Searching for a miracle cure to loss of control accidents

Like a bad golfer who is convinced the latest driver will fix his persistent slice, the aviation community keeps chasing miracle cures for loss of control accidents. But just like that golfer, pilots are likely to find that more practice beats bold new ideas.

The cause certainly is a worthy one. As the NTSB pointed out in adding loss of control to its Most Wanted List, “Between 2008 and 2014, about 47 percent of fatal fixed-wing GA accidents in the United States involved pilots losing control of their aircraft in flight, resulting in 1,210 fatalities.” Add in some of the fender-benders that result from loss of control on the runway (and usually don’t make the accident record) and it’s safe to say there’s a serious problem.

In response to the public campaign against LOC accidents (of course we need an acronym for it), organizations like AOPA, EAA, NBAA and even the FAA have given serious thought to the issue and proposed a number of possible solutions. They’ve been joined by countless flight instructors – and more than a few Air Facts readers. In general, these suggestions fall into three categories: technique, technology and training.

Technique

UND AOPA study
Could a turning base-to-final reduce stalls?

Fundamental changes to the way pilots fly are rare, but that’s exactly the approach being investigated by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, in collaboration with the University of North Dakota. The team is researching the potential benefits of a continuous base-to-final turn in the traffic pattern. The hope is that, “in contrast with a rectangular pattern, a continuous turn from downwind to final may provide for increased stability, reduced pilot workload, and a constant bank angle throughout the maneuver, helping pilots better manage angle-of-attack variances.”

It’s an intriguing idea, but it has a number of potential flaws. For one, it does not eliminate the potential for over-banking or slipping/skidding turns – especially when there’s a crosswind that pushes the airplane through final. A continuous turn might also prevent pilots from seeing traffic on final, which is exactly where a lot of collisions occur. Finally, the focus on the base and final legs does nothing to address LOC during go-arounds and missed approaches, which are surprisingly common.

Another low altitude maneuver that deserves attention is the circling approach. These feature prominently in accident reports, even among experienced instrument pilots. There might be a better way to fly these approaches, or the circling minimums might need to be raised to give pilots more room to maneuver. Some pilots have even suggested they be banned unless the circling route is specifically charted.

Technology

Can engineers save the day? Pinning hopes on new technology isn’t as naive as it might sound at first. The history of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents offers a hopeful lesson: the widespread adoption of terrain alerting systems has almost completely eliminated these accidents. It might be possible to do the same for LOC.

Airball concept
The Airball attempts to consolidate multiple instruments into one visual display.

EAA certainly hopes so, and has launched its Founder’s Innovation Prize to encourage the aviation community to share new ideas. The first winning design, dubbed the “Airball,” graphically displays an airplane’s energy state, including airspeed, angle of attack and yaw change. No word on when such a device might be available.

The FAA is also interested in new technology. In recent years they have made it much easier and less expensive to install angle of attack indicators. Various models are for sale by name brand avionics manufacturers, and most require only a logbook entry. AoA indicators have been around for decades, and they do work, but another instrument won’t do anything if the pilot isn’t paying attention to it.

A more radical approach is to design an airplane with a stall-proof wing, and remove pilot error from the equation. That sounds crazy, but during the rewrite of the Part 23 aircraft certification standards this year, the FAA held this up as an example of a breakthrough safety feature that could result from the rule change. Never say never, but it’s safe to say that such an idea won’t do anything for the accident record over the next five years.

One final technological approach has received far less attention, but holds some promise: flight data recorders. These are used in thousands of airliners every day, and not just for crash investigations. Safety teams use this data to detect unsafe trends and improve training programs before something bad happens. If nothing else, such a process helps pilots to be more data-driven in their flying. Sophisticated flight data recorders are starting to show up in new airplanes like the Cirrus SR22, but even pilots of older airplanes can use apps like CloudAhoy or ADS-B receivers with built-in recorders to log detailed flight tracks.

Training

Upset prevention training
Upset recovery courses are popular among business jet pilots, but aren’t realistic for most GA pilots.

This topic usually elicits the most passionate debate, not all of it helpful. One option, favored by business jet pilots, emphasizes the value of Upset Prevention and Recovery Training programs. This training puts pilots in aerobatic airplanes with experienced instructors so they can learn how to recover from spins, rolls and other unusual attitudes. It’s good training, but it’s not a solution for all of general aviation. There aren’t enough Extra 300s to go around, and such courses are not inexpensive.

