When Training Turns Lethal

The safest kind of flying, statistically at least, has its own hazards. Here’s how to wrap your head around the risk and keep your sunny side up.
A good instructor will use a "teaching moment" to allow the student to experiment under a watchful eye but stop short of exceeding safety limits.

When it comes to high-risk flight, we usually think VFR into IMC, low-level maneuvering or run-ins with thunderstorms. Rightly so, too. Those scenarios, along with the ever-present villain “loss of control” lurking nearby, are the riskiest in flying. Training, on the other hand, is, statistically speaking, the safest aviating you can do this side of hangar flying.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s risk free. It’s not. Instructors need to know when the limits of safe flight are being approached during training and when to step in to keep safety from being compromised. At the opposite extreme, avoiding all abnormal parameters, merely lecturing or taking over controls too early, leaves the student to find things out by experimenting on his or her own, later in the career path. A good instructor will use a “teaching moment” to allow the student to experiment under a watchful eye but stop short of exceeding safety limits, keeping the flight always under control.

On the other hand, failing to let students see the consequences of their action, or inaction, is hazardous to the individual’s future health. Guarding the controls, helping the student steer well clear of incipient danger, allows the pilot to “graduate” without ever learning anything about the airplane’s bad habits. He or she then has to find these things out themselves.

The Cessna 182 is a fine, capable airplane, but it has a heavier wing loading than the 172 that usually precedes it in a transitioning pilot’s experience. If its airspeed is allowed to get slow with power at idle during an approach, a high rate of sink will develop that can’t be arrested by just yanking back on the yoke during the landing flare. Hard landings from this condition can damage the nosegear, thanks to a 500-pound engine sitting on top of it. Students have to be shown this tendency and learn to avoid it, under a CFI’s guidance.

Taking command of a Beech Bonanza is an exhilarating experience for a new pilot, but the airplane’s blazing performance and delightful control feel masks a need for strong rudder input during a full-dirty approach stall. Until shown the uncorrected wing drop that takes place, the student thinks they are in full command of a fine aircraft. Without a current-in-type CFI to take them up to an adequate altitude for recovery practice, the checkout isn’t complete.

In each of these cases, the instructor needs to know how far to let the situation develop; there needs to be an effective demonstration, so the student can practice avoidance and recovery while avoiding damage to the aircraft or occupants. Test pilots have to know how to expand the envelope gradually, and so should CFIs when training a new pilot.

Transitioning into a new airplane creates an opportunity for heightened risk. In many cases, insurance requirements will mandate a certain number of hours of instruction by a CFI with experience in the specific type of aircraft or some “mentoring” under the tutelage of an experienced, qualified pilot, even though FAA regulations don’t require added training. Sometimes these enforced hours produce opportunities to experiment and demonstrate the edges of the flight envelope—which can be a good thing, as long as the participants know what they are doing and don’t carry the experimentation too far. However, such training can become too realistic if restraint isn’t exercised.

Under the guise of “training,” pushing the limits of an aircraft’s capability can sometimes go badly wrong. In 2004, two pilots flying a Canadair regional jet on a repositioning flight wanted to see how the aircraft would handle the rarified air at flight level 410, given its light weight. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize the narrow “coffin corner” spread between Mach buffet and aerodynamic stall, and the possibility of engine failure; they allowed the aircraft to depart controlled flight, ultimately resulting in a double engine flameout with inability to restart, ending up with insufficient altitude to reach a runway. Both perished, and the aircraft was destroyed, needless losses because no one took charge to minimize the danger of experimenting with the edge of the operating envelope.

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