Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 1, 2004

The 10 Dumbest Things Pilots Do

Although pilots continue to try to find new ways to screw up, there’s an amazing similarity to accident scenarios from today and from 75 years ago. Here’s a list of the most common stupid pilot tricks.

The 10 Dumbest Things Pilots DoAsk any pilot about the danger zones of pilot experience and most will give you a blank stare. Ask Bruce Landsburg of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation or veteran instructor/aviation journalist Rod Machado and you’ll receive intelligent, informed answers." />

The 10 Dumbest Things Pilots Do1 VFR into IMC
Contrary to what you might expect, few pilots suffer the consequences of a weather accident because of thunderstorms or ice. While there’s little question such meteorological misery can present dangerous situations, it doesn’t contribute to many accidents. More often, weather accidents occur because instrument-qualified pilots in non-radar environments make a mistake on their position and hit something they didn’t know was there, and non-IFR pilots simply lose control of the airplane in hard-IFR conditions. Too much of the time, instrument accidents are no more complex than a pilot flying a perfectly functional airplane into the ground. In accident parlance, that’s called CFIT (controlled flight into terrain).

According to Machado, pilots too often become mission-focused. “They become determined to complete the flight, even if the weather is outside their parameters,” Machado explains. “They lose the ability to properly assess conditions that might make a more reasonable pilot turn back. It’s always possible to fly into weather you don’t expect—forecasting isn’t an exact science—but too often, pilots ignore the warning signs, act as if they’re operating a mini-airline and feel they have to complete their flight, no matter what,” says the instructor.

2 Low-Level Maneuvering Flight
Obviously, the likelihood of an incident increases in direct proportion to an airplane’s proximity to the ground. That’s exactly the situation that results in a high incidence of low-level maneuvering accidents. These are characterized as stall/spin accidents, the most common result of an approach that’s too slow or too tight.

Ignoring wind shear (a dangerous, but uncommon hazard), low-level maneuvering accidents most often occur because a pilot approaches at too low an airspeed or turns too tight, too close to the ground, with no room for recovery. Tight, steep approaches may be fine for Navy pilots chasing a carrier, but they can be bad news for a Skyhawk.

3 Deliberate Buzz Jobs
No question about it, speed is exhilarating. It’s the reason many of us fly. Unfortunately, the perception of speed increases the closer we are to the ground. That’s probably what encourages pilots to indulge in buzz jobs.

It’s one thing to drift along 50 feet off the deck over the relatively deserted plains of Kansas. It’s quite another to try the same trick over downtown Dallas. Never mind that it’s often (not always) against regulations to fly super-low, it’s nearly always ill-advised unless you’re dusting crops, flying pipeline patrol, game counting or herding sheep over the Australian outback. We may not always agree with every FAR, but the ones dictating a 1,000-foot minimum altitude over a heavily populated area and 500 feet over a rural area are simply common sense.

Botched Takeoffs
One takeoff and one landing are mandatory for every flight, but pilots find novel ways to mess up both of them. Takeoff accidents can be especially risky since the airplane is accelerating and flying away from the airport, whereas landing accidents typically occur during approach while the airplane is decelerating and (most of the time) pointed toward the airport.

Impact loads increase as the square of speed, so for every two knots of acceleration, impact loads quadruple. In some respects, takeoff accidents should be less likely, as it’s not that difficult to merely clean up the airplane and maintain climb speed. Unfortunately, these accidents, thought to be technically less difficult, are statistically more likely to be fatal.


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