Preventing a Loss of Control Accident

Many things can improve your odds of avoiding this dangerous situation, or making one worse.

The great American radio and television comedian George Burns emerged in America during the vaudeville era and became known as a king of the one-liners delivered in his uniquely subtle deadpan style—and always with an El Producto cigar between the fingers of his left hand. Before his death in 1996 at the age of 100, Burns was asked for the secret of his long life. His response was simple and to the point: “Keep breathing.”

The strategy needed to stem the tide of loss-of-control accidents is almost as simple as Burns’ secret to long life. To avoid a loss of control, don’t exceed the wing’s critical angle of attack and avoid flying into weather that’s certain to cause spatial disorientation and an upset. A pilot should also maintain a keen sense of their situational awareness from before engine start until shutdown, as well as constantly strive to improve their risk-management skills.

While LOC-I is a popular acronym to assign as a cause, loss of control in flight is never the actual culprit behind an accident. It’s merely the inevitable, usually fatal result of some action that preceded it. LOC-I means the pilot and their aircraft find themselves operating outside the normal flight envelope with no idea how to return to straight-and-level flight.

Robert Wright of Wright Aviation Solutions confirms that assessment. “LOC-I is really a useless way to describe the root cause of accidents,” Wright says. “LOC-I is merely the final event in the accident chain that has a myriad of root causes. However, my own analysis shows that poor risk management may account for between two-thirds to three-quarters of GA fatal accidents.”

Randy Brooks, vice president of training and business development at the Mesa, Arizona-based Aviation Performance Solutions, says: “There are three major causal factors [of LOC-I accidents]. They are environmental [factors], systems-related failures, and pilot-related failures. Pilot-related failures are the most common. Environmental factors include factors such as thunderstorms, wind shear, and mountain wave rotor and wake turbulence.” APS is a company specializing in aircraft upset-prevention-and-recovery training to many of the major Part 121 air carriers, Part 91 business-aircraft operators and the US military. APS’ goal is more than simply teaching pilots how to successfully fly their way out of a LOC-I event; it’s also about learning to identify those situations that point to an impending upset.

In previous FLYING articles, we’ve looked closely at LOC-I caused specifically by VFR flight in IMC conditions and loss of control just after takeoff. Let’s take a look at what the industry has done to reduce these accidents in general, as well as review some recommendations for the future.

Many industry pundits noticed that, in 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board dropped “loss of control in flight” from its list of top 10 transportation risks, perhaps leading people to believe the problem had been solved. While LOC-I accidents for US-based Part 121 air carriers have been nearly eliminated, LOC-I remains a significant threat outside our borders. Brooks says, “Worldwide, loss of control in flight is still the leading cause of fatalities.” In the US, between 2019 and 2020, the NTSB recorded no fewer than 59 LOC-I accidents in general aviation aircraft, while Part 121 carriers in the US experienced just a single fatality. That should make us all wonder what air carriers know that we in the GA world don’t.

First, the decline in air-carrier accidents didn’t just happen. The industry worked hard to achieve that reduction. As they did, they left behind a trail of valuable lessons for the industry as a whole, while acknowledging that LOC-I “is one of the most complex accident categories, involving numerous contributing factors that act individually or, more often, in combination,” according to the International Air Transport Association. “Reducing this accident category, through understanding of causes and possible intervention strategies, is an industry priority.”

Inverted aircraft
The key to preventing upsets is the knowledge to recognize one before a recovery maneuver is needed. Courtesy APS

The Fight To Reduce Accidents

Most pilots today have heard of loss of control, but the concept is actually rather recent, perhaps just 30 years old. It emerged following a 1997 report from the White House Commission on Aviation Safety chaired by then-vice president Al Gore. One key highlight: “In the area of safety, the Commission believes that the principal focus should be on reducing the rate of accidents by a factor of five within a decade and recommends a reengineering of the FAA’s regulatory and certification programs to achieve that goal.” No small goal.

The Commission led to the creation of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a group that added another bold goal: to reduce the commercial-aviation fatality risk in the US by 80 percent from 1998 to 2008. CAST turned out to be very effective, reporting that by 2008, “the fatality risk of commercial air travel in the United States was reduced by 83 percent. CAST aims to reduce the remaining US commercial fatality risk by 50 percent from 2010 to 2025 and continue to work with our international partners to reduce fatality risk in worldwide commercial aviation.” CAST also offered its vision: “Key aviation stakeholders acting cooperatively to lead the worldwide aviation community to the highest levels of global commercial aviation safety by focusing on the right things.” The Commission also recognized that the global nature of aviation demanded that aviation safety needed to be addressed worldwide, not just in the United States. In 2001, for example, there were 41 Part 121 accidents, six of which were fatal and claimed 531 lives. In 2019, there was just a single accident that claimed one life.

