Upset Prevention and Recovery (Part One)

Unusual Attitudes Versus Upsets

An unusual attitude is commonly referenced as an unintended or unexpected attitude in instrument flight. These unusual attitudes are introduced to a pilot during student pilot training as part of basic attitude instrument flying and continue to be trained and tested as part of certification for an instrument rating, aircraft type rating, and an airline transport pilot certificate. A pilot is taught the conditions or situations that could cause an unusual attitude, with focus on how to recognize one, and how to recover from one.


As discussed at the beginning of this section, the term “upset” is inclusive of unusual attitudes. An upset is defined as an event that unintentionally exceeds the parameters normally experienced in flight or training. These parameters are:

  • 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.

(Note: The reference to inappropriate airspeeds describes a number of undesired aircraft states, including stalls. However, stalls are directly related to AOA, not airspeed.)

Given the upset definition, there are a few key distinctions between an unusual attitude and an upset. First, an upset includes stall events where unusual attitude training typically does not. 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. 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. While the information that follows in this section could apply to unusual attitudes, the focus will be on UPRT.

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

With the exception of stall-related factors, which were covered in the previous section, the remaining causal and contributing factors to LOC-I accidents will be discussed further below.


Environmental Factors

Turbulence, or a large variation in wind velocity over a short distance, can cause upset and LOC-I. 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

Modern airplanes and equipment are very reliable, but anomalies do occur. Some of these mechanical failures can directly cause a departure from normal flight, such as asymmetrical flaps, malfunctioning or binding flight controls, and runaway trim.

Upsets can also occur if there is a malfunction or misuse of the autoflight system. Advanced automation may tend to mask the cause of the anomaly. Disengaging the autopilot and the autothrottles allows the pilot to directly control the airplane and possibly eliminate the cause of the problem. For these reasons the pilot must maintain proficiency to manually fly the airplane in all flight conditions without the use of the autopilot/autothrottles.

Although these and other inflight anomalies may not be preventable, knowledge of systems and AFM/POH 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


Unfortunately, accident reports indicate that continued VFR flight from visual meteorological conditions (VMC) into marginal VMC and IMC is a factor contributing to LOC I. A loss of the natural horizon substantially increases the chances of encountering vertigo or spatial disorientation, which can lead to upset.


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. For example, an airplane upset event that requires rolling an airplane from a near-inverted to an upright attitude may demand piloting skills beyond those learned during primary training. In another example, a fatigued pilot who inadvertently encounters IMC at night coupled with a vacuum pump failure, or a pilot fails to engage pitot heat while flying in IMC, could become disoriented and lose control of the airplane due to the demands of extended—and unpracticed—partial panel flight. Additionally, unnecessary low-altitude flying and impromptu demonstrations for friends or others on the ground often lead pilots to exceed their capabilities, with fatal results.


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 can be rapidly confronted with multiple or simultaneous visual, auditory, and tactile warnings. Conversely, sometimes expected warnings are not provided 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 other information that has been presented, but also to determine if information might be missing or invalid. For example, a stall warning system may fail and therefore not warn a pilot of close proximity to a stall, other cues must be used to avert a stall and possible LOC-I. These cues include aerodynamic buffet, loss of roll authority, or inability to arrest a descent.

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 error. Many airplane 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 is able to 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.

For detailed information regarding causal factors of spatial disorientation, refer to Aerospace Medicine Spatial Disorientation and Aerospace Medicine Reference Collection, which provides spatial disorientation videos. This collection can be found online at: headquarters_offices/avs/offices/aam/cami/library/online_libraries/aerospace_medicine/sd/videos/.

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

Surprise is an unexpected event that violates a pilot’s expectations and can affect the mental processes used to respond to the event.

This human response to unexpected events has traditionally been underestimated or even ignored during flight training. The reality is that untrained pilots often experience a state of surprise or a startle response to an airplane upset event. Startle may or may not lead to surprise. 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.