Besides, a compelling case can be made that we don’t need new training, we just need more focused and more regular training. Basic proficiency is lacking, not advanced aerobatic skills. Tom Turner of the American Bonanza Society has suggested a simple but potentially effective solution: require pilots to log stick and rudder training, just like instrument pilots have to log approaches. This would emphasize proficiency flying in between the official flight review every two years, and would focus on what matters: slow flight and stalls. It also has the benefit of being fairly easy to implement.

Truly effective training needs to go beyond stalls and spins, to recognize “loss of control” as a broad category of events. Sure, some accidents are classic stall/spin scenarios, but others are due to a lack of autopilot proficiency, like the Asiana crash in San Francisco where the pilots were unsure whether the automation was on or off. Many reflect distraction, as the NTSB admits in their Most Wanted List. Much like texting behind the wheel of a car, a pilot’s attention is not where it should be when his airplane stalls. How do you teach this?

What works

In evaluating all these proposals, the first thing to admit is that there are no quick fixes. If there were, we would have found them long ago – it’s not like stalls are a new discovery. The solution to LOC accidents will probably be a boring and difficult combination of small changes that phase in over the course of a decade.

AOA indicator
Angle of attack indicators have not been a popular upgrade so far.

Technology can help, but progress will be slow because the average general aviation airplane is over 30 years old. That means retrofit technology is the key, and early results aren’t encouraging. Angle of attack indicators are still exceedingly rare, even after a major push from the FAA and GAMA – pilots simply haven’t shown much enthusiasm for installing them in used airplanes. Even when they are installed, training programs will need to be overhauled to make AOA an essential part of flying, not an afterthought.

The more powerful technological solutions will come in the form of always-on automation, like Garmin’s Electronic Stability Protection system or perhaps modern versions of stick shaker/pusher systems. These don’t require any pilot input or training, but they are not quick retrofits so they will probably remain a new aircraft feature.

If technology is at best a partial cure, technique may offer another part. The continuous turn to final being studied by AOPA doesn’t seem like much of a fix to me. It might work for well-trained fighter pilots, but it’s a solution to the wrong problem for general aviation.

Hopefully the research program at least stimulates a debate about new ways to fly in the airport environment. We are still flying traffic patterns, especially in primary flight training, as if everyone flies a Luscombe with an engine that’s about to quit. I know some old school CFIs will gasp, but flying beyond gliding range of the runway might be a tradeoff worth making in 2016. If pilots aren’t right on top of the runway, there might be less likelihood of overbanking on base-to-final. No, I’m not advocating the 747 pattern some pilots fly, but there’s plenty of room in between. Maybe even the occasional straight-in approach would work?

Beyond that, CFIs shouldn’t be afraid to teach approaches with less than full flaps, or with some power maintained until crossing the runway. The power-off, full flap glide is a maximum performance maneuver that simply isn’t necessary for most general aviation airplanes. The pros in Citations and Boeings “fly it on,” and a lot of Cessna pilots probably could too.

Of course better training is almost always the best answer. Requiring onerous new training events seems misguided, but the idea of spending time on a regular basis focused specifically on stalls seems both practical and effective. We can all ridicule the “six approaches in six months” rule for instrument pilots, but it does make pilots shoot approaches. If you measure it, you aspire to it.

While stall training is important, a focus on airspeed control might pay even bigger dividends. If pilots could consistently maintain the private pilot standard of +10/-5 knots on final, the vast majority of LOC accidents would go away. Yes, you can stall at any airspeed, but most pilots don’t. If we spent more time on airspeed awareness and less time on obscure trivia about NDBs and dead reckoning, the results might be pleasantly surprising. No STC required.

16 Comments

  • Thanks, John … you provide a thoughtful treatment of what remains a very vexing problem that still accounts for a plurality if not majority of fatal accidents in private aviation.

    Re: your point about the continuous turn approach to landing I agree with completely. It doesn’t resolve the underlying problem in loss of control, which is invariably about letting airspeed drift too low along with poor coordination. On the other hand, continuous turns to final will tend to increase air to air collisions, because a continuous turn does not let the pilot on base make a final assessment of potentially hazardous traffic prior to making the turn to final.

    There really is a quick solution to this, but it isn’t easy. Yars would completely agree with me on this: eliminate the pilot by going to autonomous flight. That will virtually eliminate LOC accidents. But it means installing autopilots with autonomous capability on a hundred eighty thousand plus legacy airframes … which ain’t gonna happen. On new non-simple aircraft, all models should offer fully autonomous flight as part of the avionics package.

    So what are we left with? I don’t believe that more frequent training, or better training will resolve the underlying problem, which is pilots who simply forget to monitor their airspeed. It’s not a matter of training … it’s a matter of mental concentration.

