CFI Brief: Unusual Attitude Recoveries

An unusual attitude in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) is a very unwelcome experience. Many years ago on a commercial cross country training flight with my instructor, I came very close to putting myself in an upset condition, or unusual attitude as it’s commonly referred to. The close call occurred on the last leg of our trip while crossing over the San Jacinto Mountains outside of Palm Springs.

It was dark and a bit blustery that evening. While at 9,000 ft MSL and on an IFR flight plan in IMC we began picking up light icing on the wings of our Piper Cherokee. It was my first experience in an icing condition so I looked to my instructor for guidance. He told me to check the left wing with my flashlight every few minutes to note the ice build-up and he would do the same on the right wing. If conditions got worse we would re-evaluate, but for now we both felt comfortable continuing on. About 2 minutes later I grabbed my flashlight and started inspecting the left wing out the pilot’s side window to note any additional ice build-up. After a thorough inspection I turned my head back into the cockpit only to see my attitude indicator showing a 40° bank to the left and my vertical speed indicator showing a 500 ft per minute descent. I was so overly concerned with checking the wing for ice I forgot to fly the airplane, and my instructor didn’t notice because he at this same time was checking the right wing for ice. The first thing that popped into my head was to yell “UNUSUAL ATTITUDE!” at which point I’m sure my instructor’s head swung around rather quickly. I began correcting to put the airplane back in a straight and level flight attitude, reduce power, level the wings, and raise the nose. For the next 10 or so minutes my head was glued to the instrument panel until we finally exited out of the IMC into VMC and landed without incident.

Both my instructor and I took something home of value that day. For me, it was to always remember to first and foremost fly the airplane. For my instructor, it was to never trust your students, or at least that’s what he told me afterwards.

During training for both Private and Instrument Pilot Airplane you will be taught recognition and recovery for both nose-low and nose-high unusual attitudes. Your instrument training however will focus more on recognition and recovery solely by reference to flight instruments or with no outside visual reference cues, like the situation in my story above. Discussed below are recognition and recovery from both types of unusual attitudes as outlined in the Instrument Flying Handbook (FAA-8083-15B), but remember the same principals will apply to a Private Pilot as well, who might find him or herself in inadvertent IMC.

Recognizing Unusual Attitudes
As a general rule, any time an instrument rate of movement or indication other than those associated with the basic instrument flight maneuvers is noted, assume an unusual attitude and increase the speed of cross-check to confirm the attitude, instrument error, or instrument malfunction.

Nose-high attitudes are shown by the rate and direction of movement of the altimeter needle, vertical speed needle, and airspeed needle, as well as the immediately recognizable indication of the attitude indicator (except in extreme attitudes). Nose-low attitudes are shown by the same instruments, but in the opposite direction. These are shown in the figures below.

Nose-High Attitudes
If the airspeed is decreasing, or below the desired airspeed, increase power (as necessary in proportion to the observed deceleration), apply forward elevator pressure to lower the nose and prevent a stall, and correct the bank by applying coordinated aileron and rudder pressure to level the miniature aircraft and center the ball of the turn coordinator. The corrective control applications are made almost simultaneously, but in the sequence given above. A level pitch attitude is indicated by the reversal and stabilization of the ASI and altimeter needles. Straight coordinated flight is indicated by the level miniature aircraft and centered ball of the turn coordinator.


Procedures to recover from a nose-high unusual attitude:

  1. Add Power
  2. Apply Forward Elevator Pressure
  3. Level the Wings

Nose-Low Attitudes
If the airspeed is increasing, or is above the desired airspeed, reduce power to prevent excessive airspeed and loss of altitude. Correct the bank attitude with coordinated aileron and rudder pressure to straight flight by referring to the turn coordinator. Raise the nose to level flight attitude by applying smooth back elevator pressure. All components of control should be changed simultaneously for a smooth, proficient recovery. However, during initial training a positive, confident recovery should be made by the numbers, in the sequence given above. A very important point to remember is that the instinctive reaction to a nose-down attitude is to pull back on the elevator control.

After initial control has been applied, continue with a fast cross-check for possible over controlling, since the necessary initial control pressures may be large. As the rate of movement of altimeter and ASI needles decreases, the attitude is approaching level flight. When the needles stop and reverse direction, the aircraft is passing through level flight. As the indications of the ASI, altimeter, and turn coordinator stabilize, incorporate the attitude indicator into the cross-check.

The attitude indicator and turn coordinator should be checked to determine bank attitude and then corrective aileron and rudder pressures should be applied. The ball should be centered. If it is not, skidding and slipping sensations can easily aggravate disorientation and retard recovery. If entering the unusual attitude from an assigned altitude (either by an instructor or by air traffic control (ATC) if operating under instrument flight rules (IFR)), return to the original altitude after stabilizing in straight-and-level flight.


Procedures to recover from a nose-low unusual attitude:

  1. Reduce Power
  2. Level the Wings
  3. Raise the Nose

For additional training and information on upset prevention and recovery (or unusual flight attitudes), you can refer to either the Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3B) or Instrument Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-15B), both great references.

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