Upset Prevention and Recovery (Part 1)

Unusual Attitudes Versus Upsets

An unusual attitude is commonly referenced as an unintended or unexpected attitude in instrument flight. These unusual attitudes are introduced to a pilot during student pilot training as part of basic attitude instrument flying and continue to be trained and tested as part of certification for an instrument rating, aircraft type rating, and an airline transport pilot certificate. A pilot is taught the conditions or situations that could cause an unusual attitude, with focus on how to recognize one, and how to recover from one.

As discussed at the previous of this site, the term “upset” is inclusive of unusual attitudes. An upset is defined as an event that unintentionally exceeds the parameters normally experienced in flight or training. These parameters are:
  • Pitch attitude greater than 25°, nose up
  • Pitch attitude greater than 10°, nose down
  • Bank angle greater than 45°
  • Within the above parameters, but flying at airspeeds inappropriate for the conditions.

(Note: The reference to inappropriate airspeeds describes a number of undesired aircraft states, including stalls. However, stalls are directly related to AOA, not airspeed.)

Given the upset definition, there are a few key distinctions between an unusual attitude and an upset. First, an upset includes stall events where unusual attitude training typically does not. Second, an upset can include overspeeds or other inappropriate speeds for a given flight condition, which is also not considered part of unusual attitude training. Finally, an upset has defined parameters; an unusual attitude does not. For example, for training purposes an instructor could place the airplane in a 30° bank with a nose up pitch attitude of 15° and ask the student to recover and that would be considered an unusual attitude, but would not meet the upset parameters. While the information that follows in this section could apply to unusual attitudes, the focus will be on UPRT.

The top four causal and contributing factors that have led to an upset and resulted in LOC-I accidents are:
  1. Environmental factors
  2. Mechanical factors
  3. Human factors
  4. Stall-related factors

With the exception of stall-related factors, which were covered in the previous section, the remaining causal and contributing factors to LOC-I accidents will be discussed further below.

Environmental Factors

Turbulence, or a large variation in wind velocity over a short distance, can cause upset and LOC-I. Maintain awareness of conditions that can lead to various types of turbulence, such as clear air turbulence, mountain waves, wind shear, and thunderstorms or microbursts. In addition to environmentally-induced turbulence, wake turbulence from other aircraft can lead to upset and LOC-I.

Icing can destroy the smooth flow of air over the airfoil and increase drag while decreasing the ability of the airfoil to create lift. Therefore, it can significantly degrade airplane performance, resulting in a stall if not handled correctly.

Mechanical Factors

Modern airplanes and equipment are very reliable, but anomalies do occur. Some of these mechanical failures can directly cause a departure from normal flight, such as asymmetrical flaps, malfunctioning or binding flight controls, and runaway trim.

Upsets can also occur if there is a malfunction or misuse of the autoflight system. Advanced automation may tend to mask the cause of the anomaly. Disengaging the autopilot and the autothrottles allows the pilot to directly control the airplane and possibly eliminate the cause of the problem. For these reasons the pilot must maintain proficiency to manually fly the airplane in all flight conditions without the use of the autopilot/autothrottles.

Although these and other inflight anomalies may not be preventable, knowledge of systems and AFM/POH recommended procedures helps the pilot minimize their impact and prevent an upset. In the case of instrument failures, avoiding an upset and subsequent LOC-I may depend on the pilot’s proficiency in the use of secondary instrumentation and partial panel operations.

Human Factors


Unfortunately, accident reports indicate that continued VFR flight from visual meteorological conditions (VMC) into marginal VMC and IMC is a factor contributing to LOC I. A loss of the natural horizon substantially increases the chances of encountering vertigo or spatial disorientation, which can lead to upset.


When operating in IMC, maintain awareness of conditions and use the fundamental instrument skills—cross-check, interpretation, and control—to prevent an upset.

Diversion of Attention

In addition to its direct impact, an inflight anomaly or malfunction can also lead to an upset if it diverts the pilot’s attention from basic airplane control responsibilities. Failing to monitor the automated systems, over-reliance on those systems, or incomplete knowledge and experience with those systems can lead to an upset. Diversion of attention can also occur simply from the pilot’s efforts to set avionics or navigation equipment while flying the airplane.

