Shakers and FAA Training

The FAA has rolled out a huge new batch of rules requiring expanded simulator training for airline pilots. The rule change is largely the result of the turboprop regional airline crew that got slow on approach and pulled back on the stick when the stall warning stick shaker activated instead of reducing back pressure on the controls. So the new rules will require pilots to train for something they already know and practice–lower the nose when the shaker fires.

I think the stick shaker is one of the great aviation safety inventions of all time. Its warning is totally intuitive and the shaker is unmistakable in the visual clutter of cockpit warning lights and CAS messages, and the increasing number of warning tones and spoken alerts. The shaker message comes through your hands, the very thing that connects a pilot to the airplane. What warning could be more clear?

Over the past few years shaker warnings again proved their value in helicopters. Safe Flight Instrument Corp. created a collective shaker to warn a pilot when he was pulling up too far asking the engine and main rotor system for too much power. Exceeding collective power limits can damage the engine, transmission and other components. At a minimum a costly inspection is required. The U.S. Army was very interested in the system because collective power eceedance events was costing a bundle.

Once the Army installed the Safe Flight collective shaker the rate of exceedance dropped to nearly nothing. And that was with no exotic training or lengthy practice by the pilots. It’s just obvious. When the collective lever in your left hand starts vibrating vigorously it’s a natural reaction to push it down a little, or at least stop pulling up.

Several car companies have now adopted the shaker as warning concept because of its intuitive and unique ability to alert a driver as well as a pilot. In some premium cars a shaker in the seat vibrates when the anti-collision system detects a threat. If the collision threat is on your right, for example, the right side of the driver’s seat shakes. It’s a natural reaction to sense the vibration on one side, be alerted, and look in that direction for a threat. Cadillac, for example, isn’t sending owners to sim training to learn how to respond to the seat shaker. It’s obvious, and it works.

Despite the intuitive nature of the stick shaker warning airline and other jet pilots have been practicing recovery from a shaker activation in the flight simulator at least every year. When the shaker starts to vibrate the column in the sim you add power and reduce back pressure or you flunk. And you should flunk if you can’t figure that out.

But thanks to Congress which responded to pressure from families of victims in the Buffalo crash pilots will now have to spend who knows how much time in the sim increasing the angle of attack until the shaker fires and then taking action to reduce the AOA. What’s next? Increased training on the importance of lowering the wheels before touchdown?

Another accident the added to the brew of new training requirements is the Air France Airbus crash into the Atlantic more than four years ago. In that one stall warning was totally absent because all three air data systems failed leaving the crew with no clear and reliable indication of airspeed. Maybe the AOA indication was still working but the crew had so many confusing warning messages and such odd indications on the flight instruments that it would have been extremely difficult to know what was reliable and what wasn’t.

Because of that Airbus accident airline pilots training in the sim will now be required to hand fly without reliable airspeed indication. Losing any of the primary flight instruments has been a staple of sim training for many years so this isn’t really new either.

There are other requirements in the rewritten rules for pilots to practice directional control on the runway in strong crosswinds, and to recover from a bounced landing. Duh? Everybody’s been doing that already, too.

But Congress acted, the FAA reacted and everyone can congratulate themselves that new rules will transform an unbelievably excellent airline safety record into the unobtainable perfect record. I sure wish paperwork had the kind of power.

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19 Responses to Shakers and FAA Training

  1. Carter Boswell says:

    Hello Mac,

    Excellent article!

    In two weeks I go for my annual recurrent training for my airline, and all the things you mentioned I will be required to perform. Since their is no AOA indicator in my 737 cockpit, OK their is a PLI or pitch limit indicator that uses AOA information, I always ask the instructor when should I pull back on the stick to recover when nose low? Or when nose low at what Angle of Attack, in units, should I pull back to start the recovery? Every instructor i’ve done this to agrees we should have AOA indicators in the cockpit. The PLI is a really sad substitute. Come on Boeing lets do the AOA thing right.
    One other Item, I’ve asked our training department to include multiple visual approaches to SFO, in calm and clear conditions, for next years training event. I’m demanding that they allocate at least a half hour to these. I’m so rusty at visual approaches, I’ve probably only done about 400 this year. Of course Congress, being ultra safety conscious, should change the rules by requiring us to shoot visual approaches at least fifty times a quarter and then if we fall short, we would return to the simulator for six or seven more. Maybe congress will mandate these to, as they did the upset and low altitude stall exercises. I’m sure feeling safer aren’t you?


  2. Bill Berson says:

    Mac said: “The shaker message comes through your hands, the very thing that connects a pilot to the airplane. What warning could be more clear?”

    I read on Wikipedia that the Buffalo crash airplane had a stick shaker and also a stick pusher. The pilot overpowered the stick pusher.
    Why would both pilots pull back and hold? I think the answer is that when faced with your airplane pointed down in an emergency, the natural reaction is to pull back on the yoke. I got myself into a spin unexpectedly while demonstrating slow flight to another pilot in my old Chief. It stunned me for several seconds, while looking straight down at the ground through the windshield. I glanced at the yoke and found that I was actually pulling the control wheel up near my chest. I knew this wasn’t good. I had received just barely enough spin training to recognize what was happening and quickly released the yoke and recovered. Fortunately, it happened at 3500 feet agl or I wouldn’t be writing this.

