For pilots, one of the most difficult skills to learn is 'upset recovery' - righting a plane that has stalled or been thrown into an unstable situation due to weather or a technical problem. When a pilot is not able to fly out of an 'upset' and the plane proceeds out of control, accidents can result. And it is precisely because these extreme conditions seldom occur in real life that it is hard for a pilot to be prepared for them: up to now, no flight simulator reflects adequately how an actual aircraft behaves during upset situations. Alternative training methods – such as using large commercial aircraft for training or smaller ones – are either too dangerous or too expensive, or may not be comparable to how large aircraft behave and respond.
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Flight experts around the world have called for improved training on such situations. To give pilots the critical training they need, the European Union funded project SUPRA – or “Simulation of UPset Recovery in Aviation” – developed what has been called “the ultimate flight simulator”.
SUPRA has enhanced flight simulators beyond their current capabilities. The project comprised a broad team that includes aerospace research companies, a university, a flight test centre, a developer of flight simulators, and a cognitive research institute. Three Russian partners joined in with specific expertise that is hard to find inside the EU.
“We developed a new mathematical model that satisfactorily reproduces the behaviour of large transport aircraft in extreme situations”, said project coordinator Eric Groen of the Dutch research company TNO. Relying on this model, the simulator can move and spin wildly in all three dimensions, replicating an aircraft that is hurtling out of control. This will help train pilots to develop strategies to keep or retain control of an aircraft.
Experienced test pilots from companies including Airbus and Boeing, who know from experience how large transport air-planes behave in upset situations, have worked to evaluate the fidelity of the SUPRA simulators. Their judgments have been very positive.
The SUPRA team, meanwhile, assessed the pilots’ motion perception in conditions similar to actual aircraft upset situa-tions. The experiments’ results indicate that using the simulator can prepare a pilot for dealing with a crisis, simply by knowing what to expect. “What we have discovered,” Groen said, “is that if you have a pilot who has little or no experience with actual G-forces during upset conditions in a real aircraft, the pilot will be overwhelmed when he or she first feels them.”
This bodes well for vast practical applications of SUPRA’s work. “Currently regulators are making rules that will mandate upset recovery training for commercial pilots”, Groen said. “This will facilitate the industry’s adoption of the results of SUPRA to improve its pilot training programmes. With our technology we can upgrade those existing simulators to repro-duce the upset recovery behaviour in a correct way.” Several European airlines have already shown interest in the technology and the team is now showing its results to various aviation organisations responsible for pilot training.