For a VFR or an IFR pilot, an unusual attitude can be one of the most dangerous situations to get into. That is one reason so many new autopilots are being developed with a level button. The concept behind the level button is if the pilot gets into a disorienting situation, press the level button and the autopilot comes on, holding the airplane in a straight and level pitch attitude.
What about all those planes without autopilots that have a level button? That’s who this article is for.
First off, what is an unusual attitude? The Airplane Flying Handbook on page 4-17 gives the following definition: “An unusual attitude is commonly referenced as an unintended or unexpected attitude in instrument flight.” The AFH also goes on to say that an unusual attitude in training has no defined bank and pitch parameters, but “for training purposes an instructor could place the airplane in a 30 degree bank with a nose up pitch attitude of 15 degrees and ask the student to recover and that would be considered an unusual attitude….”
We now have a basis from the FAA. VFR Pilots are now saying, “Oh, instrument flight, that doesn’t apply to us.” Not so fast. The Private Pilot ACS (and before it, the PTS) has a requirement for Basic Attitude Instrument Flying, including unusual attitude recoveries. Why? Because VFR pilots still inadvertently fly into IMC conditions and can get into an unusual attitude. Plus, a private, non-instrument rated pilot has a higher chance of not recovering from an unusual attitude since he isn’t used to relying on his instruments.
At each training event I do, whether it be private pilot training, a flight review, IFR training, transition training, or pretty much any kind of recurrent training, I like to do unusual attitude recoveries with my customers. It’s one of those things that the recovery procedure wanes over time since it isn’t routinely practiced solo (for good reason!).
I see people have the most trouble with the nose high unusual attitude recoveries. Let’s start with the recovery procedure, then I’ll discuss the common errors (notice that the nose high unusual attitude recovery procedure mirrors a stall recovery). Remember, this is in IFR conditions:
- Pitch Down to a level pitch attitude on the Attitude Indicator (or lower if the stall warning horn continues to go off)
- Simultaneously add full power
- Roll wings level
- Flaps up and recover to a level pitch attitude if not there already
The order is important, especially the breathing part. What happens if a pilot goes straight into a recovery and doesn’t pause for a second or two to absorb what’s going on is the recovery isn’t executed properly.
Our brains see the wings banked and set off all kinds of alarms to roll the wings level first before doing anything else. Adding any kind of aileron input with the nose close to the critical angle of attack is a bad idea. You are adding adverse yaw (since you probably won’t be coordinated) and load factor which increases the stall speed. Then we all know that Stall + Yaw = Spin. That’s something that is best avoided in IMC.
We have to teach our brains to ignore the bank angle until the pitch and power come in. Once the airplane is far away from the critical angle of attack, then the bank can be rolled to neutral.
Let’s look at the nose low unusual attitude recovery. The order is still important on this one too:
- Power Reduce (to idle if necessary)
- Roll Wings Level
- Pitch up to a level pitch attitude
- Add Power back to cruise
The theory with the nose low unusual attitude is your speed is accelerating. By reducing the power first, that helps reduce the load factor experienced when the pitch is increased. Same with rolling the wings level. Neutral bank is a lower load factor than some kind of a bank angle. We are trying to prevent overspeeding the airplane. The lower the load factor, the less of a chance we have to rip the wings off.
The most important step in either recovery procedure is to breathe first, allowing the brain to process exactly what is happening. That way, the proper recovery can be executed.