Multi-engine Training: Verisimilitude, the lack thereof

I’ve been thinking a lot about verisimilitude in flight training.  And in thinking, I have realized that I have been misusing the word.  Or at least blurring the nuance of its meaning.  It doesn’t mean “reality.”  It doesn’t mean the truth.  It doesn’t mean the actual thing.  It means “similar to the truth.”  More verisimilitude brings us closer to resembling the truth.  It creates a more powerful imagining of the truth, of the actual thing.

Multi-engine flight training has me pondering verisimilitude.  In all flight training we strive for verisimilitude, we try to make flight training as realistic as possible, bumping up against hazard and danger. It’s the old risk matrix again.  We take a risk every time we fly and we do what we can to mitigate the risk, to make each flight as safe as possible – as safe as possible and yet fulfill the mission.  Some missions are riskier than others and flight training is one of those missions wherein we intentionally assume greater risk.  We start by putting inexperienced pilots in the airplane and allowing them to explore the limits of their abilities, hoping that we are their safety net.

In flight training we intentionally explore the limits.  We teach students to perform stalls, recover from spins and spirals (please do not confuse the two), and we simulate engine failures and on every approach and landing we sit in the right seat and ask ourselves moment-to-moment if we should intercede for the safety of flight.  We allow our students to venture as deep into the experience as we dare, to witness the results of their actions for better or worse.   We do this whether we are tempting embarrassment as they repeatedly miss radio calls from ATC or whether they step on the wrong rudder in a stall recovery and generate a spin – and we sit there idly counting the rotations and waiting for the pilot to arrest them. Those decisions, which flow through every training flight, are the art of flight instruction.

In primary training or instrument or commercial training and in most type-specific training, emergencies that we must simulate are only a part of the curriculum.  Much time is devoted to normal ops.

Not so multi-engine instruction.  Multi-engine training consists almost entirely of emergencies.  Engine failures and anomalies at every turn … on the takeoff roll, on rotation, in the climb, at cruise, in turns, on the approach and landing, even taxi.  Much of the rest consists of system failures or complications.  That’s all we do.  A newly-minted multi-engine pilot, recently trained, is spring loaded.  If he should forget to switch tanks and an engine burps in cruise at ten thousand feet he is likely to chant, “Mixtures, props, throttles, gear, flaps, boost pumps, identify, verify, feather,” and before you can say, “stop and think,” he has feathered an engine unnecessarily.   And because most of our multi-engine training consists of emergencies that we consider too risky to actually chance in an airplane, the training becomes one long charade.  We are forced to simulate emergencies that are simply too dangerous – most of us conclude – to create in reality.  Without a sophisticated Level D simulator, our training must consist of pantomime.

Let’s take the classic “engine failure after takeoff scenario.”  You are our pilot in training in the left seat.  I am your instructor in the right seat.  At some point after takeoff, in the initial climb, I am going to simulate the sudden, total failure of one or the other of our piston engines.  (Let’s leave aside for the moment whether this event deserves the emphasis we give it in our training and our evaluation check rides.)  Your hand is likely on the throttles.  (My hand, at this point, would be on the props, but the FAA would take away my certificate if I trained you to do this.)  So I wrest one throttle from beneath your hand – or I take the opportunity when you reach for the gear or the flaps or the props – each has its own advantages and disadvantages as an instructional strategy – and I retard that throttle to idle.  “Oh, goodness,” you say, feigning astonishment, “We have an engine failure!”   Because you are a fine pilot – and because you have been waiting for this moment for at least twenty minutes if not all day – you smoothly establish directional control with the rudder and a smidgen of bank angle and maintain a safe airspeed, trending toward blue line (Vyse).  You then, in some order, check that the gear and flaps are retracted and endeavor to push the mixtures, the props, and the throttles to the max.   Except for the fact that I am still holding on to, let’s say, the left engine throttle – the right engine seldom fails in training, yet another unrealistic aspect of our dance – and you can push only the right throttle forward.  Right here we are training you to push only a single throttle forward – not because it is a good practice, but because it is the only way we can simulate a failure short of shutting down the mixture, which at a few hundred feet in a piston twin that may or may not climb on a single engine and most certainly will not without astute handling would be insane.  So, here we continue to build a faulty muscle memory.

