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Even though they might be technically correct, when an NTSB report cites loss of control as the cause of a crash, it’s really not much help. It’s only slightly more informative than saying that colliding with terrain was the cause of the accident. It’s not really the cause. It is the accident. We already know what happened. We want to know why it happened, why the pilot lost control. Sometimes that part gets left out because the investigator doesn’t know. Truth is, sometimes there really is no way of knowing, especially when there are no witnesses or data recorders.
Most of the time, however, we have a really good idea of what caused the crash, and, sadly, the same causes come up again and again.
Why You Need To Listen
With as much ink as has been spilt on the subject, every pilot should know by now that loss of control is the leading cause of fatal GA airplane accidents. Between 2001 and 2014, 40 percent of fatal GA accidents were directly related to loss of control, according to the NTSB, which for the past several years has spent considerable energy on increasing awareness of the dangers of loss of control.
Awareness is a critical first step, granted, but exactly how does knowing that the problem exists help eliminate the problem? One could argue that it really doesn’t help, at least not much. In order to avoid doing something potentially harmful, like losing control of the airplane, the pilot needs to 1) know what the danger zones are, 2) be able to quickly recognize when trouble has begun, and, 3) be able to keep it from progressing any further and then, 4) recover from the near-catastrophe.
That first one, knowing when the danger of stall is greatest, is an awareness tool. Most of us already know these danger zones, but it’s worth reviewing. While there are certainly other ways to lose control of an airplane, these represent a high percentage of the scenarios. They are:
The Four Main Scenarios For Loss Of Control Accidents
Loss of control can happen at any altitude, any airspeed and at any attitude. But there are a few scenarios that dominate the NTSB records of loss of control accidents. They are:
- Flying the pattern. This is something we all do all the time and that there’s no getting around.
- Low-level maneuvering. This one is usually a choice, and it sometimes involves showing off, to ourselves or others.
- In order to go flying, we need to take off and climb. So this is a core phase of normal flight operations but one that holds real risk of loss of control.
- High altitude upset. Losing control doesn’t always happen at low speed or at low altitude.
Here’s a quick rundown of what to look out for, why it’s risky and how to respond when you sense that loss of control is happening. This is not intended to be a discussion of the aerodynamic details of how loss of control happens but, rather, a quick mental guide to what might happen, so you are not taken by surprise, and what to do to keep it from ever happening, to keep it from progressing past the first warning sign, and to be able to stop it in its tracks and recover, before it’s too late.
Traffic Patterns: If you’ve flown with enough instructors, you know that for any given pattern there are instructors who will tell you that you’re flying it too tight, and there are ones who will let you know for the very same kind of pattern that if your engine quits, you’ll never make it back to the field. On those occasions when you hit the happy medium, not too far and not too close, chances are good they’ll both tell you you’re wrong. That all said, what is the greater risk, being too far away from the runway as you fly the pattern or flying it too close? As with most things in life, the answer is a happy medium, though if we had to pick based on risk assessment, we’d choose to fly a little farther away.
Yes, if your engine decides to give up the ghost while you’re a little farther way from the runway, you might be hard pressed to complete the pattern and land on a suitable, unoccupied hard surface. But we’d argue that erring on the side of being a little farther away is a better approach risk-wise because it greatly cuts down on the chances of losing control while turning to the runway.
That risk, as you’ve no doubt come to understand, comes when you make a turn in the pattern, usually from base to final, and you begin to overshoot—undershooting is not much of an issue so far as loss of control goes. When an overshoot happens, it’s many pilots’ instinct to bank the airplane more tightly to join the final approach course, or, if you’ve already overshot, to get back to it. When you turn and pull, however, you can quickly and greatly increase the G-loading. And as we all learned in primary flight training, added G-loading increases the stall speed. And when the loading increases and the bank angle increases, and the ball is out of the center, well, that’s the recipe for a spin. And when you’re low to the ground, as you are when you’re racking it around toward the runway, well, there’s not a lot of chance, effectively zero, in fact, of recovering from a spin.
What’s the cure? Avoiding the scenario altogether is the best bet. Make a slightly wider pattern, be aware of the wind, and, if it’s at your back as you turn base, begin the turn to final early, maybe a lot earlier, depending on the wind speed. Being aware of the wind is a critical skill to develop.
When prevention fails and you find yourself getting too tight on that base to final turn, there are a few good things you can do to keep it from progressing from ungainly to deadly. First, remember that if Gs are a problem (and they are always a risk factor in this scenario), then get rid of the Gs. That can be as easy as pushing forward on the yoke. If you think about this every time you fly a pattern, you might find, as we have, that pushing becomes second nature.
But what if you’re too low and still need to push? That one is easy, too. Go around. In that case, don’t even try to get back to that too-tight final approach course. Just straighten the wings, add power, make sure the airspeed is good, and then climb, cleaning up the airplane and adding power as necessary. Push (it doesn’t have to be much), keep the ball centered, and keep airspeed and altitude within the margins. As is the case with all of these scenarios, prevention rules. So next time, plan the pattern better and, if you don’t succeed at that, practice your go around. You can tell everybody that was your plan all along.
