Earlier, we probably piqued your curiosity by mentioning the “impossible turn.” Whatever your personal thoughts are on this hotly debated maneuver, one thing is certain: You’ll want to keep the ball centered and use a smooth touch on the controls in case of an engine failure to give yourself the best chance of making it back to the airport or another suitable landing site.
The thing to keep in mind is that the impossible turn isn’t a 180-degree maneuver. Rather, it’s more like 210 degrees, and you’ll probably be landing with a tailwind. There might even be another airplane trying to take off toward you.
So how high do you think you should be to risk attempting the impossible turn? One way to find out, says Johnstone, is to climb to a safe altitude in your airplane and try it. Pick out a ground reference as you climb at best rate, pull the power, and then count two beats (the reaction time it will take most of us to realize we have a problem). Next, pitch for best glide speed and make a 210-degree turn. Record how much altitude you lost, add a 100-foot cushion to that, and you’ve calculated your minimum safe altitude, after which a turn back to the airport can at least be considered. (This, of course, is still a bare minimum — for a great many of us, we’ll want to be at least at pattern altitude, if not higher, before we’d ever try it.)
Rethinking How We Train
Another fun way to improve your hand-flying skills is to take a few hours of aerobatics instruction, including spin training. The requirement to learn spins was taken out of the training curriculum in the 1950s after a number of accidents. Today, only CFI candidates need actual spin experience, as the emphasis has shifted to spin avoidance. After the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York, and the tragedy of Air France 447, both in 2009, training experts are rethinking how we teach stall/spin awareness to pilots.
Janeen Kochan thinks a lot more than just spin training needs to be changed in the private-pilot training syllabus. A CFI and FAA-designated examiner at the Orlando FSDO, Kochan holds a Ph.D. in applied experimental and human factors psychology from the University of Central Florida and is a former Boeing 767, DC-9 and DC-8 captain. She is helping to rewrite the training manual, literally, for Polk State College in Winter Haven, Florida, and is hopeful her work can be a blueprint for changes at other training organizations.
“We haven’t changed how we teach pilots to fly in at least the last 30 years,” Kochan says. “If we’re doing such a good job, then why do we still have pilots at all levels losing control of perfectly good airplanes?”
Kochan places the blame on a lack of basic piloting skills and automation management knowledge, both of which she says go back to training basics.
“Overall, stick-and-rudder skills are deteriorating,” she says. “However, it really depends on what segments we’re looking at. For example, the sport pilot cadre has exceptional stick-and-rudder skills.”
In assessing why so many pilots aren’t getting the training they need, Kochan pulls no punches: “The certified flight instructors’ lack of knowledge, skills, ability and teaching methods have contributed greatly to this decline,” she says. “If you want to go one step further, you could also blame the pilot examiners, who are passing the pilots who lack these basic skills.”
It’s not surprising that Kochan’s training syllabus will focus heavily on hand-flying the airplane — and not just any airplane. Students at the college, where her method will be applied starting in January, will fly LSAs.
Johnstone agrees that training is the area where the aviation community should be focusing first.
“We have instructors with the minimum amount of time required to get their CFI ticket, and they’re turning around and teaching other pilots to fly,” he says. “If these instructors don’t even fully grasp the fundamentals of stick-and-rudder flying, how can we possibly expect their students to?”
Blair’s advice is to seek out a qualified instructor with a strong knowledge of both aerodynamics and technology.
“You can have the greatest stick-and-rudder instructor in the world, but he might not know the first thing about G1000,” he says. “It’s possible to create a great stick-and-rudder pilot in a technologically advanced airplane; it’s just going to take more time. The trick is finding an instructor who really knows his or her stuff and is willing to do what’s necessary to teach you everything you need to know.”