So now you go to the familiar, “dead-foot, dead-engine” drill, the precursor to the “identify, verify, feather,” part of the drill. You tell me that your left leg is dead – or resting comfortably while your right leg works to maintain heading — and you move to verifying with the throttle that, indeed, the left engine has failed by pulling back the left throttle.  At least, that is what you would do in the actual event because in the actual event both throttles would be forward – where you put them a moment ago.  But because this is all pretend, only the operating engine’s throttle is forward.   I have a strong grip on the left throttle, leaving you no choice but to pretend to retard the left throttle and announce that you have verified a failure of the left engine.   Once we are sufficiently impressed by that proclamation, you pretend to retard the left prop into feather.  Of course, I don’t want you to actually feather the left engine – that’s the last thing I am going to allow to happen, so I am doing whatever is necessary to be certain that you don’t actually feather that prop, up to and including a wrestling match over the blue lever.  Now, once we agree that you have pretended to feather the correct propeller, I must find a way to simulate the drag reduction created by the feathering of the left prop , so I increase power on the inoperative engine just enough to simulate a feathered propeller, bringing power on the left engine up to perhaps 11 inches MP to simulate the loss of the drag.  Then we pretend to retard the left mixture.  Again I am vigilant that you don’t, that you only pretend.  And then we pretend to shut down aspects of the left engine’s systems – the alternator, the fuel selector, etc.  So, before we are more than a few seconds into this exercise, you have learned the wrong muscle memory for the several most time-critical actions required in an emergency.  It’s all pantomime and pretend.

You find throttles retarded when they would actually have been advanced.  You pretend to move levers that I jealously guard and will not allow to move.  You tell me that you have done things that you had better not have done.  I move the throttle to simulate an action of the propeller.  I spend most of my instruction time and attention making dead certain that you do not do exactly what you must do in an actual event.

It’s a bloody miracle that either of us comes out of this dance alive and, when we are done and you are a multi-engine pilot, the chance that you would, under the stress of an engine failure shortly after the gear comes up, perform the correct sequence of actions rather than the actions we have performed in pantomime is a number statistically indistinguishable from zero.  Most likely you will bumble through some ad hoc combination of the two.

So many times I sit in the right seat of a piston twin and listen to my pilot give his takeoff briefing, the carefully memorized chant rolling off of his or her lips, all about what we’ll do on the roll, what we’ll do prior to Vmc, what we’ll do between red line and blue line, and what we’ll do at blue line, depending on the position of the gear and the length of the runway, and I sit there thinking, “No, actually, what you will do is some surprisingly random action and cry for mommy, because that’s my plan and I’ve done this hundreds of times.  What chance do you have?

We do our best to give you the actual skills by practicing or at least experiencing an actual feather and shutdown of an engine at a safe altitude, but we are reluctant to carry that exercise to a single-engine landing because a single-engine go-around is known to be problematic at best in most light piston twins.  Once again, we resort to make-believe.  We practice single engine landings with one engine at idle to simulate a shutdown and feather and increase power on it slightly on short final to simulate the change in yawing moment when the operating engine goes to idle for the landing.  Few instructors and fewer examiners want to risk having to attempt a true single-engine go around.  The truth is that avoiding a single-engine go around, planning carefully so as not to find our self too high or too low or too fast or too slow on short final is almost certainly the most important consideration when operating on one engine.  A single-engine go around may well be impossible and, at best, puts us into that box of high asymmetrical thrust and low speed that is known to be dangerous.

Some years ago I spent some time flying float planes in Alaska with a grizzled bush flying veteran.   He had a few choice sayings, most not fit for this discussion, but the one I remember speaks to all of this.  “You think you will rise to the occasion.  You are wrong.  You will rise to your level of training.”  Think about this for a moment and you will realize how applicable this fact is to so many aspects of life, but it is certainly true of handling emergencies in an airplane.

And in so many ways the training we provide in a multi-engine airplane is more theater than training.

The good news is that we probably over-emphasize the likelihood of this sudden, unforeseeable, act-of-God, total engine failure at the most critical moment of the flight.  If you die in a piston twin you will most likely die the same way most of us do in airplanes – flying into weather either you or your airplane do not belong in, running out of fuel, botching an approach, or flying too low for no good reason and smacking into something unyielding.

But we do our best.  And try not to kid ourselves.

Don’t kid yourself.  Go find the best simulator you can afford and get some training in the real procedures.

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