    But most pilots don’t get enough time flying around on the edge of a stall to rid themselves of this natural reaction to pull up.
    Now as glider pilot, I do get hours of practice flying near stalled while thermaling in weak lift. And glider pilots can’t recover from a stall by adding power. A bit of glider time would help, but we certainly don’t need another new rule to comply with.

    • Sarah A says:

      Sounds a bit like the Air France crash, the plane was descending so they kept pulling back to arrest the descent. I think there was some discussion in the cockpit that they were in a stall hence the rapidly decreasing altitude but that line of thought did not win out and result in a recovery. If you look a long ways back a National Airlines 727 climbed into icing with the pitot heat off and the pilot kept pulling back on the stick until they stalled and crashed (climbing with blocked pitot yields increased airspeed indication). I think the pilot was actually confusing stall buffet with mach buffet but why he thought they could be in an overspeed with the nose pointed that high is significant. That pilot, as have many others, developed a mindset as to what the problem was and ignored all conflicting information. He saw the airspeed climb and ignored all the evidence that said that was impossible. I wonder if the accident that started this discussion was a mixture of these, the pilot(s) did not want to descend for some reason (already too low ?) and were willing to do anything to keep that from happening.

  3. Stoofpilot says:

    Both pilots in Buffalo should have never been in a cockpit. Even in getting their private pilot license I am sure some instructor put them in a stall and had them level the wings, push the nose over and add power if needed.

    I am a former Naval Aviator and it scares me every time I get on a regional flight and look at the young age of the pilots who are trying to build time to get hired by a major. The core problem to me is that the regionals under stand this and want to pay accordingly. Safety and flight crew experience are no different in a 50 seat regional or a 200 seat major. To me, congress and the FAA should have a minimum Captain experience of eight years from any combination of major (laid off probably and regional) and 3000 hours. This new 1,500 hours is a joke IMHO.

    • Bill Tomlinson says:

      “Both pilots in Buffalo should have never been in a cockpit.” ======== You have said what I had been itching to say – and I cannot but wonder why only one other poster [Tom Davis] has come close to saying it.

      No instructor worth his salt would allow a student to go solo unless he was satisfied that the student had grasped the idea that you push if you get into a stall.

      Presumably those airplane-drivers – I cannot bring myself to call them “pilots” – in Buffalo had ATP’s. And they didn’t know this???

      Anybody entrusted with the lives of umpteen passengers should be totally comfortable recovering an aircraft from ANY attitude at ANY altitude. Rather than installing stick-shakers, perhaps the answer is to make an aerobatics qualification a pre-requisite for an ATP.

      • Bill Berson says:

        Instructors are not required to provide any spin training to Airline Trasnsport Pilots. And Private Pilots don’t get spin training. So how can you blame the instructor when this pilot had the wrong reaction?

  4. Larry N. says:

    One of the hardest things to do, as many pilots know (and all should), is to get the nose down when close to the ground.

    When I first started takeoff and landing practice (many years back) from a hayfield, there was a line of moderately tall trees past the far end of the field. So I naturally pulled back from my initial normal climb in order to get over the trees. My instructor told me to get the nose down, but I said we had to get over the trees. After a couple more iterations of that he took over, held the nose down to cruise speed (in that little Aeronca Chief) held it for a bit until I thought sure we would hit the trees. Finally, he added back pressure and we zoomed over the trees with lots of room to spare.

    That’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and it has saved my bacon more than once over the years. I also tried to pass that on to my students, but was always hard pressed to find enough of an obstacle to use in exactly that way (though I always told this story to them, too), but managed some weak demos.

  5. Chira Fernando says:

    It is a pity that the FAA (and other regulators) have ‘knee jerk’ reactions to these accidents. Stall accident- teach recovery, airspeed problems – teach pitch & power, SFO Visual approach-teach more visual approaches. When will this ever stop? Will 1500 hrs as a FI in light aircraft plus an ATPL make a better airline pilot. I think not. The answer lies in the MPL (Multi-Crew Pilots Licence). That program teaches pilots to work together and resolve issues as a team and using basics. I teach MPL Cadets and let me tell all those non-believers, with 86 hours (70 Dual, 16 Solo) of actual aircraft flying (C172 Glass) in Phase 1 and just halfway in Phase 2 (30 hrs PF & 30 hrs PNF) these boys and girls are flying the A320 simulator on raw data much better than most Line Pilots that I have seen – and I have seen many. These kids still have over 100 hrs training remaining. MPL is the way to make better Airline Pilots. Of course the 60 year old CPL/IR syllabus will also have to be looked at and improved. 100 hrs solo- what does that teach except possibly survival!

  6. Dan says:

    Wasn’t this accident as much about fatigue caused by commuting as anything else? The precise cause might have been as stated, but what caused experienced pilots to do that? Fatigue.

