, often “don’t like”.

This is the basis of our version of E3—Expanded Envelope Exercises.  The point is to work on familiar maneuvers like slow flight, steep turns, stall recoveries, go-arounds, power-off procedures, and so on, but to actually train to improve how we do them.  So, rather than just “doing”, say, a one-off stall and recovery, let’s spend some focused time on really understanding what is going on, why it happened and how we can train our responses and reactions for quick and correct recovery.  The maneuver itself is not new, but we can learn much by treating and doing it, differently.

Let’s look at some examples that are more applicable to everyday flight.  Going a bit further, remember that the Airman’s Certification Standards (ACS) is just that—a document that lists the exercises and standards of required performance for certification evaluation.  The powers-that-be have determined that the ACS tasks allow an examiner to evaluate the performance of the candidate pilot.  Clearly, not every possible in-flight scenario can be covered during a check ride, so these tasks are presumably designed to illustrate “mastery” of the airplane within a limited period of time. 

Going even further, we would hope… no, we should expect…that through normal proficiency, we maintain our ability to perform ACS tasks to the same standards.  Just repeating a few of them every 24-calendar months simply keeps you where you were, rather than expanding your horizons and growing as an aviator.  In other words, a flight review that just focuses on the ACS is insufficient and probably quite boring.  Moreover, you are not getting good value for money from the CFI conducting the review.  This, then, is the opportunity.  Apart from well-known exceptions (like earning a new certificate or rating which automatically ratchets you up the experience ladder), we know that we will have to do a flight review every 24-calendar months, or even better, earn a phase of WINGS.  The former gets you flying with a CFI every 24 months, whilst the latter gets you in the air with a CFI 3 times a year.  Umm…let’s see…A or B…

Examples exercises:

  1. There are few times when you should be in slow flight when straight and level, but it is a useful exercise to “calibrate” your aircraft and your ability to get to do what you want it to do.
    1. Create a table with column headings of RPM, Pitch Angle, and IAS. In the RPM column, write down RPM from cruise to slow flight…so for a C172, it will be 2,500, 2,400…1,500.
    2. From trimmed cruise flight, reduce the throttle to 2500, keep the plane level with more nose-up pitch, and trim. Note the IAS.
    3. Repeat for all the other RMP settings, remembering to use carb heat when appropriate.
    4. You now have a power-pitch-performance table for your aircraft. For example, targeting 80 knots on downwind, flaps retracted? The RPM is X, and the pitch is +Y.
    5. Tower asked you to extend downwind due to traffic? Well, you’ll probably want to slow to, say, 65 knots, to avoid flying into the next county before turning base. From the table, RPM is A and pitch will be B.
    6. Now practice slowing to different speeds. Challenge yourself to get from cruise to some target speed in 20 seconds…reduce power to idle, pitch up to maintain altitude as the plane slows down and when at the target airspeed, increase power and set pitch to the recorded values. Done!


  2. Slow flight with full flaps. Repeat the above exercise but this time with full flaps and at speeds below VFE
    1. Complete a table for speeds of, say 70, 65, 60, 55, 50, 45 Kts. (Adjust for slow flight in your plane).
    2. Again, challenge yourself. From cruise, power to idle, maintaining heading and altitude, deploy flaps when in the white arc, get into slow flight at the target speed in 20 seconds.
    3. When you are there and trimmed, practice imminent stall recoveries. Leaving power alone, raise the nose to the first indication. Relax back pressure, the indication goes away. This is developing the reaction to relax or push when approaching a stall which has been instilled into airline pilots since several high-profile stall accidents a few years ago. Remember the key is to reduce the angle of attack, regardless of speed.
    4. Now mix in some slow flight turns to really feel how the airplane behaves and how it is trying very hard to tell you that it would rather be flying faster—and it is you that is stopping it.


  3. Descending slow flight. This one makes far more sense to us, as we are in this situation on every approach and landing.
    1. Pick a descent target—say 500FPM (which works for almost every descent in small airplanes).
    2. Create 4 similar tables, one for each case of no flaps, first notch, second notch and full flaps.
    3. From cruise at altitude, reduce power, allow the plane to descend at 500FPM, then adjust power and pitch to maintain 500FPM at the target airspeed. Do this for speeds such as 80, 70, 60…knots.
    4. From these tables, we can find the targets for pattern work. Downwind at 80Kts, no flaps, power is 1,900 RPM and pitch is +1 (or whatever).Abeam, in the white arc, carb heat on, first flap. Set power to 1,700 or whatever the table says. You get the idea!
    5. Bear in mind that with no flaps, you may not be able to get to some speeds as the throttle will already be at idle. Do whatever works for your plane.
    6. Steve always does this calibration exercise prior to teaching students about pattern work. Consistent numbers lead to consistent patterns, which leads to consistent approaches, which leads to consistent landings. If you don’t follow the numbers, every pattern will be different, and it becomes really difficult to learn how to land! Reducing the number of variables by following the numbers is the key to teaching good landings.


