Airplane off runway
6 min read

Read any aviation website or magazine and you’ll quickly encounter the phrase “loss of control,” which is often discussed as if it’s the bogeyman stalking inattentive pilots. According to NBAA, over 40% of fixed wing fatal accidents over the last decade can be pinned on this cause. That’s obviously a huge number, so it seems mystifying that we can’t solve the problem.

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. Everyone has their favorite solution, and spirited debates have sprung up around upset prevention and recovery programs, angle of attack indicators, spin training for the Private Pilot test, and better flight reviews. These often devolve into the stale argument about technology vs. stick and rudder skills, with predictably depressing results.

But back up—before solving a problem, it helps to be clear about definitions. What does loss of control (it’s aviation so we have to have an acronym: LOC) actually mean? The FAA says it’s “an unintended departure of an aircraft from controlled flight.” That definition is so broad as to be useless, like saying the leading cause of car crashes is “unintended rapid deceleration.”

Airplane off runway

Calling this “loss of control” doesn’t really tell us much.

Digging deeper, the FAA suggests the root causes of LOC are “poor judgment/aeronautical decision making, failure to recognize an aerodynamic stall or spin and execute corrective action, intentional regulatory non-compliance, low pilot time in aircraft make and model, lack of piloting ability, failure to maintain airspeed, failure to follow procedure, pilot inexperience and proficiency, or the use of over-the-counter drugs that impact pilot performance.” In other words – everything! It could be a training problem, a proficiency problem, an aeromedical problem, or simply an anti-authority attitude.

Partly, the fuzziness around LOC is a statistical artifact. The aviation industry has made significant strides in reducing controlled flight into terrain and weather accidents, and fewer pilots are getting lost these days. As these categories have declined, a lot of the leftover accidents get lumped into LOC almost by default, making it an imprecise phrase.

As usual, AOPA’s Nall Report is the place to turn for details—and it has some revealing statistics. The latest edition lists 179 fatal accidents in 2019 among non-commercial fixed-wing operators. How many of those were due to LOC?

  • Takeoff and climb: 2 (10 more are categorized as “stalled or settled on takeoff,” a related but different scenario)
  • Maneuvering: 12 (here stall and LOC are grouped together)
  • Descent: 0 (6 are listed as “stalls/spins”)
  • Landing: 0

Including all the stall/spin accidents in the total means at most 30 out of 179 fatal accidents (17%) could be called loss of control. That is still too many, but it’s hardly overwhelming. For comparison, weather was also involved in 30 fatal accidents during this time period.

If we’re trying to dramatically reduce fatal accidents, solving loss of control isn’t nearly enough.

So where’s the mismatch between these stats and the headlines we all read? Moving from fatal to non-fatal accidents dramatically increases the number of LOC accidents. For example, there were zero fatal LOC accidents in the landing phase, but 163 non-fatal LOC accidents—by far the leading cause in this phase. (Overall, a stunning 98% of landing accidents are not fatal.) Loss of control is also the leading cause of non-fatal accidents during the takeoff phase.

Each of these accidents can have serious long-term consequences, whether it’s higher insurance premiums or shattered pilot confidence, but a runway excursion leading to a prop strike is not the same as a crash that kills a family. Many pilots hear “loss of control” and instantly think of a base-to-final stall/spin accident. The statistics show that is wrong; much more likely is a crosswind landing gone awry and a bent airplane.

Even if the goal is to prevent all accidents, regardless of severity, LOC is not a very useful phrase because it suggests a simplicity of cause that simply doesn’t exist. Consider two randomly-selected accident reports from 2019 that can be categorized as LOC:

  • “During the takeoff roll, [the Cessna 172 pilot] noticed that the passenger window was unsecured. While attempting to secure the window, he momentarily took his eyes off the runway. As he looked back at the runway, the airplane was traveling to the left side of the runway. With insufficient runway to correct direction, the airplane impacted a runway distance marker sign.”
  • “The [Beechcraft Bonanza] pilot reported that, during landing and just before touchdown, the stall warning horn sounded but that he briefly thought it was the ‘gear warning annunciator.’ Thinking he had not lowered the landing gear, he rapidly increased the throttle to produce full engine power in an attempt to go-around. However, he did not apply sufficient right rudder inputs, and the airplane deviated to the left and drifted over grass past the edge of the asphalt runway. Further, the airplane had not attained sufficient altitude to clear rising terrain, and the propeller tips hit the terrain, the engines stopped, and the airplane slid on the grass.”
AOA indicator

Angle of attack indicators are helpful, but hardly the answer to LOC accidents.