Task Saturation

The margin of safety is the difference between task requirements and pilot capabilities. An upset and eventual LOC-I can occur whenever requirements exceed capabilities. For example, an airplane upset event that requires rolling an airplane from a near-inverted to an upright attitude may demand piloting skills beyond those learned during primary training. In another example, a fatigued pilot who inadvertently encounters IMC at night coupled with a vacuum pump failure, or a pilot fails to engage pitot heat while flying in IMC, could become disoriented and lose control of the airplane due to the demands of extended—and unpracticed—partial panel flight. Additionally, unnecessary low-altitude flying and impromptu demonstrations for friends or others on the ground often lead pilots to exceed their capabilities, with fatal results.

Sensory Overload/Deprivation

A pilot’s ability to adequately correlate warnings, annunciations, instrument indications, and other cues from the airplane during an upset can be limited. Pilots faced with upset situations can be rapidly confronted with multiple or simultaneous visual, auditory, and tactile warnings. Conversely, sometimes expected warnings are not provided when they should be; this situation can distract a pilot as much as multiple warnings can.

The ability to separate time-critical information from distractions takes practice, experience and knowledge of the airplane and its systems. Cross-checks are necessary not only to corroborate other information that has been presented, but also to determine if information might be missing or invalid. For example, a stall warning system may fail and therefore not warn a pilot of close proximity to a stall, other cues must be used to avert a stall and possible LOC-I. These cues include aerodynamic buffet, loss of roll authority, or inability to arrest a descent.

Spatial Disorientation

Spatial disorientation has been a significant factor in many airplane upset accidents. Accident data from 2008 to 2013 shows nearly 200 accidents associated with spatial disorientation with more than 70% of those being fatal. All pilots are susceptible to false sensory illusions while flying at night or in certain weather conditions. These illusions can lead to a conflict between actual attitude indications and what the pilot senses is the correct attitude. Disoriented pilots may not always be aware of their orientation error. Many airplane upsets occur while the pilot is engaged in some task that takes attention away from the flight instruments or outside references. Others perceive a conflict between bodily senses and the flight instruments, and allow the airplane to divert from the desired flightpath because they cannot resolve the conflict.

A pilot may experience spatial disorientation or perceive the situation in one of three ways:
  1. Recognized spatial disorientation: the pilot recognizes the developing upset or the upset condition and is able to safely correct the situation.
  2. Unrecognized spatial disorientation: the pilot is unaware that an upset event is developing, or has occurred, and fails to make essential decisions or take any corrective action to prevent LOC-I.
  3. Incapacitating spatial disorientation: the pilot is unable to affect a recovery due to some combination of: (a) not understanding the events as they are unfolding, (b) lacking the skills required to alleviate or correct the situation, or (c) exceeding psychological or physiological ability to cope with what is happening.

For detailed information regarding causal factors of spatial disorientation, refer to Aerospace Medicine Spatial Disorientation and Aerospace Medicine Reference Collection, which provides spatial disorientation videos. This collection can be found online at: headquarters_offices/avs/offices/aam/cami/library/online_libraries/aerospace_medicine/sd/videos/.

Startle Response

Startle is an uncontrollable, automatic muscle reflex, raised heart rate, blood pressure, etc., elicited by exposure to a sudden, intense event that violates a pilot’s expectations.

Surprise Response

Surprise is an unexpected event that violates a pilot’s expectations and can affect the mental processes used to respond to the event.

This human response to unexpected events has traditionally been underestimated or even ignored during flight training. The reality is that untrained pilots often experience a state of surprise or a startle response to an airplane upset event. Startle may or may not lead to surprise. Pilots can protect themselves against a debilitating surprise reaction or startle response through scenario-based training, and in such training, instructors can incorporate realistic distractions to help provoke startle or surprise. To be effective the controlled training scenarios must have a perception of risk or threat of consequences sufficient to elevate the pilot’s stress levels. Such scenarios can help prepare a pilot to mitigate psychological/physiological reactions to an actual upset.

Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT)

Upsets are not intentional flight maneuvers, except in maneuver-based training; therefore, they are often unexpected. The reaction of an inexperienced or inadequately trained pilot to an unexpected abnormal flight attitude is usually instinctive rather than intelligent and deliberate. Such a pilot often reacts with abrupt muscular effort, which is without purpose and even hazardous in turbulent conditions, at excessive speeds, or at low altitudes.

