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Recently, a Cessna 172 crashed at an aerodrome in Australia when the student on a trial instructional flight froze on the controls at liftoff. The Cessna was badly damaged in the crash but at least the student and instructor walked away unhurt. The instructor said the student snatched back on the wheel when told to lift off and kept pulling back. The instructor was caught by surprise and was unable to wrest the controls from the student with the result the aircraft hit the runway with one wing and collapsed the landing gear.

Whether or not the instructor was unwise in giving a TIF (trial instructional flight) student a takeoff for his very first time in the air is open to discussion. Personally I would not, as the most unexpected reactions are liable to occur. It is safer to give the TIF student the controls after the climb and the aircraft is trimmed for level flight. There is very little published advice to new instructors concerning what methods should be used if a student freezes on the controls on the ground or in the air. There may be crew room talk only – but nothing specific in any instructor manuals, that offers expert advice.


The Wirraway was a fine airplane, but only when the guy in the front seat cooperated.

That said, I learned the hard way from my instructor at Central Flying School (CFS), the Royal Australian Air Force school for flying instructors. It was during my final handling test before being awarded the Qualified Flying Instructor Rating grading. The aircraft involved was a two-seat Wirraway radial engine advanced trainer, originally designed as a fighter. It was identical to the Harvard or SNJ. The CFS instructor who was a former Royal Air Force wartime Spitfire pilot, asked me to patter to him an eight turn spin and recovery. After my demonstration, he took control and became the student while he did an eight turn spin.

Everything went well until I noticed he had not started recovery action at the completion of the eight turns.  By now we had lost several thousands of feet as expected, after starting off at 8000 feet. Through the intercom system, I ordered him to take immediate recovery action. There was no answer from the front seat so I attempted to take control, only to find the controls jammed in the pro-spin positions.

I again told the “student” to let go of the controls.  “Can’t Sir, I’ve frozen on the controls and I am shit scared,” the CFS instructor said over the intercom.

“Relax, Bloggs,” I muttered into the oxy mask, “I have control, so take your hands and feet off the controls.”

“Can’t, Sir,” came the muffled reply – muffled because the bastard was laughing his head off in the front seat. By now we were down to 3000 feet and things were getting serious.

I was only a sergeant pilot and the CFS instructor was a decorated Flight Lieutenant and moreover he was in command. But bugger the rank because I was now thoroughly scared of what was happening.

I took a deep breath and roared into the intercom, “Let go of the effing controls, you stupid bloody idiot!” Except I said worse than that which is unprintable here.

Immediately the instructor let go of the controls and I recovered the Wirraway with not much height to spare.

“Well done, Sergeant” said the CFS instructor from the front seat. “Never be afraid to use foul language at a student who has frozen on the controls. It may shock him into sensibility and with luck he should release his grip on the controls.”

As I said, there is nothing written in the instructor manuals about this but it’s worthwhile keeping in mind as a last resort.  My experience, however, was nothing compared to another RAAF instructor tasked with ab initio training of foreign pilots on a light trainer called the CT4, which has side-by-side seating. The student was a huge man straight from the jungles of Papua New Guinea which is to the north of Australia. The instructor was irritated with the seeming incompetence of his student and said something that not only insulted the student but caused him to snap.

Suddenly the student grabbed the controls and, rolling the aircraft inverted, had it pointing earthwards, at the same time growling, “We both die, Sir.” The instructor didn’t have the strength to overpower the student’s strong grip and the end was near until the instructor changed tack and apologised profusely to the student for upsetting him with his criticism. At that, the student let go the controls allowing the instructor to recover close to the ground.

“Don’t swear at me again, Sir” said the student “or you know what will happen.”

John Laming
11 replies
  1. Al S
    Al S says:

    I was taught, when in a side-by-side a/c like a C172) to open your right hand fully and smash the student’s nose with the palm of your hand. The natural reaction is for the hands to try to cover the face – thereby letting go of the controls. I never had to use it, and hope it works if I do!

    • Echo November
      Echo November says:

      No chance at all that man would ever fly with me again. Certainly not with anyone again if I had my way. Someone willing to die for an insult (however unprofessional) is unsafe per FAR67 in my book. Aviation Instructors Handbook says, “A flight instructor who believes a student may be suffering from a serious psychological abnormality has a responsibility to refrain from instructing that student. In addition, a flight instructor has the personal responsibility of assuring that such a person does not continue flight training or become certificated as a pilot.” no. NO. And NO.

