When You Ask for Too Much
Article appeared in Flying Magazine April, 2016 by Martha King –
It was the slightest of rumbles. Both John and I felt it. John, who was at the controls, eased the control yoke forward slightly and the rumble stopped. We landed safely and taxied into the ramp. We had a plane full of pilots, but an after-the-fact survey revealed no one else on the airplane had felt the rumble. It was the aerodynamic warning of a stall in our old Falcon 10. With hydraulically-assisted, irreversible controls in this airplane, the pilots don’t get feedback in the controls. The rumble was the only aerodynamic warning we would get.
Had John reacted differently the aircraft could well have stalled and the aviation community would have racked up one more “loss of control” tragedy.
We had been on our way to Oshkosh for AirVenture. Ironically, we were diverted to Appleton due to the loss-of-control crash of another jet. The pilot was on approach to runway 18 at Oshkosh and had been given instructions to slow for traffic on the runway, and keep his approach south of runway 27. These are the exact circumstances that John and I had escaped some years ago with a go-around.
Our diversion to Appleton left us scrambling. We quickly briefed our approach, but then at the last minute the tower directed us to another runway. The rumble occurred during John’s last-minute maneuvering with a steep turn from base to final to get lined up with the new runway.
What these situations have in common is that they were set-ups for loss of control. The National Transportation Safety Board has loss of control on their most wanted list, and for good reason. Loss of control is a big deal. Almost half of all general aviation fatalities are caused by loss of control, and they are almost always fatal.
I confess I have had a hard time getting my brain wrapped around the subject of loss of control. It has become the safety issue du jour, but it is a huge category. I mean, you could say there are only two conditions in which an aircraft can crash—either in control or out of control. I am not sure that learning that a crash happened as a result of loss of control gives us much actionable information. Plus, I have a tendency to see loss of control as a result rather than a cause. Having said that, if we as a community could crack the code to eliminating loss-of-control accidents we could save thousands of lives.
Loss of control has occurred anytime the aircraft does something you don’t want it to do. That can happen whenever you expect too much of either the aircraft or yourself as the pilot–asking one or the other to do something they just can’t do. For instance, asking an airplane to fly with too much load factor will result in loss of control. Yet pilots do it on the turn from base to final with regularity. Pilots frequently ask too much of themselves when landing in crosswinds, or flying in instrument weather conditions without proper preparation.
There are many ways to lose control—pilots can be very creative about it. What they all seem to have in common is that almost all loss of control accidents occur in repeating scenarios—with perfect hindsight you realize the pilot should have seen them coming. The idea behind learning the habit of risk management is to turn that perfect hindsight into foresight for pilots when it counts. It means knowing what’s happening now and what bad thing might happen next if you don’t do something about it.
Looking at it that way, all loss of control accidents are the result of a failure in risk management. But not everyone looks at it that way. A flight instructor-friend of ours firmly believes that anything that might distract from stick-and-rudder skills during flight training is doing the learning pilot a disservice. In fact, he calls these “distractions” “fantasy flight training.”
Truly, there is much to be said for helping learning pilots have the highest level of skills they can attain. However, all pilots inevitably have some limitation on their skills. Without risk management, it is possible for any pilot to get themselves into situations that no amount of skill could get them out of. To paraphrase an old saying, it is wise to use your superior risk management to avoid situations that just might require even more than your superior skills. A training program that focuses solely on skill, and ignores risk management, will leave pilots unnecessarily vulnerable.
When a pilot does manage to avoid an accident, it is hard to know whether it might have been superior risk management or superior skill that saved the day. On our approach to runway 18 at Oshkosh, it could be said that I executed a go-around so that I didn’t have to use superior skill, although cleaning up and doing a go-around in a highly wing-loaded, swept-wing jet from low altitude is not without its challenges.
On John’s approach to Appleton it could be said that John’s slight forward pressure on the control yoke in response to the rumble was a demonstration of superior skill. But with all due respect to John, it didn’t take all that much skill to apply that slight forward pressure.
The important point in each case is that a successful outcome required the knowledge and risk management habits to recognize a scenario that was a set-up for stall/spin, and also recognize the mitigation needed. Although in times past we sometimes did not demonstrate these qualities, our performance in these instances seems to indicate that over the years we might have developed them.
Then, in addition to knowledge and risk management, skill was required to execute the response. That’s why the Airman Certification Standards (ACS), which in June will replace the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the Private Pilot and Instrument Rating tests, will require pilots to demonstrate all three.
Pilots have been taught knowledge specific to aviation since the beginning of flight. We need knowledge to get full utility out of our flying. But the real reason we need it is to be able to identify and mitigate risks.
The knowledge needed for the Oshkosh and Appleton events was the standard knowledge that everyone learns about stall/spins—the need to manage angle of attack and load factor, and the importance of keeping the nose yawed into the relative wind. Additionally needed was knowledge of the aerodynamic warnings that our airplane provides for a stall.
Learning risk management, in this case for stall/spin, requires practice at recognizing scenarios that can lead to stall/spins, and coming up with mitigation strategies. The specific scenario in the traffic pattern that most often leads to loss of control is the very one we had at Appleton—turning from base to final with lots of distractions. In this case there was also a last-minute runway change requiring maneuvering to get lined up. Add in a tailwind from base to final, and an overshoot, and it becomes an almost irresistible temptation to steepen the bank and maybe even add some bottom rudder.
Consideration of the skills required for preventing loss of control prompts a call for a return to the basics. All the skills we learned when we learned to fly are about keeping control of the airplane. In addition to all the other skills every pilot learns, in stall/spin scenarios it becomes particularly useful to have a well-honed sensitivity to load factor, and to the side loads that tell you when the nose is not yawed into the relative wind.
While learning knowledge and skills has always been fundamental to learning to fly, the recent emphasis on preventing loss of control brings a new understanding that loss of control is at its core a failure in risk management. Among the many outcomes of poor risk management, loss of control is the most frequent and the most deadly.
The ideal is for pilots to become so practiced at identifying risky scenarios that they develop the ability to “smell” trouble, and not allow themselves to get into situations that might lead them to ask themselves or the airplane to do something they just can’t do.
The problem with any kind of loss of control is that while it may take considerable time for the situation to develop, when it comes to the actual moment of loss of control, it can happen very quickly. When things have progressed to that point it is very difficult to recover. The best recovery is not to need one.