These are the first three steps to bringing an upset aircraft back under control, and something US Air Force pilots-in-training practice each and every time they go out on a contact sortie. The “recognize, confirm, recover” mantra transfers to instrument recoveries as well. Regardless of whether there is a visible horizon or not, the dance steps are the same to recover the aircraft back to a stable state. The pilot must “recognize” that the aircraft is upset, “confirm” that the upset situation exists by reference to something beyond the primary attitude reference, and then apply the correct procedure to safely “recover” the aircraft.

By the standard industry definition, an aircraft is upset anytime it exceeds 30 degrees of pitch up, 10 degrees of pitch down, or 45 degrees of bank. This is a good set of parameters to apply to large, transport category aircraft. Beyond these parameters, the aircraft is severely upset. Regardless of the severity of the upset, the fundamental recovery procedures are the same, so let’s break it down.


One of the distinct advantages to using the L-39 as our training aircraft is its excellent visibility. There is no better attitude indicator than the outside world, and our training focuses on a “head out of the cockpit” approach so that the student can really see what is going on during the recovery, rather than myopically focusing on the attitude indicator only. We call this earth-centered awareness, and it is our experience that a pilot who is initially trained to recover an upset by using outside visual references only performs markedly better than those pilots who recover solely by reference to the flight instruments. Obviously, there are times when an IMC recovery is required, and the pilot has no choice but to reference the flight instruments only. Recognition of the upset is usually the easy part. If the aircraft suddenly pitches up 45 degrees and rolls off into 120 degrees of bank, it is hard to miss. Insidious autopilot failures, lack of situational awareness, spatial disorientation, or mis-prioritization will impede the recognition of an upset situation. Whether VMC or IMC, fly the airplane first.


Once the aircraft upset is recognized, a rapid assessment of its energy state is essential. If you look up and see the nose way above the horizon, and the aircraft rolling past 90 degrees of bank, get your eyes inside the cockpit momentarily to assess. Check your primary and secondary attitude indicators: have they tumbled or do they back up what you saw out of the windscreen? Check your performance instruments. In our situation if the airspeed is rapidly decreasing, that would support the extreme nose high attitude. You must quickly verify (confirm) the upset exists, and correctly assess your energy state while doing so to effect a positive follow-on recovery.


I cannot give you a set of procedures in one paragraph to recover from an upset situation. Generally speaking however, we teach lift vector management in our earth centered approach to recover the aircraft. Energy assessment and energy management are also critical concepts to understand. A significant portion of the academics focuses on angle of attack and the production of lift. This is because during the recovery, it is critical to determine whether the wing is flying or not. During our Acrojet academics and sortie briefings we cover this material in depth, and the student will step to fly with a firm grasp of the fundamentals to apply in the aircraft. In the spirit of keeping it simple, we teach the student to unload the wing, roll to the nearest horizon, pull the nose to the horizon, and roll wings level as required. Finally, adjust the power to support the recovery.

“Recognize, confirm, recover” is the foundation of a safe, positive recovery from an upset situation. Practical application of these fundamental elements in a controlled environment with an experienced instructor is just good training.