Patty enjoys some unusual attitude training with her godson, Pete.
Recently, the NTSB came out with its 2015 "Most Wanted" list of transportation safety improvements. At the top of the list was "Loss of Control." I found this a little surprising, not because we pilots seem to be losing our basic airmanship skills, but because of the terminology. We're so used to hearing about "upset training," "unusual attitudes," "spin training," etc. that we forget the bottom line end result of poor training and lack of currency is actually "loss of control" or "LOC."
Rich Stowell, the well-respected authority on LOC prevention and recovery, wrote in 2012: "Forty percent of the fatal accidents during the period 2001-2010 were categorized as LOC-I, outpacing the number-two fatal accident category, Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT), by a three-to-one margin. LOC-I events were further subdivided into twelve phases of flight. Most fatal LOC-I accidents happened during the maneuvering phase, occurring about 1.4 times as often as accidents during the approach and en route phases, and 26 times more frequently than accidents during both emergency landing phases combined."
Losing control is a scary thought. No one believes it will happen to them. But, maybe that's part of the problem. We don't want to think it can happen to us. I had already been flying contests and air shows, and was flying a Pitts S2S out of the Seattle area trying to get over a broken layer of clouds so I could cross into good weather on the other side of the Cascades. I was up at 12,000 feet and almost on top, when I felt the airplane stall. I was in a spin-friendly airplane, but nevertheless, it surprised me and was a good wake-up call in how quickly one can forget to check airspeed and get distracted.
Loss of Control sounds like it emanates from an extreme situation, but it doesn't necessarily happen that way. We tend to think of LOC accidents happening from wake turbulence or getting too slow and inadvertently get into a spin, but on the contrary, a lot can happen in a more subtle fashion, like trying to climb over a cloud layer or getting distracted by a bad landing gear indication or inoperative alternator. We tend to create emergencies where there are none.
LOC is almost always pilot error. I recently read that you have a higher risk of being poisoned than being killed in a commercial airplane crash, but the rare accidents that do occur with our superbly reliable airplanes should and can almost always be avoided. In the spectacularly awful Air France accident, the Airbus was never really out of control, even though it stalled something like 90 times on the way down to the ocean. The Loss of Control was caused by the pilots who only had to release the back pressure on the controls to let the airplane's wings fly. For a riveting account of the causes of this crash, read William Langewiesche's article in the October 2014 issue of Vanity Fair: www.vanityfair.com/news/business/2014/10/air-france-flight-447-crash.
Losing control in an airplane covers a wide spectrum of human errors. We do things like fly into bad weather without an instrument rating or perhaps without instruments. We stall and spin in the traffic pattern because we don't appreciate the airplane might be flying uncoordinated, in a slip or a skid. We don't always appreciate the subtle (or not so subtle) cues that we're being given. And we're almost always given cues: an airspeed that's too slow, a ball out of center or, in the case of flying into bad weather, perhaps that uncomfortable feeling of knowing the visibility is getting worse, but for some reason, we keep going.
Talking about loss of control might sound ironic coming from an air show pilot who has made her living doing tumbles, cartwheels and tailslides for the public, but it's just the opposite. All maneuvers are controllable to the Nth degree with the right airplane design—construction, design, wing design, control surfaces, size of ailerons, etc. Aerobatic pilots love to make things look out of control, like in the classic Lomcevak. The Lomcevak, or "lump" as we sometimes call it, is named for a Czech word meaning "beserk headache." In the classic entry, the pilot increases airspeed to about 160 to 180 knots, pulls into a 60-degree climb angle and initiates a left roll into knife-edge flight. The airplane is then yawed with left rudder while simultaneously giving full forward elevator and full right aileron, essentially putting the airplane into an outside negative-G snap roll, and then the fun begins. In a good "lump," it's yee-haw—and the airplane starts tumbling end over end. This looks like an out-of-control situation, but the pilot has to work to keep the airplane tumbling (but playing with the flight controls) or else, when power is reduced, it becomes stable enough to fly. The interesting thing about most general aviation airplanes, even aerobatic airplanes, is that the airplane really does want to stabilize and fly. So, if the pilot loses Situational Awareness (SA), all they have to do is reduce power, take their hands off the stick, neutralize the rudders and wait for it to recover. Having sufficient altitude to recover is obviously a key factor, and so is reducing power, or the airplane will enter a flat spin. Loss of control is often pilot induced, and a prime example of this are the stories of fighter pilots who, after finding themselves spinning out of control, decide to bail out, but when they release the stick, the airplane starts flying again. And, there are stories of pilots bailing out of airplanes that were "out of control," only to find the airplane has landed itself in a field.
Sure, the Lomcevak is an extreme example of what a specialized airplane can do, but my point is that even when we do extreme things in an airplane, we aren't necessarily out of control. For a trained pilot, it's not even an "unusual attitude"—a term I don't believe in because when you know how to do basic aerobatics there are NO unusual attitudes!
Of course, we don't have to get all flip-floppy and tumble an airplane, unless that's our cup of tea, so how do we find out what our airplane's limitations are? We don't have to wait for an emergency that will probably never occur, but we don't have to spend the rest of our flying years wondering "what if" either. Knowing a few basic things about flying an airplane can guarantee we'll never lose control.
When I was getting my ratings, I was desperate to find an aerobatic instructor. I knew it was something I'd probably enjoy, but more importantly, I didn't want to continue to fly straight and level wondering what might happen next or what I'd do if I got into an inadvertent stall. I kept wondering what would happen if I "lost control." After I found an instructor and took an aerobatic course, I gained a phenomenal level of confidence that I wouldn't have had otherwise, and my level of enjoyment in flying increased exponentially. Deep stalls, uncoordinated stalls, a spin or two, even a simple loop will open your world and teach you more about stick and rudder, coordinated flight, energy management and flying the wing.
To help reduce LOC accidents, the NTSB recommends that pilots should avoid conditions that can lead to an aerodynamic stall, including situations approaching critical angle of attack and/or decreasing airspeed. This is all well and good, but I wonder, how can pilots know when they're approaching critical angles of attack without training that allows them to explore the envelope of their airplane? Let's face it, most stalls taught to private and commercial pilots aren't deep stalls and always use full power for recovery. I like to see a student learn deep stalls at critical angle of attack, and learn how to recover by flying the wing and not using power because, after all, it's the wing that flies the airplane, not the engine. The engine just keeps us aloft. Here I go again, on my soapbox!
The NTSB also says, "Pilots should seek training to ensure that they fully understand stall phenomena, including AOA concepts…" Amen! They continue to say that pilots should:
• be prepared to recognize the warning signs of an impending stall,
• be honest with themselves about their knowledge level of stalls and their ability to apply appropriate recovery techniques before stall (I would add, and after stall) onset,
• utilize aeronautical decision-making (ADM) techniques and flight risk assessment tools (Go-No Go decision making),
• manage distractions so that they don't interfere with situational awareness (are they referring to the in-cockpit selfie?!),
• understand, properly train and maintain currency in the equipment and airplanes they operate.
My godson Pete flies a Super Decathlon and recently flew to St. Augustine to fly with me. I noted he was tense and having trouble relaxing during some maneuvers, and in my postflight briefing I said to him, "Grasshopper! To gain control, you have to give up control!" Meaning, relax and trust your instructor. I won't let you get in trouble. This has now become Pete's and my motto! But, the more I think about it, the more I think it really is true. No one wants to be out of control, ever. We all want the same things—to be safe, confident and to get more usefulness and enjoyment out of our flying. Give up control, find a good instructor and explore the envelope of your airplane, and you'll never find yourself losing control.