Upset Recovery & Prevention Training: What it is all about, really?

The History behind UPRT

Loss of control in flight (LOC-I) of perfectly flyable, controllable aircraft is at the top of the list of worldwide commercial airline fatalities. Which really isn’t ok.

I recently flicked through ‘Pilots Notes General’ – a manual published in 1941 -which offers a ‘collection of notes’ for pilots on how to operate aircraft. It has some wonderful sections in it, like this excerpt on control effectiveness at very high speed and altitude:

“The effectiveness of the controls and trimming tabs deteriorates at high Mach numbers, sometimes resulting ultimately in loss of control

And this:

A special kind of instability occurs at the stall when a wing drops… Pilots may sometimes find themselves in difficulty through inadvertently allowing a considerable sideslip to develop… The prime necessity for regaining control is to get rid of sideslip by quick, vigorous use of the rudder.

So they understood even back then that aircraft work a little differently at high altitude, and had a plan for getting out of bad attitudes. This was (thankfully) reviewed over time, but until not that long ago the recovery technique trained did still promote the ‘lose as little height as possible’ concept. Which isn’t really great*.

*If you stall low level then this is definitely a consideration because you don’t have much height to recover in. But throwing on a whole load of thrust more in an attempt to increase speed does not generally have the intended consequence. It can cause a massive pitch up effect resulting in a secondary stall. You can also over stress the aircraft if you try and yank its nose up too fast.

The crash of AF447 (an “unstallable” Airbus*) in 2009, and several other major accidents led began to show that existing practices were not only ineffective, but sometimes actually contributed to the worsening of situations.

*Of course, no aircraft has had the laws of aerodynamics engineered out of them. Airbus brought in hard control laws intended at preventing an aircraft from being able to get into an unusual attitude. A lack of a full understanding of these control laws combined with a lack of general training and awareness of handing unusual attitudes at high altitude led to the accident

The Basics behind UPRT

UPRT is fundamentally about recognising and recovering from aircraft upsets. Recognition being as important because we would much rather prevent a situation developing, and of course recovery because sometimes they are going to develop and we need to know how to get of them (effectively).

Sounds easy? It is unfortunately a little more complex than that, for many reasons, but a really big one being:

Our brains don’t always function well when startled or surprised

Yep, our brains have a habit of throwing our limbs into action before it has had time to work out what action is actually needed. Combine this with situations that are going to be really really startling and surprising and which have quite a critical time element and…

Uh oh!

So, UPRT 2.0 is here and is something all pilots should be getting trained in.

UPRT stages

Like I said, there are two equally important components to this:

  • Recognition: Understanding and confirming what is happening
  • Recovery: Taking action to get back to a ‘normal state;

We don’t want to wait for an upset, we want to recognise the potential for one occurring, and prevent it before it does – which means recognising the conditions which may potentially lead to it become just as important as recognising the actual onset of one.

The other big benefit of proactive monitoring is that it can help minimise the impact of startle and surprise by providing the pilot with a level of situational awareness.


There are 2 different ‘unusual attitudes’ we need to recover from:

  • Aircraft Unusual Attitude: Pitch >20°/<-10°, Bank > 45°
  • Brain Unusual Attitude: Cognitive ‘stall’

And we really want to make sure we recover from the second one before we try and do anything to deal with the first one because otherwise we might ‘deal with it’ wrong.

But let’s look at the aircraft recovery first, because it is (arguably) the simple bit.

The aircraft recovery requires a recognition of what is going on, and then actions to bring it back to a normal “not unusual” state. You have probably heard “PUSH, ROLL, POWER, STABILISE” technique and although very simple, this is a good mantra to follow.

But only if you have recognised the condition and determined the required actions correctly!*

*Which does require a level of recovery from brain stall – we’ll come to this later

‘PUSH’ is not a violent shoving forward of the nose, but an action taken to unload the wings. Even in an extremely nose low attitude your wings can be stalled, and a ‘check forward’ to unload the wings and bring the aircraft out of the stall may be required.

‘ROLL’ is to level the wings so they provide maximum lift, and of course to bring the aircraft into a ‘normal’ state. Rolling the right way may seem obvious, but our friend ‘brain stall’ can lead to incorrect actions. Knowing what to look for to very quickly determine the correct way to roll is a key aspect of UPRT training.

Both roll and changes to power must sometimes be considered almost simultaneously to the ‘push’ – a nose high attitude for example may require a slight roll to bring about a nose drop before wings level, while throwing on power (as we said earlier) could lead to further nose up tendencies or faster acceleration towards the ground when we want to start climbing away.

