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.

Unusual Attitudes Versus Upsets

Given the upset definition, there are a few key distinctions between an unusual attitude and an upset. An upset:

  • Includes stall events.
  • Includes overspeeds or other inappropriate speeds for a given flight condition.
  • Has defined parameters. For example, for training purposes an instructor could place the aircraft 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.
  • Centers on unintentional situations that may lead to a startle effect. For example, during unusual attitude training, the pilot is often directed to close their eyes, and any element of surprise disappears.

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

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 should maintain proficiency to manually fly the airplane in all flight conditions without the use of the autopilot/autothrottles.

Although these and other in-flight 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.

Diversion of Attention

In addition to its direct impact, an in-flight 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 orientation 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 could 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, so other cues need to 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. The videos are available online at:

Surprise and Startle Response

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

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 should 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.

Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT)

Upsets are not intentional flight maneuvers, except in maneuver-based training; therefore, they are often unexpected. The reaction of an inexperienced or inadequately trained pilot to an unexpected abnormal flight attitude is usually instinctive rather than intelligent and deliberate. Such a pilot often reacts with abrupt muscular effort, which is without purpose and even hazardous in turbulent conditions, at excessive speeds, or at low altitudes.

Without proper upset recovery training on interpretation and airplane control, the pilot can quickly aggravate an abnormal flight attitude into a potentially fatal LOC-I accident. Consequently, UPRT is intended to focus education and training on the prevention of upsets, and on recovering from these events if they occur. [Figure 1]

Maneuvers that better prepare a pilot for understanding unusual attitudes and situations are representative of upset training.
Figure 1. Maneuvers that better prepare a pilot for understanding unusual attitudes and situations are representative of upset training.
  • Upset prevention refers to pilot actions to avoid a divergence from the desired airplane state. Awareness and prevention training serve to avoid incidents. Early recognition of an upset scenario coupled with appropriate preventive action often can mitigate a situation that could otherwise escalate into an LOC-I accident.
  • Recovery refers to pilot actions that return an airplane that is diverging in altitude, airspeed, or attitude to a desired state from a developing or fully-developed upset. Recovery training serves to reduce accidents as a result of an unavoidable or inadvertently-encountered upset event. The pilot can learn to initiate a recovery to a normal flight mode immediately upon recognition of the developing upset condition. The pilot should ensure that control inputs and power adjustments applied to counter an upset are in direct proportion to the amount and rates of change of roll, yaw, and pitch, or airspeed so as to avoid overstressing the airplane unless ground contact is imminent.

UPRT Training Core Concepts

Airplane upsets are by nature time-critical events; they can also place pilots in unusual and unfamiliar attitudes that sometimes require counterintuitive control movements. Upsets have the potential to put a pilot into a life-threatening situation compounded by panic, diminished mental capacity, and potentially incapacitating spatial disorientation. Real-world upset situations often provide very little time to react, but exposure to such events during training can reduce surprise and mitigate confusion during an actual unexpected upset. The goal is to equip the pilot to promptly recognize an escalating threat pattern or sensory overload and quickly identify and correct an impending upset.

UPRT stresses that the first step is recognizing any time the airplane begins to diverge from the intended flightpath or airspeed. Pilots need to identify and determine what, if any, action should be taken. As a general rule, any time visual cues or instrument indications differ from basic flight maneuver expectations, the pilot should assume an upset and cross-check to confirm the attitude, instrument error or instrument malfunction.

To achieve maximum effect, it is crucial for UPRT concepts to be conveyed accurately and in a non-threatening manner. Reinforcing concepts through positive experiences significantly improves a pilot’s depth of understanding, retention of skills, and desire for continued training. Also, training in a carefully structured environment allows for exposure to these events and can help the pilot react more quickly, decisively, and calmly when the unexpected occurs during flight. However, like many other skills, the skills needed for upset prevention and recovery are perishable and thus require continuous reinforcement through training.

UPRT in the airplane and flight simulation training device (FSTD) should be conducted in both visual and simulated instrument conditions to allow pilots to practice recognition and recovery under both situations. UPRT should allow them to experience and recognize some of the physiological factors related to each, such as the confusion and disorientation that can result from visual cues in an upset event. Training that includes recovery from bank angles exceeding 90 degrees could further add to a pilot’s overall knowledge and skills for upset recognition and recovery. For such training, additional measures should be taken to ensure the suitability of the airplane or FSTD and that instructors are appropriately qualified.Upset prevention and recovery training is different from aerobatic training. [Figure 2]

Some differences between aerobatic training and upset prevention and recovery training
Figure 2. Some differences between aerobatic training and upset prevention and recovery training

In aerobatic training, the pilot knows and expects the maneuver, so effects of startle or surprise are missing. The main goal of aerobatic training is to teach pilots how to intentionally and precisely maneuver an aerobatic-capable airplane in three dimensions. The primary goal of UPRT is to help pilots overcome sudden onsets of stress to avoid, prevent, and recover from unplanned excursions that could lead to LOC-I.