  4. Descending steep turns. The ACS requires that we teach level steep turns. As mentioned above, this is probably not a realistic maneuver for everyday flight, but it does force us to deal with coordination, load factor, over-banking tendency and accelerated stalls, so it is an “easy” way to illustrate our mastery of these factors to a pilot examiner. The problem is that it engrains in us the muscle memory to pull every time we turn. Perhaps a more useful exercise is the descending steep turn, at various airspeeds. This simple maneuver may well save your life if you find yourself becoming trapped in a valley and unable to climb out of it. You may remember that rate of turn and turn radius are related to speed-squared and bank angle, but have you ever seen it in action? Turning at a slower speed increases the rate of turn for a given bank angle, which will reduce the turn radius—you will turn quicker and need less space to do so. But you cry, executing a steeper turn will increase the “stall speed” of the aircraft. This exercise will expand your knowledge by proving to you that the increase in stall speed is all to do with load factor, and if you descend in the turn, rather than pull back to increase the vertical component of lift, the load on the wings remains unaltered, so the “stall speed” will not increase. If you slow, add flaps, turn, let the airplane descend, you can do a 180 in a remarkably small amount of space.


  5. Standard rate spiral decent. This is a fun maneuver that rewards you with the knowledge of how much altitude your plane will lose when doing a spiral descent at best glide speed when turning at standard rate. You can quite easily determine this theoretically from the aircraft’s glide angle, but it is more fun to fly it.
    1. From altitude, say 6,000’, note your heading or a prominent landmark, reduce power to idle (carb heat as appropriate), slow to best glide (and nail it), and enter a standard rate descending turn. After each revolution, note your altitude.
    2. Later, determine the altitude lost during each revolution and calculate the average for the rule of thumb.
    3. You’ll now be well positioned to practice spiral descents to a landing. If you are at, say, 6,500’ MSL and need to spiral to a landing at 500’ AGL, you need to lose 6,000’.Allow for a “normal” pattern entry, so you need to lose 5,000’ in the spirals. If the average altitude lost was 1,200’ (a fairly typical number for a C172), you can do 4 spirals and then be nicely set-up for downwind at 1,200’ AGL.
    4. Of course, wind drift will have to be taken into account, but if corrected on every turn, it won’t have much of impact on the end result.

There are others to practice as well.  These are all familiar maneuvers that you can—and should—be practicing during WINGS flight activities and most definitely during a flight review.  In fact, we challenge you to take back control of your flight review and push back on “one hour of ground and one hour of flight” and use it as opportunity to be better.  If your favorite instructor won’t do this, then find one who will, but don’t short-change yourself and your loved ones by not taking the opportunity to fly better and safer.

Here are some familiar exercises that you can strive to do better, and, even better, you can do them in your “normal category” club airplane—no special equipment required:

  • Level flight at different airspeeds (yes—really—there is much to learn here)
  • Level slow flight
  • Maneuvering during slow flight (“inadvertent slow flight and LOC”)
  • Descending slow flight (makes sense…every approach and landing)
  • Level steep turns—at least 30 and 45 degree
    • Overbanking tendency and feel the effects of wings loading!
  • Stall recovery exercises. S&L, turning, climbing, descending
  • Engine failure—best glide exercises, spiral descent at best glide and standard rate


  • Low passes…progressively lower. Nail drift control and alignment
    • Good prep for go-around. PUSH!!
  • Short field take-off and landings. Power as a flight control
  • Soft field take-off—get airborne and PUSH for airspeed
  • Sim work…take-off engine failure, etc.
  • Unusual attitude recovery. Turning, nose up, low power and turning, nose down, high power
  • Brief and verbalize the take-off including actions on power failure
    • Runway, abort point and procedure, no turn until…
  • Brief and verbalize the approach, go-around and landing
    • Runway, planned exit taxiway, flap settings, things to watch for (that aircraft at the hold line…)
    • Go-around procedure
  • Constantly strive for situational awareness
    • More than “where are we”…?
    • More than wondering “what’s it doing, now”..?
    • More than just monitoring…cross-check status of automation, systems, navigation, environment, yourself…

So, drawing this to a conclusion, and recognizing that loss of control accidents involving maneuvering have a 56% fatality rate (31st Nall Report), then it makes perfect sense that we do more training that involves maneuvering.  From experience during flight reviews, we believe that a big improvement in aviation safety can be achieved by doing familiar maneuvering exercises differently and better, such that we actually understand them and start to feel comfortable with them.  Perhaps we will even enjoy them!   In doing so, we will have increased our repertoire of experience, which will help us if we were to be startled by some unexpected event and, simultaneously, we will have expanded our personal comfort zones.  Then, then…it makes sense to go the extra mile and build on this continuum of knowledge by getting some more intense training, such as emergency upset recovery and aerobatics. 

Which, in time, I hope you will come to agree, is the best thing since hot buttered multigrain toast smothered with Marmite.

As always, fly safety and fly lots! 


For more information:

  • Example tables are here. You’ll have to tweak the numbers for the particular plane being used.

•    E3Expanded Envelope Exercises
Preventing Aircraft Loss of Control with Expanded Envelope Exercises
ASI Safety Spotlight—Expanding the Envelope 
•    14CFR 91.303             Aerobatic Flight
•    14CFR 91.307             Parachutes and Parachuting
•    AC No: 61-67C           Stall and Spin Awareness Training
•    FAA-H-8083                Airplane Flying Handbook

Stephen Bateman
Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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