It’s a picture pilots don’t expect to see from the left seat of a corporate jet.
The airplane, a North American Sabreliner, is in a 60-degree bank 15,000 feet above the Mojave Desert, buffeting and shaking at 200 KIAS. In the right seat, Rick Searfoss, a former NASA space shuttle commander, recommends provoking the old bird even more.
“Pull a little harder,” Searfoss says. “We’re going all the way to an accelerated stall break.”
Searfoss is the chief instructor for the upset recovery course at Flight Research Inc., a California firm that uses real jets—not simulators—to give professional pilots hands-on experience at recovering from unusual attitudes in aircraft with performance similar to the ones they fly on the job. The $12,900, two- or three-day courses include a classroom review of air transport accidents caused by loss of aircraft control, as well as high-altitude and high-speed aerodynamics, Transport category aircraft certification testing, situations that can cause inadvertent departures, and a universal recovery procedure company officials say will help in virtually any situation.
Leading-edge slats automatically deploy from the 1975 Sabreliner’s swept wings, allowing them to hang on during a turn that seems impossibly tight. Disturbed air from the wings’ high angle of attack pummels the horizontal tail and provides even more tactile warning of an impending aerodynamic stall.
Searfoss describes the self-induced turbulence as “elephants dancing on the wings.” The tail buffeting, he says, is a “low-tech stick shaker.”
Then, reluctantly but simultaneously, the wings reach their critical angle and stall. The shaking stops while the airplane remains in a steep left bank, and the turn rate drops to almost nothing.
“U-TAP!” Searfoss calls out, reciting the acronym for the company’s recovery procedure: Unload, Throttle, Ailerons, Pitch.
I comply by applying light forward pressure on the yoke, and the airflow instantly reattaches while the stall-warning horn stops blaring. The two engines are at 60-percent power, so I advance the throttles full forward. At less than one G, the ailerons are especially crisp and light as I roll wings level, and then pitch up to begin a climb. The whole procedure takes about three seconds to complete.
We’re halfway through an hour-long flight designed to expose professional pilots to an increasingly strenuous series of pitch, bank, and airspeed excursions that go far beyond anything they are likely to encounter during simulator training, checkrides, or corporate flying careers. But if an upset does occur—from a wake encounter, extreme turbulence, pilot error, or autopilot-induced stall—the view won’t seem totally foreign; the “startle factor” will be reduced, and the recovery method ingrained.
“Now close your eyes,” Searfoss says as he initiates a series of unusual attitudes and speeds ranging from 70 to 250 knots. “I’ll tell you when to open them, and you’ll recover the airplane.”
Flight Research is affiliated with the National Test Pilot School, a fixture at Mojave since 1981. Bill Korner, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, bought Flight Research four years ago and developed an unusual-attitude course for corporate pilots that employs jets with flying qualities similar to the aircraft they fly for a living. Turboprops and lighter aerobatic aircraft, such as single-engine piston Slingsby Fireflies, are available for other upset courses.
“You don’t learn to operate an 18-wheeler by driving a Corvette,” Korner said. “Our airplanes have similar wing loading and flight characteristics to the ones our corporate customers fly at work. We take them into stalls, accelerated stalls, and unusual attitudes that simulators can’t accurately model. It’s a condensed, targeted course that focuses on preventing loss-of-control accidents.”
Korner cites grim FAA statistics showing that loss-of-control accidents are the leading cause of fatalities in aviation categories ranging from recreational flying to airlines, and he said the trends “are getting worse—not better—because crews instinctively do the wrong things.” Accidents such as Air France Flight 447 in 2009 and AirAsia Flight 8501 in 2014 were found to be caused by pilots inadvertently stalling their aircraft at high altitudes and failing to recover, despite having plenty of time and fully functional airplanes in which to do so.
The Flight Research jet course begins with ground school that covers historical loss-of-control accidents, aircraft certification standards, and aerodynamics. Doug Dodson, a former Air Force flight test engineer and instructor, taught the ground portion during my visit, and his lively presentation drives home the point that airplanes certified under FAR parts 23 and 25 are capable of much more than they generally encounter in normal transport service.
“These airplanes are capable of much more than they’re typically ever asked to do,” Dodson said. “They’ve proven that during certification flight testing.”
Recurrent training for corporate pilots typically takes place in simulators, and even there pilots are taught to recover at the first sign of an impending stall. That’s often the stick shaker, a warning designed to activate at a minimum of five knots (or 5 percent of VS) before an actual aerodynamic stall. They rarely, if ever, intentionally stall a corporate aircraft—the regulations don’t require it and flight simulators can’t realistically duplicate it.
“Simulators are fantastic procedures trainers and they are exceptionally accurate at modeling the normal flight envelope,” Dodson said. “But they don’t accurately model what happens after an airplane departs controlled flight. And they certainly can’t replicate the sounds and sensations of actually being there, or what it takes to recover.”
The second (and optional third) instructional flights take place in an Aermacchi MB–326 Impala—a two-seat former military trainer that looks nothing like any corporate airplane.
This particular aircraft was built in 1966 under license in South Africa and still has paint markings in Afrikaans (“Loopvlak” for wing walk and “Geen Tap” for no step). Flight Research likes Impalas because they’re incredibly strong, can recover from spins (both upright and inverted), and have performance characteristics similar to corporate jets.
“In terms of speed, wing loading, stick force, and roll rate, the Impala is going to feel very familiar,” said Scott Glaser, a Flight Research instructor pilot and vice president of operations. “We like to say you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its lack of performance. It flies like a big airplane.”
Searfoss, the former astronaut, is my instructor again in the Impala, and we’ve got a perfect morning to fly with brilliant blue skies, cold and dry desert air, and—a rarity for Mojave—calm surface winds.
After takeoff on Mojave’s Runway 30 the Impala gained traction after the landing gear and flaps were up, and it became even more energetic as we climbed at 150 KIAS and roughly 3,000 feet per minute to 15,000 feet. Control forces were smooth and well balanced, but it didn’t take much of a pull to get an accelerated-stall buffet from the straight wings. Visibility with a bubble canopy and tandem seating was exceptional. Searfoss put the airplane into an ever-more-extreme series of maneuvers, including fully inverted flight and vertical climbs and descents. The U-TAP method allowed consistent recoveries with relatively light loads that never exceeded three positive Gs.
The final maneuver was something I never expected to see in a jet: a tailslide. Pulling vertical at 16,000 feet, Searfoss had me reduce engine power to idle—and wait. And wait. We just seemed to hang there.
“Neutralize the controls and hold on,” Searfoss said. “The airplane’s going to fight you.”
The Impala fell on its back and eventually pointed straight down. It swung like a pendulum once and then settled into a vertical dive. It took only a few moments to reach 200 KIAS and we emerged from the dive.
A fellow student, Martin Fessele, flew an identical flight profile in the same airplane that morning. Fessele is a Gulfstream captain who has been flying professionally since 1989, and he was on his way to recurrent simulator training after two days at Flight Research. Fessele said he had completed more than 75 mostly simulator training sessions—but this was the first time he had experienced unusual attitudes in real jets.
“The training is much more realistic when you know the vehicle isn’t bolted to the floor,” he said. “This is invaluable.”
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