About the time of CAST’s creation, the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee emerged trying to achieve similar results for the light-aircraft community. Members were drawn from the FAA; alphabet groups such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and Experimental Aircraft Association; and flight-instructor groups such as the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) and National Association of Flight Instructors. But because air-carrier accidents are usually more spectacular than the loss of a Cessna 172, CAST attracted the lion’s share of the public attention.

In February 2009, a Continental Airlines Express Bombardier Dash 8-400 crashed during a snowy nighttime approach to Buffalo, New York, after the PIC stalled the airplane and was unable to recover. That accident claimed the lives of all 48 people on board as well as one person on the ground. A few months later in June 2009, Air France Flight 447—an Airbus A330—fell into the South Atlantic after it stalled at 35,000 feet. The crew was also unable to recover the aircraft after a stall and impacted the water with the loss of all 228 people aboard.

These two accidents spurred relatives of the passengers on board along with many others to demand better scrutiny of airline safety, much as the White House Commission had envisioned a decade earlier. The result was Public Law 111-216, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. In addition to reauthorizing the FAA, Public Law 111 outlined a number of changes demanded by Congress through the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009. After August 2013, the law required that pilots on the flight deck of Part 121 aircraft—even regionals—must hold an ATP certificate. It also spoke to how flight crews were paired, how new pilots were mentored, and demanded that all Part 121 crews should be put through upset-prevention-and-recovery training. The results were impressive. In the ensuing 11 years, air-carrier accidents involving LOC-I have dropped dramatically—but LOC-I numbers for general aviation pilots remain stubbornly high.

Fixing What Ails GA

One reason is that flying in the GA world and the air-carrier world are vastly different, not only in the way the two groups are regulated but also by the methods they use to keep a pilot’s skills fresh. GA pilots are only required to renew their skills with an instructor every two years, while professional pilots must repeat recurrent training as often as every six to 12 months. A GA pilot with a private certificate and no instrument rating might never actually sit through another check ride—ever—and it’s perfectly legal. Without regular access to a CFI or other training, GA pilots might never learn any of the secrets to survival that their airline brethren have experienced. Unless a GA pilot found themselves the subject of an FAA ramp check in which they were asked for their certificates and logbook, no one would ever know if that pilot even possessed a recent flight review or had completed three takeoffs and landings in the previous 90 days.

The NTSB cites loss of control on the ground and in flight as prominent in most of the fatal GA’s fatal accidents reported in aggregate in 2018. But that doesn’t mean no one is trying to solve this problem. In 2012, the GAJSC’s Loss of Control Work Group 1 issued its first report for review and approval. Some safety enhancements included integrating angle of attack systems into aircraft, an increased awareness on aeronautical decision-making, pilot’s over-reliance on automation, the need for specific aircraft-type transition training, the vital role of aircraft type clubs, and the importance of stabilized approach-and-landing criteria, among others. LOC Work Group 2 analyzed 120 randomly selected LOC accidents. The first 90 were analyzed in detail for the development of other safety enhancements, including the value of flight-data monitoring to provide insights into how GA pilots operate their aircraft.

With very little in the way of regulation dictating recurrent training, the safer pilots are those who realize the odds of becoming a statistic and make an effort on their own to avoid many of the fatal lessons already learned. These are the pilots to whom simply meeting the minimum standards is never good enough. Aiding the pilot hungry for knowledge are the aircraft type groups such as the Cirrus Owner and Pilots Association, American Bonanza Society, Malibu M-Class Owners & Pilots Association, Pilatus Owners and Pilots Association, and others. Many of their members are experts on the models their members operate. The training modules they create deliver up-to-date tips as well as the known issues their members might encounter, except for accidents caused by loss of control and the specialized training that topic requires. Unlike the airlines, GA isn’t mandated to demonstrate recovery ability from a potential LOC-I, just unusual attitudes.

APS’ Brooks explains that much of the flight training happening today focuses on teaching pilots to keep their aircraft within the normal flight-operations envelope that focuses on LOC-I prevention. “What the 121 carriers have that general aviation doesn’t is the recovery side [of training].” Schools like APS demonstrate “how pilots should behave when they do wander outside that normal flight envelope,” Brooks says. Many GA pilots have taken the UPRT at APS voluntarily “because they understand the statistics. We teach them to mitigate the risks.”

