(November 2011) Control Malfunctions — failures of the control systems to work properly — are among the most challenging and frightening difficulties that an airplane can present. One feels able to deal with almost any eventuality, as long as the flight controls work the way they should. But an aileron jammed in a hard-over position, an engine that has come disconnected from its throttle or an elevator from its push rod, a stuck fuel valve — these are the stuff that nightmares can be made of.
Two fatal accidents illustrate the range of forms that loss of control can take. In one, the pilot of a Citation 550 found the airplane fighting him in a way he could not understand; in another, the pilot of a Pilatus PC-12 allowed one wing to fill with fuel while the other emptied, and then could not manage the huge fuel imbalance as he maneuvered to land.
The Citation accident took place at Milwaukee on a June afternoon in 2007. There was a broken ceiling at 3,000 feet and an overcast at 3,500. The purpose of the flight was to deliver an organ for transplantation from Milwaukee to Ypsilanti, Michigan. The 14,000-hour captain, who was flying, was the chief pilot and FAA-appointed check airman for the Citation’s operator. In its account of the captain’s career, the NTSB relates a history of failed check rides and even a brief license suspension due to a felony conviction for illegally transporting methaqualone — Quaaludes — into the United States from Canada. Associates of the captain described him as a “capable” pilot who was, however, deficient in knowledge of airplane systems and somewhat casual about checklists.
The 65-year-old first officer, a new hire, was a part-time commercial pilot. He held a Citation type rating but was, according to a pilot who had flown with him, “a nice guy who had no idea how the airplane operated.” He was prone to careless mistakes, on one occasion, for example, turning off an airplane’s avionics when he intended to switch the engine ignition from “on” to “norm.”
The trouble began shortly after takeoff. Ten seconds after the captain called for the yaw damper, he said, “Why am I fighting the controls here?” The airplane wanted to turn left. The captain tried to analyze the situation, eventually concluding that something must be wrong with the rudder trim. In the meantime, the first officer made well-meaning attempts to adjust an unspecified trim — most likely rudder or aileron.