Recovery From Unusual Attitudes


  • Unusual attitude recoveries teach pilots to understand the human system's susceptibility to spatial disorientation and how to recover if required
  • One of the leading causes of fatal general aviation accidents is the loss of control-Inflight
  • Pilots training, therefore, requires a thorough understanding of unusual attitudes and unusual attitude causal factors
  • While prevention is the first step, it does not eliminate the risk to pilots
  • It is then paramount that pilots know how to detect an unusual attitude properly
  • Once an upset or unusual attitude is confirmed, pilots can next apply the proper recover

Understanding Unusual Attitudes:

  • Loss of Control-Inflight, or LOC-I is a significant deviation of an aircraft from the intended flight path, resulting in an airplane upset
  • Separately, when an airplane attitude maneuvers to that not normally required for flight, you have entered an unusual attitude
    • It may also be referred to as an unintended or unexpected attitude
  • Upset Definition:

    • The Federal Aviation Administration defines an upset as an event that unintentionally exceeds the parameters normally experienced in flight or training
    • Upset Parameters:

      • 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
    • The term "upset" is inclusive of unusual attitudes
  • Unusual Attitude Definitions:

    • Unusual attitudes are unintentional, unanticipated, or extreme aircraft attitude
    • Given the upset definition, there are a few key distinctions between an unusual attitude and an upset:
      1. First, an upset includes stall events where unusual attitude training typically does not
      2. 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
      3. 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

Unusual Attitude Causal Factors:

  • 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
  • Environmental Factors:

    • 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:

    • Mechanical failures can occur from the malfunction or misuse of various aircraft systems, including asymmetrical flaps, malfunctioning or binding flight controls, runaway trim, and the autoflight system
      • Advanced automation may tend to mask the cause of the anomaly
    • knowledge of systems and Airplane Flight Manual/Pilot Operating Handbook 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:

    • Visual Meteorological Conditions into Instrument Meteorological Conditions:

      • Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) induces a loss of the natural horizon, substantially increasing the chances of encountering vertigo or spatial disorientation leading to upset
    • Instrument Meteorological Conditions:

      • 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
    • 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 may rapidly confront multiple or simultaneous visual, auditory, and tactile warnings. Conversely, sometimes expected warnings are not apparent or present 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 existing information but also to determine if the information might be missing or invalid
    • 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 errors. Many 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 can 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
    • 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:

      • A surprise is an unexpected event that violates a pilot's expectations and can affect the mental processes used to respond to the event
      • Startle may or may not lead to surprise
      • Untrained pilots often experience a state of surprise or a startle response to an airplane upset event
      • 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

Unusual Attitude Detection:

  • Generally speaking, unusual attitudes are characterized as nose-high or nose-low
  • Depending upon which you have, will depend upon the recovery procedure applied
  • It is important to understand what you have before applying the correct procedure
  • Nose-High:

    • Altimeter increasing (gaining altitude)
    • VSI increasing (reflecting a climb)
    • Airspeed decreasing
    • Attitude indication
  • Nose-Low:

    • Altimeter decreasing (losing altitude)
    • VSI decreasing (reflecting a descent)
    • Airspeed increasing
    • Attitude indication

Unusual Attitude Recovery Procedure:

All procedures are GENERALIZED.
Always fly per Pilot Operating Handbook procedures,
observing any relevant Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

  • Unusual attitudes may occur at any time, necessitating visual and instrument considerations
  • Visual Unusual Attitude Recovery Procedures:

    1. Perform clearing turns
    2. Recovering from nose-high unusual attitudes: (airspeed decreasing or below the desired airspeed)
      • Increase power to full or in proportion to the observed deceleration
      • Lower the nose and prevent a stall by applying forward elevator pressure
      • Level the wings by applying coordinated aileron and rudder pressure
      • Return to the original altitude and heading
    3. Recovering from nose-low unusual attitudes: (airspeed increasing or above the desired airspeed)
      • Reduce power as necessary to prevent excessive airspeed and loss of altitude
      • Level the wings by applying coordinated aileron and rudder pressure
      • Raise the nose to level flight attitude by smoothly applying back elevator pressure
      • Return to the original altitude and heading
    4. Complete cruise checklist
  • Instrument Unusual Attitude Recovery Procedures:

    • If the attitude indicator has exceeded its limits in an unusual attitude, nose-low or nose-high attitude can be determined by the airspeed indicator and the altimeter
    • When recovering without the aid of the attitude indicator, level flight attitude is reached when the altimeter and the airspeed indicator stop before reversing their direction of movement, and the vertical speed indicator reverses its trend
    • When in IMC, it is possible to lose control of the aircraft without realizing it
    • During IMC conditions, you should rely on the instruments and not your senses
    • Neutralize controls (stick and rudder), analyze and evaluate the situation to determine recovery
    • It occurs when the perceived aircraft attitude and the actual aircraft attitude different
    • The real attitude may or may not be extreme relative to the horizon
    • To ensure you can recover under the worst conditions (unaided night/IMC), you will be expected to follow a mini-checklist (this is a form of an emergency)
    • Results from turbulence, disorientation, instrument failure, confusion, preoccupation, carelessness, errors, lack of proficiency

