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Managing Startle Response

Wednesday, 09 December 2015 20:04 Written by 
If you've seen the new ACS (Airmen Certification Standards) which will soon be replacing the Practical Test Standards, you may have noticed a new format for training and evaluating students. It focuses on three things: What a student must Know, Do, and Consider (as in Risk Management).
Under the area of Risk Management for the Emergency Approach and Landing, it lists "Managing startle response". Evidently this is an element the FAA wants us CFI's to address in training, and it will be included on checkrides. What is "startle response"? Why is it important to manage it? And how can it be managed?
Startle response can be described as the initial disbelief experienced when something unexpected happens that puts the flight in jeopardy. Sometimes these events call for immediate and decisive action. Startle response may cause us to delay action, or take the wrong action due to an inability to accept the reality of what is occurring. Often this has fatal consequences.
A classic example of this is the attempt to make the impossible turn back to the runway when losing an engine after takeoff. It seems likely that this is the scenario that played out with the recent fatal accident at Gillespie, with a licensed pilot and an instructor on board. If you could go back in time and interview both pilot and instructor, they both would likely have said that turning back to the runway is a bad idea when losing an engine at only a few hundred feet up. Yet it appears from witness accounts that they were in a hard banked left turn when they impacted a house only 1/2 mile from the airport.
What would you and your student have done? The most critical time to manage startle response is an engine failure right after takeoff, whether you are in a single or a twin. To buy yourself the best possible insurance policy, consider training your student to do a takeoff briefing before each and every departure, to include specifics about the terrain and obstacles in the departure path, and what action you will take if you lose one below 500', as well as after reaching 500'. The best decisions are those that are made in advance. This is the strategy the airlines use to manage startle response and ensure that the action taken is prompt and correct. You are already spring-loaded to do the correct thing if it is needed.
What can you do to help your student manage startle response when simulating an engine failure at altitude? Have the student engaged in something else when you simulate the failure, such as looking up a frequency or planning a diversion. Include as much realism as you can, without creating the very emergency you are stimulating. You might start by simulating a partial power failure, then ask the student to imagine the airplane shaking and vibrating so bad the instruments are a blur. Then after allowing them a chance to respond, pull the throttle all the way off to simulate a complete power loss, or let the student make that choice, perhaps in conjunction with running a checklist. The more the student is able to imagine the circumstances, the more realistic the training is.
How far should you take this exercise? The ACS (and PTS) allows this to conclude in either a landing or a go-around. In most cases, breaking off at 500' AGL just isn't going to let you see if the student would have made the selected landing area or not. It's very common for students to overshoot because of fear of undershooting. Either is obviously not acceptable, and the student needs to see the outcome of their planning.
Where to conduct such training in San Diego so that you can terminate in a landing or low approach? This is a challenge. You have 3 choices. 
1) You could use a Class D airport, and if they are not too busy, they'll let you do it. The problem is, you must tell the tower what you are up to, so how can you evaluate startle response? Still, this can be a valuable exercise, perhaps while simulating a partial loss of power. 
2) You could use an uncontrolled public airport. The problem here is that such airports in the SoCal area are quite busy, and descending into a traffic pattern from above with no tower to sequence arrivals is very very hazardous. You may have to be willing to travel a bit to get to an airport that is not so congested. Even then, exercise great caution on the descent. 
3) You could use one of several private airports in the area. Being less busy, it may seem to be less of a collision threat. Just be sure you have permission, and are familiar with the arrival and departure procedures. Take Blackington as an example. They land one direction and takeoff another. A low approach and go around has you flying low over neighbors that normally aren't overflown, and they are not friendly toward the airport. They are already facing pressure to close the airport down. Landing there or doing a low approach without permission WILL get you in trouble, and may result in increased efforts to shut down the airport. Don't. And most of us are already aware that operations below 500' at the dirt strip N or Ramona is off limits as well.
The number one rule when training a student to manage startle response? Fly the airplane. It comes first last and always.
Mark Henshall



People in this conversation

  • Nice insight and thanks for the great info. On quiet days at Brown Field, proficient pilots or instructor/students can try a failed engine failure on takeoff. Bow tie it back and find your safe AGL altitude for that turn around (get tower permission first) :p.

    from Del Mar, CA, USA

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