Without proper upset recovery training on interpretation and airplane control, the pilot can quickly aggravate an abnormal flight attitude into a potentially fatal LOC-I accident. Consequently, UPRT is intended to focus education and training on the prevention of upsets, and on recovering from these events if they occur. [Figure 1]

Maintaining Aircraft Control, Upset Prevention and Recovery Training
Figure 1. Maneuvers that better prepare a pilot for understanding unusual attitudes and situations are representative of upset training

  • Upset prevention refers to pilot actions to avoid a divergence from the desired airplane state. Awareness and prevention training serve to avoid incidents; early recognition of an upset scenario coupled with appropriate preventive action often can mitigate a situation that could otherwise escalate into a LOC-I accident.
  • Recovery refers to pilot actions that return an airplane that is diverging in altitude, airspeed, or attitude to a desired state from a developing or fully developed upset. Learn to initiate recovery to a normal flight mode immediately upon recognition of the developing upset condition. Ensure that control inputs and power adjustments applied to counter an upset are in direct proportion to the amount and rates of change of roll, yaw, pitch, or airspeed so as to avoid overstressing the airplane unless ground contact is imminent. Recovery training serves to reduce accidents as a result of an unavoidable or inadvertently encountered upset event.

UPRT Core Concepts

Airplane upsets are by nature time-critical events; they can also place pilots in unusual and unfamiliar attitudes that sometimes require counterintuitive control movements. Upsets have the potential to put a pilot into a life-threatening situation compounded by panic, diminished mental capacity, and potentially incapacitating spatial disorientation. Because real-world upset situations often provide very little time to react, exposure to such events during training is essential for pilots to reduce surprise and it mitigates confusion during unexpected upsets. The goal is to equip the pilot to promptly recognize an escalating threat pattern or sensory overload and quickly identify and correct an impending upset.

UPRT stresses that the first step is recognizing any time the airplane begins to diverge from the intended flightpath or airspeed. Pilots must identify and determine what, if any, action must be taken. As a general rule, any time visual cues or instrument indications differ from basic flight maneuver expectations, the pilot should assume an upset and cross-check to confirm the attitude, instrument error or instrument malfunction.

To achieve maximum effect, it is crucial for UPRT concepts to be conveyed accurately and in a non-threatening manner. Reinforcing concepts through positive experiences significantly improves a pilot’s depth of understanding, retention of skills, and desire for continued training. Also, training in a carefully structured environment allows for exposure to these events and can help the pilot react more quickly, decisively, and calmly when the unexpected occurs during flight. However, like many other skills, the skills needed for upset prevention and recovery are perishable and thus require continuous reinforcement through training.

UPRT in the airplane and flight simulation training device (FSTD) should be conducted in both visual and simulated instrument conditions to allow pilots to practice recognition and recovery under both situations. UPRT should allow them to experience and recognize some of the physiological factors related to each, such as the confusion and disorientation that can result from visual cues in an upset event. Training that includes recovery from bank angles exceeding 90 degrees could further add to a pilot’s overall knowledge and skills for upset recognition and recovery. For such training, additional measures should be taken to ensure the suitability of the airplane or FSTD and that instructors are appropriately qualified.

Upset prevention and recovery training is different from aerobatic training. [Figure 2] In aerobatic training, the pilot knows and expects the maneuver, so effects of startle or surprise are missing. The main goal of aerobatic training is to teach pilots how to intentionally and precisely maneuver an aerobatic-capable airplane in three dimensions. The primary goal of UPRT is to help pilots overcome sudden onsets of stress to avoid, prevent, and recover from unplanned excursions that could lead to LOC-I.

Aerobatics vs. UPRT Flight Training Methods
Primary Objective
Precision maneuvering capability
Safe, effective recovery from aircraft upsets
Secondary Outcome
Improved manual aircraft handling skills
Improved manual aircraft handling skills
Aerobatic Maneuvering
Primary mode of training
Supporting mode of training
Supporting role
Fundamental component
Training Resources Utilized
Aircraft (few exceptions)
Aircraft or a full-flight simulator
Figure 2. Some differences between aerobatic training and upset prevention and recovery training

Comprehensive UPRT builds on three mutually supportive components: academics, airplane-based training and, typically at the transport category type-rating training level, use of FSTDs. Each has unique benefits and limitations but, when implemented cohesively and comprehensively throughout a pilot’s career, the components can offer maximum preparation for upset awareness, prevention, recognition, and recovery.