Unusual Attitude Recovery Common Errors:

  • Moving the aircraft before you've assessed the attitude
  • Talking instead of flying
  • Forgetting the aircraft is still going down if you merely pull the nose to the horizon while slow (i.e., lots of alpha on the jet)
  • Incorrect identification of unusual attitude
  • Incorrect recovery from unusual attitude
  • Failure to keep the airplane properly trimmed. A flight deck interruption when holding pressures can easily lead to inadvertent entry into unusual attitudes
  • Disorganized flight deck. Hunting for charts, logs, computers, etc., can seriously distract attention from the instruments
  • Slow cross-check and fixations. The impulse is to stop and stare when noting an instrument discrepancy unless a pilot has trained enough to develop the skill required for immediate recognition
  • Attempting to recover by sensory sensations other than sight
  • Failure to practice basic instrument skills. All of the errors noted in connection with basic instrument skills are aggravated during unusual attitude recoveries until mastering elementary skills

Private Pilot - Recovery from Unusual Attitudes Airman Certification Standards:

  • To determine that the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with attitude instrument flying while recovering from unusual attitudes solely by reference to instruments
  • References: FAA-H-8083-2, FAA-H-8083-3, FAA-H-8083-15

Recovery from Unusual Attitudes Knowledge:

The applicant must demonstrate an understanding of:

Recovery from Unusual Attitudes Risk Management:

The applicant demonstrates the ability to identify, assess, and mitigate risks, encompassing:
  • PA.VIII.E.R1:

    Instrument flying hazards to include failure to maintain VFR, spatial disorientation, loss of control, fatigue, stress, and emergency off airport landings
  • PA.VIII.E.R2:

    Failure to seek assistance or declare an emergency in a deteriorating situation
  • PA.VIII.E.R3:

    Collision hazards, to include aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and wires
  • PA.VIII.E.R4:

    Distractions, loss of situational awareness, or improper task management
  • PA.VIII.E.R5:

    Failure to interpret flight instruments
  • PA.VIII.E.R6:

    Failure to unload the wings in recovering from high G situations
  • PA.VIII.E.R7:

    Exceeding the operating envelope during the recovery

Recovery from Unusual Attitudes Skills:

The applicant demonstrates the ability to:
  • PA.VIII.E.S1:

    Recognize unusual flight attitudes; perform the correct, coordinated, and smooth flight control application to resolve unusual pitch and bank attitudes while staying within the airplane's limitations and flight parameters

Instrument Rating - Recovery from Unusual Flight Attitudes Lesson Plan:

  • To determine the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with recovering from unusual flight attitudes solely by reference to instruments
  • References: 14 CFR part 61; FAA-H-8083-15

Recovery from Unusual Flight Attitudes Knowledge:

The applicant must demonstrate an understanding of:
  • IR.IV.B.K1:

    Procedures for recovery from unusual flight attitudes
  • IR.IV.B.K2:

    Unusual flight attitude causal factors, including physiological factors, system and equipment failures, and environmental factors

Recovery from Unusual Flight Attitudes Risk Management:

The applicant demonstrates the ability to identify, assess, and mitigate risks, encompassing:
  • IR.IV.B.R1:

    Situations that could lead to loss of control or unusual flight attitudes (e.g., stress, task saturation, and distractions)
  • IR.IV.B.R2:

    Failure to recognize an unusual flight attitude and follow the proper recovery procedure
  • IR.IV.B.R3:

    Exceeding the operating envelope during the recovery

Recovery from Unusual Flight Attitudes Skills:

The applicant demonstrates the ability to:
  • IR.IV.B.S1:

    Use proper instrument cross-check and interpretation to identify an unusual attitude (including both nose-high and nose-low), and apply the appropriate pitch, bank, and power corrections, in the correct sequence, to return to a stabilized level flight attitude

Unusual Attitudes Case Studies:


  • To maintain aircraft control when faced with these or other contributing factors, the pilot must be aware of situations where LOC-I can occur, recognize when an airplane is approaching a stall, has stalled, or is in an upset condition, and understand and execute the correct procedures to recover the aircraft
  • Note that all control applications made should be changed simultaneously in the sequence given for a smooth recovery
  • Recovery should be initiated by reference to the airspeed indicator, altimeter, vertical speed indicator, and turn coordinator
  • Consider practicing maneuvers on a flight simulator to introduce yourself to maneuvers or knock-off rust
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