The problem went unnoticed until less than 1,000 feet above the ground on the final descent for landing at Heathrow Airport in London. Ice crystals in the fuel restricted its flow to the engines and the engines did not respond to increased throttle inputs. The autopilot continually slowed the Boeing 777 in an attempt to stay on the ILS glideslope. With flaps already deployed and gear out, the pilots knew that making the runway without additional power was impossible, and the airliner struck the airport grounds and slid to a stop short of Runway 27L.
Sean Horton, United Parcel Service’s upset training guru, presents this accident for discussion during the course he teaches at UPS training headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. UPS brought Horton on board to develop and implement extended envelope training in response to the 2013 FAA mandate that all air carrier pilots receive training outside the normal flight envelope. As an upset training instructor for general aviation, I was excited by the UPS invitation to learn recovery procedures for a transport category aircraft and compare them with what I teach in the Cessna 152 Aerobat.
The training facility houses full-motion, state-of-the-art CAE simulators including ones that replicate Boeing 757/767, Boeing 747, and MD–11 transport aircraft.
Each is equipped with the latest software, which enables the simulator to represent faithfully both the aerodynamics of unusual flight situations as well as the response to control inputs by the pilot. While the simulator cannot mimic all the load factors felt in flight, all other aspects—including the buffet near a stall, as well as the force feedback on the control column—are the same as the real aircraft.
Effective training starts with comprehensive ground instruction. Horton began with the history of the FAA upset training mandate that requires air carrier pilots train every 24 months by manually controlling the aircraft in situations that include flight at minimal controllable airspeed, recovery from full stalls as well as stick-nudger/stick-pusher scenarios, loss of reliable airspeed, nose-high and nose-low upsets, and flight attitudes with excessive bank.
Horton analyzed the accident that played a key role in the creation of the upset training mandate—the 2009 Colgan Air 3407 accident in which a Bombardier DHC–8-400 encountered icing conditions on the ILS 23 approach into Buffalo, New York. As they intercepted the localizer, the crew reduced power, extended gear and flaps, and the autopilot continually slowed the aircraft to a critically low airspeed, possibly exacerbated by the ice that had accreted on the aircraft. The stick shaker activated to alert the crew of the impending stall and the autopilot disconnected.
Flight at such low airspeeds means a loss of roll stability, and trying to counteract roll upsets by using ailerons near or beyond a stall can be met with disaster. Unbelievably, the captain did exactly that and sealed his fate by pulling back on the yoke despite numerous stick-shaker activations encouraging him to push forward. Everyone on the aircraft, along with one person on the ground, perished, apparently because pulling back on the control column proved too compelling as the aircraft descended into the ground.
The National Transportation Safety Board published a video animation (youtube.com/watch?v=fj_pfMhCR3U) of the last two minutes of the Colgan Air flight. Officials integrated information from the flight data recorder so that the animation shows a three-dimensional view of the aircraft in flight, along with the panel showing the position of throttles and the yoke. It’s sobering to see an airline captain make mistakes for which a private pilot candidate would be issued a notice of disapproval.
Based on the FAA’s guidance in the upset training mandate, Horton developed a recovery procedure for UPS pilots to employ in loss of control situations that he presents using the mnemonic “flying with a PuRPoSe”: Push to regain airspeed and predictable aircraft control, Roll to upright using the ailerons, apply Power to minimize altitude loss, and Stabilize by returning the aircraft to the desired altitude and heading (see “Proficiency: Flying with Purpose,” July 2020 AOPA Pilot).
“Flying with a PuRPoSe” is essentially the same recovery procedure I teach for the general aviation community, but a key difference involves the appropriate force to use on the control column during recovery. The limit load factor for aircraft certificated in the normal category under FAR Part 23 has traditionally been 3.8 Gs but for transport category aircraft, that limit is only 2.5 Gs. And imposing high loads is especially easy in the low-density air of the upper flight levels. The UPS 767 simulator’s control column mimics the same feel, adjusted for atmospheric effects, but it can’t simulate all the load factors the pilot feels in the actual aircraft. Horton explained that he has a maneuvering envelope graph at the simulator’s control station that shows the current load factor in real time. After each recovery, he can stop the simulator and replay for the pilot the load factor incurred during the maneuvers.
After our classroom briefing, I strapped into the left seat of the UPS 767 simulator. UPS Capt. Jeff Buschman acted as co-pilot for the session, introduced me to the 767 panel, and helped with the normal procedures for which flying my Cessna 152 hadn’t prepared me.
We started up several thousand feet above the ground and Horton allowed me to get the feel of the airplane through a range of airspeeds before throwing me a surprise upset. Recalling the ground training, I effected the recovery procedure in discrete motions: I pushed to avoid a stall, rolled the aircraft to upright, brought the throttle levers forward, and stabilized the aircraft.
Horton paused the simulator program and showed that I had exceeded the limit load factor during my return to level flight, even though I had been mindful to pull with care during the recovery. I adjusted my control pressures during subsequent recoveries and learned to stay within the maneuvering envelope while minimizing my altitude loss.
After two hours of crazy attitudes in the Boeing 767, Horton suggested that we land back at the Louisville airport and call it a day. My body relaxed as I looked forward to finally flying a normal procedure in the simulator. How could I have been so naive? On short final, I encountered a surprise roll upset, but my training kicked in. Despite being so close to the ground, I pushed forward and regained control of the aircraft. As Horton taught during the ground training, whether you’re at FL330 or FL003, in a Boeing 767 or a Cessna 152, pushing is the answer.
I thought back to British Airways Flight 38, which I didn’t recall hearing about previously, and there’s probably a good reason for that. It turns out that on short final, the crew resisted any instinct they may have had to pull back on the yoke in a misguided attempt to stretch their glide to the runway. Instead they had the presence of mind to push forward on the control column and thereby contacted the ground under positive aircraft control. In doing so, everyone on board BA 38 lived, with just one person experiencing serious injury. Horton considers the crew heroes for making this counterintuitive move. In emergency situations we fall back on our training and, through the excellent instruction Horton provides, there is no doubt UPS pilots will do just that.