The Persistent Threat of Loss of Control

The National Transportation Safety Board’s decision to add “loss of control” to its 10 Most Wanted list of safety improvements in 2015 served as another clarion call for help to stem what has become the top killer in airplanes of all shapes and sizes. While pilots losing control of their aircraft is not a new problem, a number of high-profile commercial aviation accidents — including the 2009 crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York — brought the topic front and center to pilots over the past decade, with the NTSB’s listing putting a harsh spotlight on the issue. The Buffalo accident led to Public Law 111-216, which will soon require upset prevention and recovery training, as well as full-stall simulator training, for Part 121 commercial air carrier pilots.

On the GA side, however — the area where most of the fatalities in the United States occur each year — there has been no corresponding regulatory thrust. Creating LOC experts out of hundreds of thousands of licensed U.S. pilots is no small task. But only by ensuring that every pilot understands not just the words, but the aerodynamics behind the acronym LOC, do we have any hope of reducing these accidents to near zero, a goal that is possible, even though the task seems monumental in stature. Plotting the industry’s course in the effort to tame LOC demands context. In 1997, the White House challenged both the government and the industry to reduce commercial aviation accidents by 80 percent within 10 years. The National Civil Aviation Review Commission recommended that the FAA, in conjunction with the industry, develop a comprehensive integrated safety plan to implement worldwide safety measures and prove their effectiveness. Creation of the Civil Aviation Safety Team followed, and by 2007, it released data confirming they’d successfully achieved their accident reduction goal.

Some 65 safety enhancements appeared on the CAST list published in 2007, with 10 of them devoted strictly to loss of control. One specifically called for advanced maneuvering training to “prevent and recover from hazardous flight conditions outside of the normal flight envelope.” In 2014, ICAO’s Aeroplane Manual on Upset Prevention and Recovery Training was published, spurring the development of the International Air Transportation Association Guide on Best Practices on Implementing UPRT. All in all, the Part 121 side of the industry has much to be proud of, especially in light of zero fatal U.S. airline accidents since the 2009 Buffalo crash.

Progress on loss-of-control-in-flight education for general aviation pilots has, however, been excruciatingly slow over the past decade, hence the NTSB’s call to action. An FAA program to reduce the GA fatal accident rate by 10 percent between 2009 and 2018 hasn’t received quite as much attention as the CAST efforts, but the agency hopes a “nonregulatory, proactive, data-driven strategy,” using some CAST ideas, will achieve the hoped-for results.

Paul “BJ” Ransbury, president of upset recovery training provider Aviation Performance Solutions, says, “The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee did some work that primarily repackaged what the FAA was already doing with increased mention of LOC-I and UPRT, with pretty much exclusive focus on awareness and prevention. All in all, good stuff.” APS offers UPRT for airline and business-jet pilots, using a variety of sophisticated simulators and aircraft, from the Extra 300 and 330 aerobatic airplanes to an SIAI-Marchetti S.211 jet trainer.

In 2010, the FAA’s GA fatal-accident rate stood at 1.1 per 100,000 flight hours, a year when nearly 500 people lost their lives. By late 2017, the rate had declined to 0.84. Ransbury adds, “Despite the fact the fatal accident rate in GA is on track to drop below one per 100,000 flight hours for the first time in history,” some 347 people are still expected to die in GA accidents. “While airplane upsets are rare, they are exceedingly lethal.”

APS vice president of training and business development Randall Brooks says, “Interest [in LOC-I] is sustained by the brute force of these statistics. More people die in every sector of aviation due to LOC-I than to any other cause. The NTSB has been excellent at keeping this fact in front of the public until we figure out how to change the way we train pilots.” Realistically, however, Brooks adds, “If we look at how we spend our training time versus the LOC problem, there’s a huge gap, yet we continue training pilots the way we always have.”

Can the GA industry learn from the best LOC-I practices of Part 121 pilots? Absolutely. But GA and the airlines are two different beasts. GA pilots, especially those flying for personal pleasure, have little that binds their training together except FAR 61.56, which requires a flight review with a CFI. But those translate into just two hours of training every other year, one on the ground and one in the air.

