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Training Tip: Imagine the surpriseTraining Tip: Imagine the surprise

Aha, here it comes. Turning downwind for the third circuit of the airport traffic pattern, the student pilot is anything but taken aback when the flight instructor idles the throttle and announces, “You just lost your engine.”

Photo by Mike Fizer.

From there, the familiar drill goes smoothly—a vastly different outcome than a half-hour earlier, when the CFI introduced the simulated power failure during maneuvers practice a few miles away, with no airport positioned conveniently below.

The trainee was so startled by the interruption of the maneuver being practiced that he forgot about the nearby pasture that had been selected as an emergency-landing site in case of trouble, real or simulated. Having blown the chance to glide to the pasture, the alternative site located after costly seconds of searching—a tree-lined country road—offered bleak prospects for a safe landing.

No one likes to be scared—and shaking up a pilot trainee for no good reason is unacceptable—but introducing an emergency when the student’s mind is plainly elsewhere can impress upon a pilot just how damaging the “startle response” can be to one’s ability to cope with in-flight difficulties.

To be startled, according to one dictionary's definition, is “to move or jump suddenly (as in surprise or alarm).” If that sudden jump or movement causes a pilot to jerk the control yoke rearward when the appropriate response is to apply forward yoke pressure (to lower angle of attack after an engine failure), it should be obvious why preventing startle is necessary training.

“Some pilots may experience a ‘startle response’ when faced with an unexpected situation or freeze or panic during an emergency. These events can quickly create a situation that is stressful, challenging, and even life-threatening, especially during flight,” says a discussion of loss-of-control accidents on the FAA’s Fly Safe website.

Not all anti-startle training need be filled with engine-out drama. A flight instructor frequently asking a student pilot, “Where would you land if the engine failed right now?” during cruise flight is highlighting the importance of developing the habit of constantly assessing the landscape below for emergency use as your flights proceed.  

The Fly Safe website includes a link to a Safety Enhancement Topic discussion of the startle response from the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, on which AOPA participates, that includes ways to practice responses to emergencies—even in a nice comfy chair at home.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight Training, Student, Aeronautical Decision Making
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