Low-Level Maneuvering: If flying the traffic pattern is something we all need to do, and we do, then low-level maneuvering, as the NTSB calls it, is something that we can choose not to do (with the exception of taking off and landing, it goes without saying). When I was a kid, pilots called it “buzzing,” and some still do. Even if it is old-fashioned, the term still gets across the motivation that pilots have to do it, to show off a little or to get an adrenaline rush. The NTSB used to say that these kinds of low-level flights were about the riskiest thing that pilots could do, and in terms of the annual toll it took, they were right. Are there times when low-level flying is safe to do? Well, yes and no. Regardless of how you’re approaching it, whenever you’re flying low to the ground, the risk goes up. You have less time to react and less altitude to lose before you hit something. So, by its nature, it is a lot riskier than cruising along at 5,000 feet agl. If you do decide to fly low, you can make it even riskier by doing it in hilly or mountainous terrain, in gusty conditions or by maneuvering sharply when you’re low. Suffice it to say, if you choose to fly low, know the risks and know what additional factors increase that risk.
What’s the cure? Well, choosing not to maneuver at low altitudes is a great place to start, but for many of us, flying in the backcountry is the best part of flying, and most of us who do it proceed with an attitude of safety and smart risk management. A good place to start would to be honest with yourself about your skill level, your proficiency and your experience. And if you have any doubts about any of those factors, then get training and take the conservative course, because a low-level mistake can be a pilot’s last mistake.
Departure Departures: As we’ve said, there are certain inherently risky phases of flight you need to undertake if you want to go flying at all, and departure is an important one of those. There are a couple of departure loss of control scenarios that are common and that we should all think about ahead of time because, as is the case with the turn to final scenario, when you’re climbing out, you’re low and you need to react if not immediately, then something approaching it. It might be helpful to think in terms of workload. Departure is hazardous for a number of reasons, though we’ll only go into some of the more common ones here. First off, if it’s your first takeoff of the day, it’s possible you’re not fully acclimated to things. Getting distracted is the biggest hazard here, and there’s no shortage of potential changeups to make you forget what’s job number one, flying the airplane. If you’re an instrument pilot, you know from your training that there are certain physical illusions you experience on departure that make you sense that the instruments are not telling you the truth. Needless to say, losing control at low altitude in the soup is a fast way to end your day.
What’s the cure? Departure is a busy time, so prepare. Get as much done as possible—“lights, cameras, action” is a popular memory aid for taking the runway checklist. If you do this, once you roll on to the runway, there will be that much less to think about and worry about, so if anything does go wrong, or not according to plan, you’ll be able to give it the required attention instead of wasting your time on things you could have, should have taken care of before you took the runway, because when you’re low, accelerating and quickly hitting clearance limits, there’s no time to figure things out on the fly. So know the airplane, its system and its emergency procedures by heart. Also, you should be comfortable with the probable ATC instructions you’ll get so you won’t have to fumble with charts or do any high-level analysis as you go. Finally, when the conditions are IFR or marginal VFR, then the challenge is even greater. Be committed to flying by the gauges and ignoring the seat of your pants, because once you do, you can stop worrying about those little voices and go about your business, which is complicated enough on its own.
High Altitude Upset: Most of the loss of control scenarios we’ve discussed so far have to do with low speed or low-altitude loss of control. But high-speed loss of control is just as dangerous. It probably happens most often when pilots are battling turbulence in the soup. This is usually associated with thunderstorm activity. What happens is the pilot loses control in extreme turbulence, the nose drops, the speed builds quickly, and a spiral dive develops. Then the pilot realizes the situation, reacts instinctively to pull the nose of the airplane up, and the airplane breaks. When you read accident reports where the investigators mention where the various components of the plane were found, they’re establishing whether the airplane broke up at altitude or crashed in one piece. In a high-speed loss of control and airframe failure, the surfaces invariably wind up falling to earth some distance from each other; the farther apart the pieces are, the higher it was that the plane broke apart. Turbulence is an almost universal factor in these accidents.
What’s the cure? As with each of these scenarios, the best cure is to never find yourself in a high-speed dive. All of us have plenty of experience in our training, both initial and recurrent (hopefully), flying airplanes in the slow-speed regime. This is seldom true when it comes to high-speed loss of control, but it shouldn’t be. There are a number of schools around the country with upset recovery courses that give pilots the tools needed to save the day when the plane gets out of sorts. Those techniques vary slightly from school to school and instructor to instructor, but all of them involve taking positive control by disconnecting the autopilot, unloading the airplane by applying forward pressure, leveling the wings, monitoring airspeed and then returning to level flight when it’s safe to do so. Know ahead of time that the tendency pilots have, once they realize that they’re in a dive, is to pull back hard on the yoke. If the airplane is going fast already, that move can and likely will break the airplane. Instead, unloading the airplane with forward pressure, rolling the wings level (in the closest direction, depending on your attitude), and then reducing power as necessary to slow the airplane is the way to go. But the best approach is to not get in that situation and, if you do, manage your attitude and airspeed with all your attention. That might mean giving up the idea of holding altitude. Staying in control is critical, at least until you get beyond the worst of the turbulence.
For all the progress we’ve made in cutting a number of other kinds of accidents, loss of control continues to be the leading cause of GA mishaps, and for good reason. These kinds of accidents typically take place at low altitude where there are often obstacles or terrain, when pilots have little altitude to recover, and when there’s little time to do so before disaster is complete.
Be aware of when a loss of control accident is likely, know what one looks like when it does happen, and be ready to take the basic steps without delay should you find yourself in a developing situation. The best approach of all is to give yourself greater margins from loss of control to begin with. And if you do find yourself in a potential loss of control situation, know how to make all the right moves (and none of the wrong ones) to save the day.