  2. Alexei
    Alexei says:

    An instructor with whom I did my Instrument and Commercial was a woman of slight built. I asked her once what she’d do if a huge guy froze on the controls on her. She said she was prepared – edge of the hand to his kneecap. The pain and shock will give him something else to concentrate on, and he’ll let go of the controls. For tandem airplanes – I think I could reach the student’s kneecap in a Cub (instruct from the front), and palm the face as Al S suggested in a Champ/Citabria (instruct from the back).

  3. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I had a student freeze at the controls in a 182 checkout. He had been my student from the beginning and was a pretty good stick. I had taught him that a 172 could be controlled in a deep stall with only the rudder (walking the rudder was what I called it–others might call it a falling leaf), whether power off or power on, and he was good at it. I had also taught him spin recoveries, and he was good at that. When he took his checkride, the feedback I received was that he was an excellent stick and rudder pilot.

    During the 182 checkout, with his wife and a girlfriend of hers in the back seat, we had gone through a gamut of air maneuvers, and I had casually mentioned never to try to walk the rudders in a power on stall in a 182. He asked why not, and I said that no one could control it. He responded, “I’ll bet I can.”

    I was concerned that he might try it on his own, so I said, “OK, smart guy, try it.” He pulled the nose up into a power on stall, and when it broke, he held the yoke back and attempted to maintain control with the rudders. First it oscillated to the right, then to the left, then worse to the right, and when he pushed the left rudder to stop the right oscillation, it flipped over into a left spin–and he froze. I tried to be the calm instructor, and I said, “Power off, stop the spin, break the stall.” Nothing. I said it again, still nothing. Then I said, “LET GO OF THE CONTROLS!” Still nothing.

    So I yanked off the power, brought my left arm down hard on his wrists, breaking his hands off the yoke, and used all my strength on the right rudder. We pulled out of the spin after dropping over 3000′ from 11,000′ MSL to less than a 1000′ above the Big Hollow west of Laramie. I don’t know how many turns that was.

    As I flew us back to Laramie, he revived–and apparently didn’t remember any of the events from when the spins started until after I’d leveled off and turned toward Laramie. Needless to say, I did not endorse him to fly the 182, and I refused to fly with him again.

    Panic is an insidious thing. As instructors, we have to be ready for a totally off-the-wall response, if the student panics. The real problem is that whether a student will panic is unpredictable. Here I’d flown with this guy for many hours, taught him well, he learned well, and if there was any fault in his flying, it was that he often showed questionable judgment. But he had never before showed the slightest indication that he would panic and freeze in an unusual situation.

    If there was one lesson I learned from that as an instructor, it was not to allow things to progress nearly as far. I should have taken control at the first indication that he was unable to maintain control, not after he’d totally lost control.


    • Jake
      Jake says:

      Very good point. I would struggle with what to do in that situation though because of inexperience. I would think that it would be good to go up with a cfi right after or before you get your cfi ticket and have that cfi be the student and lock up. You can then see what it would be like and the way to fix the issue.

  4. Bill Pamer
    Bill Pamer says:

    I flew with a female instructor who once had a very muscular former Marine as a student pilot. I forget the phase of flight, but he froze at the controls. After trying gentle approaches, forceful approaches, then yelling at him, she finally punched him in the face. That got his attention, and broke his death-grip on the controls. She successfully recovered.

  5. Jerry Smith
    Jerry Smith says:

    I suppose I should have been a bit clearer. In saying the latter I was referring to this statement.

    “We both die, Sir.”

  6. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    My flight instructor handled this topic with me be recommending that if someone else in the plane has frozen on the controls and verbal techniques have failed, to cover their eyes. The idea is similar to the one mentioned above about hitting them in the nose. The reflex is supposed to be that they instinctively believe they cannot control the plane if they can’t see, so better let go!

    And if that and nothing else reasonable fails to work, she said to punch them in the face.

  7. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    Al S. sez, ” smash the student’s nose with the palm of your hand.”

    I’d aim for a different target. It’s not too difficult to smash the nasal bones up into the brain and kill the person.

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