In aviation parlance, proficiency means being good at what was required to get your licenses and ratings, good at what was in the ACS or PTS, or good at what you learned when you checked out in some particular airplane. But is that always enough? Are there things to learn that currently aren’t taught, anywhere?

The normal progression of licenses is private (the outcome of the maneuver is never seriously in doubt); instrument; commercial (flying smoothly, plus a few more maneuvers); and ATP (every flight shows off how good you are). There’s more to learn than just this progression, as everybody knows who has learned to fly tailwheels, floats or gliders.

Regardless of certificate level, however, elements of being a good pilot normally include skill at operating the airplane; book knowledge; situational awareness of everything going on around the airplane and what it means; and experience. All of these are, good, no doubt about it, but what additional elements can be incorporated to make an even better pilot? In effect, what would constitute an Honors Course in flying?

Some opine that aerobatics is the next step, and aerobatics does teach new things. But a competition aerobatic pilot friend stated that you can be a poor stick and rudder pilot and still fly aerobatics.

It turns out that there are lots of things to learn in that huge, largely unexplored intermediate area between the small middle of the flight envelope that is currently taught and where we all fly almost all the time, regardless of certificate level, and the outer edges of the envelope where spins, aerobatics and upset training reside. After all, loss of control accidents don’t happen in the middle of the envelope, and you don’t get to the outer edges of the envelope without going through that intermediate areas.

Teaching flight in that intermediate area are the Expanded Envelope Exercises® (E3). These non-traditional exercises are designed to be flyable in most all standard category airplanes. Examples include full aileron deflection, stalls with recovery in turns, very challenging slow Dutch rolls, and deliberate runway overshoots and recoveries—all with appropriate risks presented and mitigated. Thus, E3 provides a protective buffer against Loss Of Control.

The original idea behind E3 is that when loss of control occurs, it’s because the pilot has so much going on in his head that some sensory inputs and some tasks get degraded or dropped entirely—Aviation Psychology 101. The E3 solution is to increase the pilot’s ability to handle those situations, but the new idea is how to do it—by expanding the pilot’s overall cognitive ability, his ability to handle more inputs without degrading or dropping tasks, to expand the pilot’s comfort zone into more of that intermediate flight envelope. That expanded envelope has many dimensions: pitch and roll attitudes and rates, control deflections, non-traditional stall recoveries, and lots more.

For example, E3 has several exercises that use full aileron deflection at traffic pattern speeds. Done with an E3-qualified instructor at altitude, these teach what the airplane can do if you absolutely need to. That’s a big part of expanding the pilot’s comfort zone. Stall recoveries are explored where the entire stall and recovery are done in a banked turn, just like gliders do, so that stall recovery becomes more familiar and non-threatening. Such stalls turn out to be not a big deal, as does the next step—stall the airplane while turning in one direction, recover in the other direction without leveling out in the middle. If there’s ever an emergency, like an engine out and the need to maneuver right before a forced landing, all the better to have seen these exercises at least once so that any required emergency maneuvers are within your comfort zone.

Developing E3 yielded one unexpected revelation: the low speed spiral. Again, this should only be demonstrated by an E3-qualified CFI. I’ve taught basic aerobatics, and when a subject pilot inadvertently put us into my first low speed spiral, it grabbed my full attention. The real-world scenario is this: a pilot screws up the base-to-final turn and banks the airplane sharply. With most of his attention on runway alignment (degraded cognitive ability), the pilot doesn’t pay enough attention to pitch and pushes the nose way down. This generates a truly unusual attitude that the pilot may need a few seconds to recognize and to recover from. In demonstrations of this, even with a prompt recovery, 500-800 feet of altitude is lost. One NTSB docket had an eyewitness account of this very situation.

After encountering that first low speed spiral, I started practicing low speed spirals so that I could safely demonstrate them at altitude. I also started looking at NTSB reports, bypassing the probable causes but paying close attention to the narratives and looking at the raw data in the dockets. I also studied a dozen online videos of light airplane accidents, looking at each video over and over. Low speed spirals started turning up all over the place, but were almost always summarized in the NTSB reports as stall/spins. This has all kinds of implications for flight reviews and flight training.

And this is not to bash the accident investigators. If low speed spirals are an unknown phenomenon but stall/spins are, the mis-classification is understandable.

Low speed spirals are the kind of phenomenon that E3 can address. If a pilot has seen a low speed spiral before and knows what the airplane can be made to do, the pilot is more likely to avoid the low speed spiral and more likely to respond correctly and more promptly should one develop. Those are all rewards of greater cognitive ability.

Similarly, E3 can help a pilot avoid stall/spin by helping the pilot not be overwhelmed by unexpected situations, and by helping the pilot head off trouble well before the stall warning goes off.

E3 was developed as part of submissions to the EAA Founder’s Innovation Prize, which seeks to reduce loss of control accidents. E3 currently includes more than 100 exercises, although a ten exercise, one-hour flight curriculum provides enormous benefit and is the current format. Utah Valley University is researching E3 benefits, and indeed, Prof. Michael Hollister there coined the name Expanded Envelope Exercises.

This is not to claim that all of E3 is 100% new. Certainly the tabulation of exercises is new, but a few exercises are pre-existing, if possibly obscure. Every now and again, I fly with somebody whose first instructor had shown them one or maybe two of the exercises. For those reasons, and also liability, the exercises themselves are not copyrighted—there’s plenty of room for the greater aviation community to adapt, add to, modify and refine E3.

E3 is a reasonably solid first pass at an Honors Level curriculum, teaching pilots to expand their comfort zones and increase their cognitive availability in stressful situations, regardless of certificate level. E3 has benefited private pilots, but E3 has also challenged ex-military test pilots with world class credentials. It works.

The biggest next step for E3 will be the establishment of a consortium to develop, refine, and promote a public E3, to help get E3 beyond the limits of my experience and beyond my ways of doing things. E3 needs to be fine-tuned for different aircraft. Manufacturers and training organizations welcome! And I’m happy to fly E3 with CFIs here in Savannah, free, or at your location, only for expenses.

And why expend all this effort on E3 development? To help keep our friends, created in the image of God, alive.