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Safety Spotlight: Expanding the envelope

Could these exercises reduce a common accident cause?

Ed Wischmeyer is on a pilgrimage. His venerable path slogs through loss-of-control mishaps in general aviation. His holy destination: eliminate loss of control as the leading cause of GA fatal accidents.

Wischmeyer, an ATP/CFII, is convinced the problem is misunderstood and that loss of control is mis-analyzed or perhaps, more accurately, analyzed incompletely. He applied his doctoral degree background and considerable capacity to collect and review data to reach several conclusions. Among them is that the fundamental problem in loss of control mishaps is a gap in training that leads to pilots not recognizing flight parameters leading to loss of control—so they don’t correct deviations early enough, or they apply the limited correction skills they’ve learned to all unfamiliar conditions, which sometimes exacerbates the problem. When pilots end up in flight conditions unfamiliar to them, Wischmeyer believes they become “cognitively unavailable,” meaning the stress of unfamiliar conditions prevents them from processing all of the cues available to avoid loss of control.

Wischmeyer’s solution is Expanded Envelope Exercises (E3), a series of exercises that encourage operations outside typical routines and closer to the edge of the performance envelope. Airborne, E3 exercises go beyond typical airman certification standards and stop short of upset prevention and recovery training. Wischmeyer recognizes upset prevention and recovery training is valuable training in curbing loss-of-control mishaps; however, upset prevention and recovery training requires uniquely qualified instructors, specialized aircraft, and parachutes, since it crosses the aerobatic threshold. Wischmeyer designed E3 so the exercises can be flown in almost any airplane with most instructors. The maneuvers remain under 2 Gs, and within 30 degrees of pitch and 60 degrees of bank, so no parachute is required. Some examples of E3 exercises are stalls in a turn with recovery in the turn; full-deflection Dutch rolls; low-speed, 60-degree-bank turns with smooth, quick reversal in the opposite direction; deliberate base-to-final turn overshoot and recovery; and low-speed spiral recovery.

After listening to Wischmeyer’s seminar, I flew some E3 exercises in my Navion. Meh. I didn’t find them revealing and they weren’t difficult to fly. I use a few similar exercises with primary students, so some weren’t new.

I reported my reaction to Wischmeyer. He offered that first, they aren’t maneuvers with exact entry and exit parameters. They aren’t supposed to be difficult to fly. They are exercises, the primary focus being new sensations: look, listen, understand where the airplane is; recognize an atypical flight regime; and observe how the airplane is responding to your inputs. Second, Wischmeyer suggested I view E3 with a different paradigm. E3 isn’t designed for people who have extensive experience in aerobatics. It is designed for pilots who haven’t explored the flight envelope beyond a typical ACS syllabus. Finally, Wischmeyer thought I’d be surprised at the number of pilots who never experienced a turning stall in training. I agreed to visit Wischmeyer in Savannah next time I was in the area and to fly E3 in Wischmeyer’s RV–9A.

On a bumpy Saturday morning in January, Wischmeyer and I flew a set of his E3 exercises above the scenic Savannah River delta. I found Wischmeyer’s explanation of what each exercise was designed to demonstrate helpful, particularly when he would explain how each exercise went beyond typical training. I was beginning to understand the value of E3 and where it fits into pilot development, but I wanted another opinion.

I sent some E3 material to Hank Canterbury, a Pitts and Bonanza owner and a long-time instructor in both. I offered no commentary and asked him to fly the profile in his Bonanza and report back. Hank liked the thinking behind E3 and found many of the exercises useful. In fact, he’d been doing similar exercises for years, teaching Bonanza pilots the feel of their airplane and how to fly them closer to the edge of the flight envelope.

The key E3 innovation is going beyond narrowly defined maneuvers that teach specific skills to broaden a pilot’s experience in the flight envelope. E3 can reinforce confidence that the airplane has a much larger envelope than we typically use. The exercises help pilots to be more comfortable in atypical conditions so that if they encounter them in flight they will not become cognitively unavailable.

Wischmeyer has dozens of E3 exercises, which keep growing as pilots provide input. The AOPA Air Safety Institute is assessing some E3 exercises to add to the Focused Flight Review program. It’s hard to measure the accident that didn’t happen because of our safety efforts, but Wischmeyer’s E3 exercises may notch a few.

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Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden was appointed executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in February 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in July 2020. He currently leads a team of certified flight instructors and content creators who develop and distribute aviation safety material –free of charge— in order to advance general aviation safety industrywide. ASI distributes material through a dedicated YouTube channel, iTunes podcasts, Facebook, and a dynamic website. ASI material is accessed 12 million times annually. A native of Panama City, Florida, McSpadden started flying as a teenager and has logged over 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. McSpadden is a commercial pilot, CFII, MEI with SES, MES ratings and a 525S (Citation Jet Single Pilot) type rating. He taught his son to fly, instructed his daughter to solo in their Piper Super Cub, previously owned a 1950 Navion that was in his family for almost 40 years, and currently owns a 1993 Piper Super Cub. McSpadden holds a degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Public Administration from Troy University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Air War College. Prior to joining AOPA, McSpadden had a successful career in the information technology industry, leading large, geographically dispersed operations providing business-critical IT services. McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft. Additionally, McSpadden currently serves as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

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