Comprehensive UPRT builds on three mutually supportive components: academics, airplane-based training and, typically at the transport category type-rating training level, use of FSTDs. Each has unique benefits and limitations but, when implemented cohesively and comprehensively throughout a pilot’s career, the components can offer maximum preparation for upset awareness, prevention, recognition, and recovery.

Academic Material (Knowledge and Risk Management)

Academics establish the foundation for development of situational awareness, insight, knowledge, and skills. As in practical skill development, academic preparation should move from the general to specific while emphasizing the significance of each basic concept. Although academic preparation is crucial and does offer a level of mitigation of the LOC-I threat, long-term retention of knowledge is best achieved when applied and correlated with practical hands-on experience.

The academic portion of UPRT should also address the prevention concepts surrounding aeronautical-decision making (ADM) and risk management (RM), and proportional counter response.

Prevention Through ADM and Risk Management

This element of prevention routinely occurs in a time scale of minutes or hours, revolving around the concept of effective ADM and risk management through analysis, awareness, resource management, and interrupting the error chain through basic airmanship skills and sound judgment. For instance, imagine a situation in which a pilot assesses conditions at an airport prior to descent and recognizes those conditions as being too severe to safely land the airplane. Using situational awareness to avert a potentially threatening flight condition is an example of prevention of an LOC-I situation through effective risk management. Pilots should evaluate the circumstances for each flight (including the equipment and environment), looking specifically for scenarios that may require a higher level of risk management. These include situations that could result in low-altitude maneuvering, steep turns in the pattern, uncoordinated flight, or increased load factors.

Another part of ADM is crew resource management (CRM) or single-pilot resource management (SRM). Both are relevant to the UPRT environment. When available, a coordinated crew response to potential and developing upsets can provide added benefits such as increased situational awareness, mutual support, and an improved margin of safety. Since an untrained crewmember can be the most unpredictable element in an upset scenario, initial UPRT for crew operations should be mastered individually before being integrated into a multi-crew, CRM environment. A crew should be able to accomplish the following:

  1. Communicate and confirm the situation clearly and concisely;
  2. Transfer control to the most situationally-aware crewmember;
  3. Using standardized interactions, work as a team to enhance awareness, manage stress, and mitigate fear.

Prevention Through Proportional Counter-Response

In simple terms, proportional counter-response is the timely manipulation of flight controls and thrust, either as the sole pilot or crew as the situation dictates, to manage an airplane flight attitude or flight envelope excursion that was unintended or not commanded by the pilot.

The time-scale of this element of prevention typically occurs on the order of seconds or fractions of seconds, with the goal being the ability to recognize a developing upset and take proportionally-appropriate avoidance actions to preclude the airplane entering a fully-developed upset. Due to the sudden, surprising nature of this level of developing upset, there exists a high risk for panic and overreaction to ensue and aggravate the situation.


Last but not least, the academics portion lays the foundation for development of UPRT skills by instilling the knowledge, procedures, and techniques required to accomplish a safe recovery. The airplane and FSTD-based training elements presented below serve to translate the academic material into structured practice. This can start with classroom visualization of recovery procedures and continue with repetitive skill practiced in an airplane, and then potentially further developed in the simulated environment.

In the event looking outside does not provide enough situational awareness of the airplane attitude, a pilot can use the flight instruments to recognize and recover from an upset. To recover from nose-high and nose-low attitudes, the pilot should follow the procedures recommended in the AFM/POH. In general, upset recovery procedures are summarized in Figure 3.

Upset recovery template
Figure 3. Upset recovery template

Common Errors

Common errors associated with upset recoveries include the following:

  1. Incorrect assessment of what kind of upset the airplane is in
  2. Failure to disconnect the wing leveler or autopilot
  3. Failure to unload the airplane, if necessary
  4. Failure to roll in the correct direction
  5. Inappropriate management of the airspeed during the recovery

Roles of FSTDs and Airplanes in UPRT

Training devices range from aviation training devices (e.g., basic and advanced) to FSTDs (e.g., flight training devices (FTD) and full flight simulators (FFS)) and have a broad range of capabilities. While all of these devices have limitations relative to actual flight, only the higher fidelity devices (i.e., Level C and D FFS) are a satisfactory substitution for developing UPRT skills in the actual aircraft. Except for these higher fidelity devices, initial skill development should be accomplished in a suitable airplane, and the accompanying training device should be used to build upon these skills. [Figure 4]