  7. Cary Alburn says:

    Bottom line: Safety is not related to numbers of hours, statutory training requirements, lengthy rule making, or any other government implementation. It’s the quality of the training and the receptiveness of the student, in combination, which ultimately determines whether a pilot will know what to do when the unexpected happens. Or in other words, Congress should stay out of the safety business–it’s about as competent there as it is in other areas of real life outside of the Beltway.

  8. Tom Davis says:

    One thing that’s lacking in some modern flight training programs is exposure to actual full stalls. With all the emphasis on stall avoidance in recent years, many newer pilots have never experienced real stalls and recovery from them. I had an old-school instructor when I learned to fly back in the seventies. He made sure we carried the stall through to a full break, and we did spins and spin recovery before he would sign us off for solo. We got to see what it’s like when the nose is pointing way down and the windshield is filled with the rapidly rotating terrain below.
    Stall avoidance training is good; we want pilots to be able to avoid unintended stalls. It’s good to know how to avoid getting into trouble, but when the windshield fills with earth it’s really good to have been there before and to have overcome the natural impulse to “pull”, and to have replaced it with “push then lightly pull.” I’d hate to think the first time a pilot experiences the sensation that lies beyond the buffet is when they find themselves in an unintended stall, and they think, “Gee, my instructor never showed me THIS!”
    Also, regarding the Buffalo tragedy, I think there’s an unintended consequence that comes along with instrument training: we’re taught that it’s a cardinal sin to let our altitude deviate, especially to the low side on an approach. Sure, we want to stay above the terrain and not run into things like towers and buildings. But maybe that creates an aversion (at least in the fatigued mind of a commuter pilot at the end of a long day) to pushing or releasing back pressure. Regardless of the altitude printed on the approach plate, the first priority should be to keep the airplane flying.

  9. Doug says:

    And this has to do with Experimental Aviation how??

    You do know you write for an Experimental Aviation Magazine…right?

    • Mac says:

      Hi Doug,
      Within the past 12 months there have been about 30 fatal stall accidents in experimental airplanes. In the past 12 years there have been zero stall fatal accidents for major U.S. airlines and only one by a regional carrier. I think most pilots want to learn from other pilots who are doing it better.
      The new FAA regulations aim to make an almost perfect record even better in airline flying. I don’t necessarily agree with a need for the expanded rules, but those of us who fly any type of airplane can and should learn from those who are doing it safer.
      Mac Mc

  10. .Bob says:

    You’re right Doug.
    This has nothing at all to do with flying or aviation.
    It has to do with over-reaching government regulation.
    That will never affect experimental aviation.

  11. snaucler says:

    I realize that there are a lot of government rules related to aviation that are far less than perfect, but the modern safety record is hard to argue with. I just finished reading Fate Is the Hunter and one of the many takeaways was how many airliners crashed in the 30′s and 40′s compared to now. Thanks to a group effort by pilots, airlines, passengers, and the FAA flying has become a lot safer.

    Additionally, several years ago I was an avid paraglider pilot. Non-powered paragliders and hang gliders are allowed to be self-regulated with virtually no involvement by the FAA. That community is a good window into what GA could become without FAA intervention (I think more GA pilots should try paragliding). What did I witness, a complete disregard for what few rules there were, a long list of individuals that had suffered life altering back injuries, people who will never walk again, people who will never walk normally again, and more close calls than I could count.

    We need effective, realistic rules to maintain order in the skies. We need to fix or remove the rules that are not meaningful.

    • Bill Tomlinson says:

      “I just finished reading Fate Is the Hunter and one of the many takeaways was how many airliners crashed in the 30′s and 40′s compared to now.” === “Fate Is the Hunter” is one of my favourite books, but I think the improvement in the airliner accident records is to do with jet engines (MUCH more reliable than recips), with the ability to get above the weather, and with vastly improved avionics. Contrast shooting an ILS approach, with shooting an approach using an Adcock Range. The ILS is not only far more accurate; it is also far easier.

  12. Josh says:

    You know, all the talk about the Buffalo crash reminds me of what an old time charter and crop-duster told me once – you’re not a pilot till you have 1000 hours dual given. He died of old age with something like 40,000 hours. Now that I’m looking well from the other side of the 1000 hours dual given, I am absolutely convinced he was right. It won’t hurt airline pilots a bit to have to slog it out several hundred hours in a 152 instructing while they’re working towards the ATP. I’ve had students try to stall it on landing, freak out and freeze on the controls, almost drag wingtips on landing in a Cessna, more incipient spins than I care to mention, hours of slow flight, you name it. Pushing in a stall is second nature. I want to call BS on the idea that a college degree somehow makes you a great aviator – there is value in standardized training, no doubt, but no substitute for time in the right seat with a student who out of ignorance is trying to kill you! At 200 hours, I thought I was a young Chuck Yeager, but looking now, I realize I’ve still got a heck of a lot to learn, and scary just how little I knew back then. I should have been paying my students for my first 100 hours dual given – at least we didn’t bend any metal. As far as additional sim training regarding stall awareness, I guess it can’t hurt, but seat time is the answer – not the straight and level kind either!

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