PILOT TRAINING ARTICLE
Knowing the Limits of Humans and Aircraft Prove Beneficial to Pilots
By Paul Comtois, Colonel (Ret.)
There has been a tremendous amount of focus on Loss of Control In-Flight (LOC-I) in recent years due to a number of high profile accidents around the globe—both civilian and military. Emphasis on this topic is justified, as LOC-I has been and remains a significant problem across all categories of aviation1. LOC-I accidents have highlighted human performance issues such as loss of situational awareness, spatial disorientation, and others. So how often—or even when—do pilots receive training about their own “systems?” The human body is incredible, but it is not infallible—especially in flight. This article will focus on the need for aircrew to identify, understand, and respond to one’s personal limits to the same degree they should concern themselves with aircraft limits.
There is no doubt a pilot would rather experience a critical emergency in a simulator first before having to handle one in flight. Simulator training has afforded this opportunity for decades. In fact, in the late 70’s through the early 80’s, the FAA made a series of changes that allowed ever increasing amounts of training to be accomplished in a simulator. On 29 August 1980, the FAA released Advisory Circular 121-14C2 which stated, “As state-of-the-art in simulator technology advances, more effective use has been made of the aircraft simulator in both training and checking.” For many reasons—such as cost savings and increased margin of safety—this has been a great success. Unfortunately, this training largely focuses on system and aircraft limits. Training for an upset requires more than what today’s typical simulator training programs offer.
The aforementioned simulators are generally those in the Level C and D category and are widely used in civil aviation training. These simulators are a vital part of pilot training and can successfully incorporate certain elements of a comprehensive Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) training program; however, there are some aspects of the all-attitude/all-envelope environment they cannot address. These simulators, even though “simulating” a realistic flight environment really only operate in a two-dimensional, zero knot, one g-force setting which does not replicate the actual three-dimensional, high speed, potentially high g environment of actual flight. Numerous LOC-I accident reports have shown how pilots can quickly become task saturated, distracted, and/or disoriented in these challenging environments. Spending time in a classroom covering aspects of the human system followed by practical experiences in a purpose built simulator providing the realistic effects of flight will better allow a pilot to understand their limits and subsequently aid them in preventing or recovering from an in-flight upset.
Additional examples of exploring human limits can take place in other realistic flight environment simulators. For example, hypoxic flight environments can be provided in an altitude chamber. A ground based Continuous G Device (CGD) will allow a pilot to experience sustained G forces, identical to a real flight environment. These simulation systems can challenge a pilot cognitively and physically while also giving them the confidence to recover from a variety of situations such as an explosive decompression in an altitude chamber or a high speed dive requiring two or more G forces in a CGD. Again, most would agree that the first time to experience these situations, where quick action is necessary, is not in actual flight. Fortunately, the continued advancement in simulation technologies allows pilots to experience challenging scenarios more true to the actual flight environment. This in turn can go a long way to prepare pilots to avoid or recover from a serious LOC-I incident.
In summary, pilots should be exposed to a variety of simulations to help train them to combat LOC-I. Receiving academic instruction and having the opportunity to experience human limitations firsthand in a controlled environment provides significant advantages.