A Level D full-flight simulator could be used for UPRT
Figure 4. A Level D full-flight simulator could be used for UPRT

Airplane-Based UPRT

Ultimately, the more realistic the training scenario, the more indelible the learning experience. Although creating a visual scene of a 110° banked attitude with the nose 30° below the horizon may not be technically difficult in a modern simulator, the learning achieved while viewing that scene from the security of the simulator is not as complete as when viewing the same scene in an airplane. Maximum learning is achieved when the pilot is placed in the controlled, yet adrenaline-enhanced, environment of upsets experienced while in flight. For these reasons, airplane-based UPRT improves a pilot’s ability to overcome fear in an airplane upset event.

However, airplane-based UPRT does have limitations. The level of upset training possible may be limited by the maneuvers approved for the particular airplane, as well as by the flight instructor’s own UPRT capabilities. For instance, UPRT conducted in the normal category by a typical flight instructor will necessarily be different from UPRT conducted in the aerobatic category by a flight instructor with expertise in aerobatics.

When considering upset training conducted in an aerobatic-capable airplane in particular, the importance of employing instructors with specialized UPRT experience in those airplanes cannot be overemphasized. Just as instrument or tailwheel instruction requires specific skill sets for those operations, UPRT demands that instructors possess the competence to oversee trainee progress, and the ability to intervene as necessary with consistency and professionalism. As in any area of training, the improper delivery of stall, spin, and upset recovery training often results in negative learning, which could have severe consequences not only during the training itself, but in the skills and mindset pilots take with them when they have passengers and place the lives of others at stake.

All-Attitude/All-Envelope Flight Training Methods

Sound UPRT encompasses operation in a wide range of possible flight attitudes and covers the airplane’s limit flight envelope. This training is essential to prepare pilots for unexpected upsets. As stated at the outset, the primary focus of a comprehensive UPRT program is the avoidance of, and safe recovery from, upsets. Much like basic instrument skills, which can be applied to flying a vast array of airplanes, the majority of skills and techniques required for upset recovery are not airplane-specific. Just as basic instrument skills learned in lighter and lower performing airplanes are applied to more advanced airplanes, basic upset recovery techniques provide lessons that remain with pilots throughout their flying careers.


UPRT can be effective in high fidelity devices (i.e., Level C and D FFS); however, instructors and pilots should be mindful of the technical and physiological boundaries when using a particular FSTD for upset training. This training is a current requirement for pilots seeking a multiengine airplane ATP certificate in accordance with 14 CFR part 61, section 61.156, and the training course must be FAA approved.

Coordinated Flight

Coordinated flight occurs whenever the pilot is proactively correcting for yaw effects associated with power (engine/ propeller effects), aileron inputs, how an airplane reacts when turning, and airplane rigging. The airplane is in coordinated flight when the airplane’s nose is yawed directly into the relative wind and the ball is centered in the slip/skid indicator (except for certain multiengine airplane operation with an engine failure). [Figure 5]

Coordinated flight in a turn
Figure 5. Coordinated flight in a turn

Angle of Attack

The angle of attack (AOA) is the angle at which the chord of the wing meets the relative wind. The chord is a straight line from the leading edge to the trailing edge. At low angles of attack, the airflow over the top of the wing flows smoothly and produces lift with a relatively small amount of drag. As the AOA increases, lift as well as drag increases; however, above a wing’s critical AOA, the flow of air separates from the upper surface and backfills, burbles, and eddies, which reduces lift and increases drag. This condition is a stall, which can lead to loss of control if the AOA is not reduced.

It is important for the pilot to understand that a stall is the result of exceeding the critical AOA, not of insufficient airspeed. The term “stalling speed” can be misleading, as this speed is often discussed when assuming 1G flight at a particular weight and configuration. Increased load factor directly affects stall speed (as well as do other factors such as gross weight, center of gravity, and flap setting). Therefore, it is possible to stall the wing at any airspeed, at any flight attitude, and at any power setting. For example, if a pilot maintains airspeed and rolls into a coordinated, level 60° banked turn, the load factor is 2G, and the airplane will stall at a speed that is 41 percent higher than the 1G stall speed. In that 2G level turn, the pilot has to increase AOA to increase the lift required to maintain altitude. At this condition, the pilot is closer to the critical AOA than during level flight and therefore closer to the higher stalling speed. Because “stalling speed” is not a constant number, pilots need to understand the underlying factors that affect it in order to maintain aircraft control in all circumstances.