    All pilots, no matter their training, their ratings, their logbook hours, their attitudes, etc. are subject to losing concentration at any moment in time. It’s a natural fatal flaw of the human mind. It will never be “fixed”. All we can hope for is to do our level best to never lose sight of what we’re doing in flying the aircraft, to keep our minds on the job at hand, and not be distracted by any other thoughts. We must accept that occasionally even the best of us can have a “bad day”, and when pilots have bad days, it can be their last day. We’re human, after all.

  • 1210 fatalities in a 6 year period? Les’ see, that’s about 200/year. And we have two large federal agencies with what size budgets declaring this a national disaster? Sorry, but it would seem to me that spending all that money on the 35,000/year automobile LOC fatal accidents would have the potential for a greater payback.

    I went out and tried the UND curved approach after I read about it. In my high wing airplane it didn’t seem so good. I thought that raising the wing to check for traffic seemed like a better idea.

  • Many years ago one would need to get his car license on a stick shift even if you owned an automatic transmission car. it was a simple example of regulation not catching up with technology. How many more accidents would be have today if people still drove 30 year old cars without seatbelt or airbags ?!

    Regulation should allow Cessna and piper to sell us a 150k airplane with everything in it. The fleet needs to be recycled, AOA should NOT be considered a technology revolution in an age where my car can drive itself to work.

  • Many approaches come to a bad end as a consequence of poor technique – taught to hapless pilots by witless instructors. I’ve observed thousands of approaches that were conducted with multiple configurations of gear, flaps, power, airspeed, trim, and rates-of-descent – different for downwind, base, and final. These pilots were so busy, it’s little short of miraculous that they managed to achieve a survivable outcome.

    The proffered modified-180-degree overhead pattern almost always is executed as one continuous gliding turn, conducted with one configuration and at a constant airspeed and rate-of-descent. In other words, it is A STABILIZED APPROACH, despite its constant acceleration. What we seek – and what we should teach – is stabilized approaches, whether straight-in, classic rectangle, or overhead.

    Stop working so hard! Manage the airplane. Let it do the work, while you take all of the credit. It’s really a lot easier than you think. Or at least a lot less difficult than you think that it needs to be.

    Fly safely.

    -YARS

    • Sorry, Yars, I’m not with you on your faith in a constant 180 degree turn to reduce LOCA.

      For one thing, the pilot has to make numerous adjustments in control inputs to land – it’s unavoidable. You don’t suddenly drop full flaps in at cruising airspeed, and you don’t land without flaps in most light aircraft (though it’s debatable whether full or partial flaps should be used on most landings). Wind if present (it usually is!) causes a need for constant adjustments to the flight controls and to a lesser degree the throttle as you make your 180 degree turn, to deal with both horizontal wind and vertical wind. If you have retractable landing gear, you have to un-retract it to land. Most pilots literally and simply cannot do what you suggest – make an approach to landing without adjustments to flight controls, gear, and throttle.

      Besides, nearly all light aircraft used in private aviation aren’t very complicated anyway.

      LOCA happen when pilots allow themselves to be distracted, lose sight of airspeed, and then stall and spin out. A constant 180 degree turn – which deprives the pilot of a stabilized base leg to make one last check for other converging traffic on or entering final – does zilch to make the pilot start or keep paying attention to his/her airspeed.

      It’s not complexity that kills pilots in most accidents – it’s inattention and loss of situational awareness.

      • Duane:
        It’s been my observation that practitioners of 180 overhead approaches take care of ALL of the pre-landing housework BEFORE the break. That was my point: set up the vehicle ONCE, then fly a stabilized approach to the roundout -regardless of whether it’s an overhead, a classic rectngular pattern, or the dreaded 10-mile straight-in.
        Now, will/would flying an overhead approach ensure that a pilot would do that? Not at all. But as I said at the beginning, in my experience they are more likely to do so.
        But as we know, correlation is not causation. Are overhead-approach pilots more likely to be organized? Or are organized pilots more likely to attempt an overhead approach?
        I suspect that to some extent, each of those propositions is true.
        Ultimately, avoiding LOC requires only keeping one’s head out of one’s rectum. Maybe what’s needed is large, pointy hats… Ouch!

  • HANDLING RULE CHANGE
    There is new conversation going on about the recent FAA change regarding teaching slow flight. They make the change. We don’t really need to worry about whether it is right or wrong, it’s now the rule, just keep on teaching flight. Their concern is prevention of loss of control incidents.