Aircraft parked on the ground
Loss of control is prominent in most fatal GA accidents. Courtesy APS

The Buck Stops Here

A serious flaw in pilot thinking is that far too many aviators will avoid any discussion of flight outside the normal envelope because they believe it’s scary and dangerous. Few CFIs have any training outside the normal flight envelope themselves and, hence, have very little to offer their students. There’s an assumption flying around that pilots, by virtue of their licensing training, have all the knowledge they need, despite the fact that training to the airman certification standards doesn’t require flying beyond 30 degrees of pitch and 60 degrees of bank. “In fact, if you go beyond 60 degrees of bank on your commercial check ride, you fail,” Brooks says. There’s no requirement for a commercial pilot to even experience a spin—only instructors, and then only a few times around to earn the endorsement needed to take their CFI check ride.

So, we have this large portion of the flight envelope into which a pilot might wander and for which they’ve never been trained, and yet, the FAA requires no special focus on this educational void. Brooks says: “Most flight training occurs within just five to 10 percent of the normal flight envelope. Aerodynamics can change fundamentally beyond critical angle of attack and beyond 90 degrees of bank—in ways in which the pilot trying what they might in normal [situations] is exactly the wrong reaction, and actually makes the situation worse, rather than better.” The continuing GA accident numbers confirm there’s a message the FAA and flight-training world are missing.

Some pilots believe an aerobatics course delivers perfectly adequate results to recover should their aircraft roll over for some reason. Brooks says: “It’s pretty understandable why people would confuse [UPRT with aerobatics]. After all, both involve all-attitudes maneuvering.” While a good aerobatic course is far superior to no training at all outside the normal envelope, aerobatics represents precision maneuvering toward a known outcome—a loop, a roll, a hammerhead—all conducted within specific boundaries. A preflight brief for an aerobatics lesson details precisely what the pilot and instructor will focus on, and all training is conducted during day VFR conditions. Brooks says: “An upset is not a precision maneuver, and most importantly, it sneaks up on the pilot unexpectedly—or it wouldn’t be an upset. It’s not precision maneuvering. Pilots just want to safely return to a normal part of the flight envelope.” An upset can also occur in darkness or clouds.

Pilots have been losing control of airplanes for decades, and other than UPRT, there has not been a push to change what we teach them—beyond training pilots never to lose control. “That’s because we can’t imagine a universe where loss of control and flight is actually contained,” Brooks says. “If you’re ever unlucky enough to have an upset, you’re screwed. We can’t solve all upsets, but we could cut them in half, if we only treated loss of control the same way that we treat every other aspect of flight instruction.” That places the onus for more education squarely on the shoulders of the PIC of every aircraft. Data confirms that those pilots who aren’t satisfied with being average or settling for simply meeting minimum standards are leading the way toward reducing LOC-I accidents. The airlines and business-aviation flight departments strive to create a cockpit run by professionals who fly with precision.

Unfortunately, the GA world can’t quite duplicate the atmosphere of a professional flight department. But pilots don’t need to be professionals in order to fly like them. That means trying to fly a stabilized approach on every flight, constantly updating their airport alternatives during a flight, or confirming the approach they’ve loaded into their GPS navigator is indeed the one they plan to fly.

The key to preventing an upset is the knowledge to recognize one before a recovery maneuver is needed. Like every other skill, pilots become more knowledgeable with each training session. Because the FAA has no plans to regulate more training for GA pilots, the responsibility for staying safe and demanding more and better training falls upon all of our shoulders. Type clubs have taken a major step in that direction by providing regular training opportunities for pilots who are eager to improve. But all too often, the people who miss these valuable educational sessions are the pilots who would most benefit from them.

Brooks says: “In the physics of upset recovery and aerodynamics, there is very little difference between what we would teach the pilot of the 182, a Piper Saratoga or a Meridian and a Delta or United Airlines pilot. When an upset begins, the only thing that the pilot needs to focus on is returning the airplane safely and efficiently back into the normal envelope. That means reduce the angle of attack.”

But the efforts to learn upset-recovery techniques are as critical as learning how to avoid an upset in the first place. It’s your life. Choose wisely.

Tips To Avoid Loss of Control

  • Learn what a realistic upset looks like.
  • Keep in mind that true upsets are unexpected events.
  • Remember, in an upset, the first step to recovery is usually reducing the angle of attack.
  • Check out schools that offer UPRT in addition to aerobatics.
  • Join a type club for the make and model of aircraft you fly.
  • Subscribe to the FAA’s FAASTeam page to learn of training opportunities in your area.
  • Bring along a friend when you attend a FAASTeam event.
  • Invite another pilot to sit in the back seat during your next training flight and the debrief afterwards.

This story appeared in the August 2021 issue of Flying Magazine


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