So PUSH ROLL POWER STABILISE is a good mantra to apply, but only if done right and with an understanding of the aerodynamics involved, at the altitudes it is occurring at.

Now for your brain recovery

So much easier said than done.

A lot of folks promote the “sit on your hands” or the “take a deep breath” concepts. The intention of these is to create a sort of buffer zone where we just don’t do anything until our brain has had time to ‘unstall’ and start to properly comprehend the information in front of it.

Current UPRT techniques often call for the pilot to make a ‘call out’ – “Upset, I have control!” or vocalise the actions “Push, Roll, Power, Stabilise” – but from experience, trying to get vaguely comprehensible words out while your brain reorganises itself is not easy, and both those calls (and ones like it) expect you to be straight into that “ready to recover’ state.

So maybe allow yourself an actual moment to recover? One trainer, experienced in UPRT suggested simply saying anything can help bring your brain out of the fog and start it firing again. So rather than trying to beat the startle, give it a moment, swear if you need to, then go into those actions, calls, responses and recovery.

Of course, one major issue with UPRT is that you can’t train for startle and surprise when you can’t simulate it.

Actually, let’s focus on that

Simulators nowadays have a great button you can press that flips the sim into an unusual attitude. I’ve experienced it a few times, it does startle the c*** out of me. But then I am a very jumpy person, and even in that situation (even if an instructor pressed it with zero warning) it is still impossible really simulate how this will feel for a variety of reasons:

  • Your mate was in the sim a few days before and warned you about what might happen
  • You know you’re in a sim and are expecting general horrors to come flying your way
  • You know you’re in a sim and so also know you won’t actually experience real doom/death/destruction if it all goes wrong
  • You haven’t actually been up all night cruising over the North Atlantic at 3am so have an alertness level that is higher than you really would if you really were cruising over the North Atlantic at 3am after being up all night…

We can’t simulate the full (and I chose this word carefully) horror of what it is really going to feel like if you suddenly and without warning find your aircraft beeping, buzzing and flipping over on you. And yes, hitting some wake turbulence could do that. So we cannot really practice for this but we do really need to because a large number of LOC-I and UAS events are compounded by incorrect ‘knee jerk’ reactions occurring through startle and surprise!

UPRT programs that rely solely on FTSDs may not effectively replicate the physiological and aerodynamic effects of real-word upset events – P. Ransbury, CEO APS

Notes from a pilot

I have had/ heard of many a ‘real life’ startles/surprise from my own experience and hearing from others:

  • A serious wake turbulence encounter: Surprisingly, this happened in an A3 (when we hit the wake of another A380 ahead of us). The aircraft banked very violently, the autopilot disconnected, and by the time I’d managed to say “what the ****” it had rather violently rolled the other way. The time it took be to mentally recover meant the aircraft had already mostly stabilised itself
  • A ‘glitch’ that made the aircraft yell “WINDSHEAR” at me: I reacted, disconnected everything, threw the thrust levers to TOGA… realised I was at 12,000′, felt extremely embarrassed (and gave myself a lot of extra work having confused the automation even more) and learnt that reacting fast does not always result in the right reaction!
  • We lost Oil Pressure on an engine: Yep, instant “uh oh, our engine is going to seize” reaction and my hand zoomed towards the thrust lever to shut it down. Thankfully, a good Captain actually recognised the situation for what it was (a fault gauge) before ‘Quick Fire” me shutdown a perfectly good engine (we had 4 and could have started it again, but still)

Startle and surprise are not things we can easily train ‘against’ which means we might need to re-think how we go about preparing and mitigating against them.

Share your experiences and techniques for doing so and help others!

  • Proactively monitor to improve your SA, and maintain a level of robustness and resilience
  • Tell the other pilot if your alertness levels are falling
  • Ensure you are clear on the signs of UAS, and the instruments to use to help correctly confirm the situation
  • Refresh yourself regularly on UPRT recovery techniques
  • Have people regularly make you jump to test your startle/surprise responses
  • Know your procedures and any recall or memory actions for specific occurrences
  • Be aware of different handling at high altitude
  • Evaluate yourself and your reactions to startle or surprise so you have an awareness of how to handle yourself
  • Practice mitigation techniques for minimising startle/ surprise responses
  • Head to ‘Av it your way’ and comment on the forum


Here are some official, expert sources to head to:


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