    Okay, teach slow flight as always. The specific method doesn’t really matter as long as the Student can control flight to any given indicated-airspeed. If proficient in this, he can demonstrate it in the manner the regulators want and at the same time still be safe at the slower indicated-airspeeds as always taught.

    This is reminiscent of the olden days when it was deemed safer to make longer power-on approaches rather than the idle-power landings that had always been used. The result is we still have loss of control with base turns to approach. But an unintended consequence is we no longer have any proficiency in idle-power landings which also happens to be the procedure for making engine-out approaches and landings.

    Another unintended consequence is burning a lot of training time driving out for the longer approach. If training continued teaching proficiency in idle-power approaches, for certification demonstration purposes the longer approach is a piece of cake. Anyway we are always subject to doing one or the other approaches on any given landing.

    The proposed circular approach and landing currently being tested is also just a variation of normal approaches. The actual turn to base and final is always subject to positioning on the downwind and requires adjustment depending on that and related wind conditions. In addition, the constant turn from downwind to final requires leveling the wings at some point to check that the final is clear.

    Let’s just concentrate on teaching how to control the aircraft in all situations. If we have the Student proficient enough for a certification ride, we can teach him what to demonstrate on the check ride in a couple of flights.

    What is this loss of control we worry about? It’s either stall, takeoff/landings gone wrong or spatial disorientation. These are three distinctly different things. Though consideration of risk taking is extremely valid, once in the air, the pilot must be able to handle any unusual conditions encountered.

    How does stall occur? Pulling and holding the control wheel aft…the only way. The Pilot stalls the aircraft…end of story! When maneuvering it is considered normal to use elevator input, however it is important the Student understand the cause of stall and to release some of the aft control before allowing the machine to attain stall.

    Historically off-field landings seldom touchdown before midfield of the chosen area. One-half of the fatalities occur from overrunning the site. The idle-power landing proficiency will teach having the landing area unmoving (collision course) on the windshield. This is the desired procedure for all landings. Proficiency in forward slip is attained at the same time.

    Landing wind conditions often cause control loss. A Pilot must be aware of of strong crosswinds and during landings while braking be ready to add power for propeller blast to reduce the weathervaning effect on the fuselage. Added power momentarily can often regain marginal directional control.

    Inadvertent IMC. How do you handle spatial disorientation? As described in early model Cessna’s 150 and 172 emergency procedures; turn loose of the control wheel, concentrate and believe the turn and bank instrument or the attitude indicator, while using rudder, push to cause a standard rate turn and hold for one minute, reverse rudder to show zero turn and fly out of the condition. Add some power if needing to assure more terrain clearance. If night, adding power and flying straight ahead may allow re-attaining night references or otherwise turn back in the same manner.

    How do we teach aircraft flight control to enable the Student to become proficient in these particular situations? It requires assuring an understanding of how control works. The initial flight is particularly important since the Student will always think that is the way it is done.

    A quick way to introduce control to an initial Student is to fly their first few flights without touching the control wheel until landing roundout. This leads to understanding use of rudders to steer for taxi, heading control, and turns. Initial wiggling the pedals for directional control through all ground operation through liftoff teaches more precise steering. Additionally, rudder-only control allows early awareness of the kinesthetic feeling in the seat.

    The initial flight is with a set elevator trim to approximate Vx. With takeoff power and mixture set, at brake release the aircraft will accelerate becoming airborne when proper lift is obtained. When airborne, continued rudder steering toward distant sighted objects and keeping them unmoving maintains directional control.

    Once airborne, exercises in power and elevator trim change for altitude, indicated-airspeed, and level turns with no control wheel input will show the Student what the controls do and how they are used to direct the flight. After the understanding how rudder and power affect flight, use of ailerons and elevator will be incorporated.

    This requires the Instructor be proficient in hands-off flight control prior to teaching.
    These procedures lead to the concept of “hands-off” flight control as outlined in the 2014 Mar/Apr FAA Flight Safety-Brief, page 13. This article should be required reading for all Pilots.
    It has been demonstrated that using the hands-off concept for initial training, a Student can be proficient for solo in five hours and complete all PPL requirements within thirty hours…try it, you may like it!
    I appreciate comment.

    Best Regards
    Bob

    Robert Reser
    2030 E. Cairo Dr.
    Tempe, AZ 85282
    602 430 5963
    bob@safe-flight.net
    http://safe-flight.net

  • When tragedy strikes we seek relief through government and technology, both usually let us down.