What magic bullet would have prevented these accidents? Spin training, to take one popular example, would hardly have helped either of the pilots above. It’s hard to see how an angle of attack indicator would have made a difference either. One pilot needed the discipline to ignore the distraction, the other needed practice on go-arounds. Decision-making needs as much work here as stick and rudder skills. Spend a few hours reading NTSB reports and you’ll find dozens of similar examples.

This shows the frustrating but essential truth about aviation safety: most accidents are a unique combination of pilot skills, airplane idiosyncrasies, weather, and flat out bad luck. Our incessant efforts to organize personal tragedies into sortable categories hides as much as it reveals. Just consider the third leading cause of accidents: “other.”

So what can be done about loss of control accidents? Sadly, there are no easy fixes—no cutting edge avionics, no special training maneuver, and no FAA regulation can save the day. A good first step would be to stop talking about LOC as a consistent failure mode to fix. Instead, the flight training industry needs to do the harder but more important work of teaching good airmanship. That’s not a one-time fix; it’s a lifelong commitment that each of us needs to embrace.

Good airmanship starts with humility, understanding that it can happen to you and the only reason it doesn’t is because you work constantly to avoid it. In practice, that means adopting smart habits: do the math on every flight (performance calculations, weight and balance), respect the POH limitations, don’t make low passes for any reason, practice slow flight more often, take a flight instructor along if you haven’t flown recently, and always fly a stabilized approach below 500 feet VFR and 1000 feet IFR. Simply being able to fly the target speed on final approach within +5 and -0 knots would go a long way to preventing those non-fatal landing accidents.

Most importantly, focus on two numbers that matter most: time logged in the last 90 days and time in aircraft type. A huge percentage of GA accidents are caused by either lack of basic proficiency or unfamiliarity with the airplane. Yes, this is your excuse to tell your family you simply must fly more!

All of this might sound like the aviation version of “eat your broccoli.” So be it—broccoli is good for you, after all.

22 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Good article John! As an IP I always emphasized to my students to, first and foremost, always FLY THE AIRPLANE! My Dad once told me about an incident that happened to him during WWII. He was in the artillery and, as he was riding in the cab of a truck towing a howitzer, a bee got into the cab with him and the driver. They were going about 45 MPH and the driver opened his door and was going to get out of the truck as he was deathly afraid of bees. My Dad was able to pull him back in with one hand as he steered the truck with his other. He eventually swatted the bee and everything was OK, but the lesson still applies. No matter what the distraction is, first and foremost drive the truck, or fly the airplane!

    Reply
  2. RichR
    RichR says:

    Safe flights start with realistic assessments of you and your aircraft’s capabilities that day, your plan and how they all stack up against conditions (wx, airspace, terrain, traffic). If you encounter less ideal than plan, what you do to resolve.

    What can you do to prepare? Don’t let encountered conditions be the first time you have to execute a skill…so don’t fly the same flight 1000x, get training to and continue to revisit edges of performance envelope as well as xw, at least as often as you practice approaches, hangar fly scenarios and read articles like this.

    Unfortunately no amount of technology will remove one’s head from one’s posterior, so do the above instead to prevent it!

    Reply
  3. R Mac
    R Mac says:

    I bet you a cup of coffee that the mishap pilots in both of your examples, would have responded with a blank stare and a long pause before they answered the question, Did you use your checklist?

    Reply
    • John T
      John T says:

      There are times and places for using a checklist, or mnemonic. While in the act of taking off OR landing a checklist is inappropriate. Prior to takeoff while still behind the hold line, or prior to landing while 10 miles out are the times to run a checklist. After that, succinct mnemonics (CFFHT, GUMPS etc.) keep our eyes outside where they belong.

      Reply
  4. T. Boyle
    T. Boyle says:

    “Most importantly, focus on two numbers that matter most: time logged in the last 90 days and time in aircraft type.”