    In my opinion most pilots no longer learn how to fly in the first place. There are a number of reasons for this but couple this with lack of proficiency and well…

  • John,your article seems unnecessarily pessimistic. I disagree on the following points:
    1) Circling approaches work very well for me. I get the plane set up before the break. After that the scan is from a laser focus on the point of intended landing, to the airspeed indicator, to the ball. Repeat the cycle steadily until rolling out on short final. It’s the consistency and the constant situational awareness of the landing point throughout the pattern that works so beautifully for me. I have no trouble controlling airspeed, and less trouble maintaining a coordinated turn, but you do have to plan carefully if there’s a crosswind pushing you toward the extended runway centerline. I do acknowledge that it’s more difficult to monitor traffic.
    2) Angle of attack indicators are great! That’s why the Navy has used them for carrier landings for half a century. If the FAA were serious about angle of attack indicators they would require them in all new designs. Then training would take care of itself. If I could only have two instruments beyond the presently mandated minimum, they would be an angle of attack indicator and a turn and bank indicator.
    3) Mandated airplane control instruction in the year between biennial flight reviews is also a great idea. The instructor should require capability in slow flight, stalls, and incipient spins, as well as proper use of the controls and demonstrated stabilized, coordinated flying technique in the pattern.
    John Cowan

  • Wind gradient/slight shear at landing and take off should be expected. Carry a tad bit more velocity when you’re below stall recovery altitude. When winds aloft near 25 knots expect gradient at low altitude.
    Also, psychologically, going slower when driving a car is safer but flying faster is safer for flying.

    • “Also, psychologically, going slower when driving a car is safer but flying faster is safer for flying.”
      Not always. Excessive speed when landing is a BIG reason for LOC events, both on the runway and in the air (during botched go-arounds). Ideally, the roundout is succeeded immediately by the flare and a touchdown. “Floating” – or worse – is your enemy.

  • I agree completely with John Cowan. In addition, it appears that the reliance on technology has been a problem in the airline world. For example, the Air France debacle where none of the pilots recognized that they were in a stall and had not a clue of what to do. Basic stick and rudder skills must be taught and practiced. Captain Sully did not save all those people by using a computer or auto pilot….

    • Bob – contrary to common belief, AF 447 was NOT caused by lack of stick and rudder skills or the pilots’ inability to recognize a stall. It was both simpler than that – a panicked relatively inexperienced pilot flying who went crazy at the controls when they hit a thunderstorm cell – and more complex than that (having to do with the way the flight controls are configured on the Airbus, and the fact that the pilot not flying couldn’t actually tell what the PF was doing with the tiny, non-interconnected sidestick, and the fact that that Captain wasn’t on the flight deck until it was too late to do anything to recover).

  • Pardon me if this sounds smug, but I simply do not get LOC on landing. Down wind to base, thirty degree bank, ball centered, level on base, pull second flap, check for conflicting traffic on final. Turn final at no more than fifteen degrees. On roll out, you are either on, or not. If not, go around. I go around about fifteen percent of the time. Either way, I land, put away the plane away and either go to the bar and relive the flight over a beer, or go home. Am I missing something? Landing is the ultimate time for concentration. If its broken, go around. I’ve even had to break on base, pull up to pattern, fly the upwind, cross wind and do it all over again. Its only a matter of being alert and sacraficing a few mnutes and doing it all over again. Sure beats crashing.

  • Please excuse me, but a lot of this conversation seems somewhat academic. Whatever happened to Student pilot training for such maneuvers as pylon turns? Didn’t that teach a pilot to handle his airplane in all wind conditions? And near to the earth at that?

    I’m an old dog by now, but I still believe that early training in tailwheel equipped airplanes is really the best of all medicines. It teaches rudder control like no other condition ever will. Younger pilots today, with their tricycle gear training, have little, if any, idea of what rudder control is really all about. Both on the ground and in the air.

    A ride around the patch with many of our newer pilots will show a definite lack of that seat-of-the-pants feeling; and the little black ball will only remain in the center if held there by a drop of epoxy.

    “As the twig is bent, so the tree will grow.” If the basics aren’t there during the earliest of training, it will never be there. Back to basics isn’t a bad idea, in my book.

  • It seems to me that John actually offered up the primary issue. Power. Most of the LOC accidents would not have even happened if the pilot had planned to reduce power below a certain number (% power or manifold pressure) until wings level on final. That number is easily determined.

    John mentions how jet pilots ‘fly it on’. While many of us ‘get’ what he means, I would suggest discussing this concept for smaller GA airplanes more like a soft field landing. In such a landing we carry enough power to make the slowest possible landing speed.

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