    Sorry, but as Wikipedia articles say, citation needed! Is there a basis for this assertion? (And no, it’s not at all obvious.)

    Reply
  5. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Awesome article! I have a XPlane simulator at my home and I fly everyday in the sim that is. With the programs ability to simulate weather it is easy to push the envelope and get in trouble if you don’t treat it like a real go no go situation. While not the same as flying I have become to realize it has a valuable place in maintaining decision making and proficiency. Once again great article spot on!

    Reply
  6. joe
    joe says:

    Very good advice. Proficiency and judgement, two necessary ingredients to operating an aircraft safely. You need the hours to achieve the first; but autopilots today almost take care of these deficiencies. Judgement is crucial however.

    Reply
    • Robert Bye
      Robert Bye says:

      I thought that autopilots and automation in general are one of the greatest benefits and dangers, as pilots become deskilled, if they don’t practice flying without them.

      Reply
  7. Carl K.
    Carl K. says:

    Starting a good discussion by criticizing the definition, which is accurate in all your examples – and that is all your article contains, is a poor way of communicating an incredibly important topic.

    Reply
  8. Warren Webb Jr
    Warren Webb Jr says:

    “practice slow flight more often”. I would concentrate a lot on this – not by the current standards for the checkride (above stall warning) but by the long-time suggestions of slow flight training still in the Airplane Flying Handbook (pg 5-10), and in the speed range during takeoffs and landings. After all that’s where the incidents/accidents occur. This would include climbing and descending in slow flight combined with turns. The usual standards (+/- 10°, +/- 100ft) are no good here. We’re talking about maintaining safe airplane control just above the runway surface when pitch, power, aileron, and rudder applications are or should be made. I.e. when practice in climbs/descents at minimum controllable airspeed is done at altitude, keep the standards to inches, not feet, and absolutely no stalls.

    “Straight-ahead climbs and climbing medium-banked (approximately 20 degrees) turns, and straight-ahead power-off gliding descents and descending turns, which represent the takeoff and landing phases of flight.” AFH pg 5-10.

    Reply
  9. Mark Y
    Mark Y says:

    Back to basics, have personal minimums, fly stable approaches and always know your limits and abilities. Fly with your instructor on challenging days and even if you feel like your flight wasn’t fun, realize that you know what new techniques you need to master. Did I say stick to basics? Safe skies.

    Reply
  10. Kevin Beaver
    Kevin Beaver says:

    At about 200 hours I had one inadvertant spin incident at 2500 feet in a G500/ 172 doing a power on stall with an instructor. I did not pay any attention to the trapezoid and when the plane went left I turned the yoke right. I think we did a full turn before the instructor realized we’d spun. The instructor recovered. I was dumbfounded. I am pretty sure he was as stunned as me. Without that 2500 feet I would not be commenting. Altitude is your friend.

    Reply
    • frank w
      frank w says:

      Kevin- you guaranteed the spin when you put in right aileron, in effect extending a “flap” at the end of the slow or stalled wing.

      Reply
  11. Robert Thompson
    Robert Thompson says:

    Perhaps add a first item to your checklist, assuming you use one? Spend ONE MINUTE searching for any likely GOTCHA’S for the particular flight.
    Great article!

    Reply
  12. Rich
    Rich says:

    “Good airmanship starts with humility, understanding that it can happen to you and the only reason it doesn’t is because you work constantly to avoid it” – so true! Most accidents are caused by a lack of imagination.

    Reply
  13. ES
    ES says:

    Good discussion starter and many directions this could take.. but I will always fall back on regardless of how people respond, getting awareness of an issue out to the pilot community is what matters.

    Reply
  14. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    I’m a relatively low time pilot. I appreciate articles like this… I have always taught my children that they should drive the car to the scene of the accident… All the way… Until it stops.

    I’ve always felt that as PIC it is our duty to fly the plane to the scene of the incident, or be recovered at the scene of the tragedy… I.O.W. never stop doing everything you can to control the aircraft.

    Reply
  15. John T
    John T says:

    John Z… Great article. I agree with your starting premise. It’s long been my view that the LOC bucket is way too large to be useful. Absent a rigorous definition of what causes LOC and then targeting each causal factor it’s unlikely we’ll see the bucket shrink.

    Reply

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