The Gist of the Problem

NTSB Accident Report GAA15CA081 — The pilot of a 7GCBC Citabria decided to go around due to floating during the landing flare. During the climb, the pilot entered a steep left turn to avoid power lines. The airplane stalled, impacted the ground and sustained substantial damage. The NTSB cited an improperly executed go-around and a steep left turn at low altitude that resulted in an aerodynamic stall and a collision with terrain. Aviation Performance Solutions

Anytime a pilot allows their aircraft to become a sort of airborne tail wagging the dog, a departure from normal flight or loss of control is usually not far behind. The most prominent LOC is the stall-spin, although LOC can be defined as any excursion from normal flight the pilot didn’t expect. In the classic stall-spin scenario, LOC begins with an aircraft slowed to approach speed, often with the gear and flaps in the landing configuration. Poor pilot technique includes overshooting the turn to final and too steep a bank angle close to the ground attempting to recover. Not wanting to steepen the bank angle further, the pilot uses inside rudder to skid the aircraft around. In the skid, the aircraft’s nose drops, with a typical reaction being additional back pressure on the control wheel. That loads the wing as it also increases angle of attack. When the wing does stop flying, the airplane’s reaction is often incredibly quick. In a LOC-I webinar presented by the FAA Safety Team and conducted in late 2017, the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators and the FAA’s 2006 flight instructor of the year and master aerobatics instructor Rich Stowell says, “More than 90 percent of stall-spins occur below 1,000 feet agl … too close to the ground for a recovery.” AOPA’s Air Safety Institute in 2005 revealed that nearly three out of every 10 LOC accidents were stall related. By 2014, that number had declined to approximately two out of 10, with the greatest risk on personal Part 91 flights, where 75 percent of stall accidents occur in good weather. Fully 50 percent of stalls also occur in the traffic pattern. Two-thirds of these accidents beginning between 100 and 200 feet agl were fatal. That number climbed to 75 percent between 200 and 500 feet agl.

The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, working closely with NASA and the NTSB, in 2011 began analyzing 1,259 LOC-I accidents conducted under Part 91, Part 135 and Part 137 (aerial applications).

The first GAJST report included more than two dozen approach and landing safety recommendations, important topics like over-reliance on automation and pilots operating aircraft while impaired by medications. The second report looked at Airmen Certification Standards and pilot responses to unexpected events.

Experts say LOC accidents share a common cause: pilots’ lack of understanding on the correct use of the rudder, a problem often exacerbated by the interconnect between rudder and ailerons on many new airplanes. Jet pilots are notorious for flying with their feet flat on the floor. Meanwhile, many GA pilots are simply afraid of any kind of upset training. But trained or not, pilots will sometimes be tested in extreme situations.

In early 2017, a German-registered Bombardier Challenger 604 rolled over three times despite crew attempts to level out after encountering the wake of an opposite-direction Airbus A380 over the Arabian Sea. Inside the 604, passengers and crew were thrown violently against the cabin ceiling and seats. The aircraft lost nearly 9,000 feet of altitude before the crew regained control. Later inspections showed the aircraft so severely damaged it never flew again. Everybody aboard the aircraft managed to survive.

Positive LOC Results Remain Elusive

Although the aerobatic Extra 300 can roll at a dizzying 400 degrees per second, some UPRT supporters believe the only true training comes when a pilot experiences the maneuvers in a fighter jet at 30,000 feet. Aviation Performance Solutions

Many pilots believe upset recovery training is the panacea for the LOC problem. Educators, however, have come to realize that recovery is actually the final step required in an upset analysis. First comes awareness, then prevention of the upset and then finally a recovery if needed. In response to the data, pilot training has changed little in the face of continuing LOC accidents. Stowell says, “If we’re relying solely on recovery to the exclusion of awareness and prevention, it’s not a very good strategy.” The most recent ACS demands pilots demonstrate proficiency in recovering from a variety of aircraft stalls, but as Stowell pointed out, “The stalls we train pilots for are not the kinds of stalls that are killing them.” One issue getting in the way is a practical understanding of the aerodynamics that cause LOC accidents. Many pilots and CFIs can regurgitate the risks and even the causes, but few have enough knowledge to cite the necessary stall mitigation techniques. In the rewritten Airmen Certification Standards for Certified Flight Instructors due out in 2018, there is no requirement for new instructors to demonstrate proficiency with UPRT. Another factor could be the lack of active aircraft around the country to make airborne training practical.

In the FAA/SAFE webinar, as well as in the UPRT classes taught by APS and other companies, UPRT is rightly explained as a different breed of animal from aerobatic training. Stowell teaches UPRT students in an American Champion Super Decathlon, while aerobatic ace Patty Wagstaff uses an Extra 300L. Wagstaff says UPRT teaches pilots to cope with the unexpected, while aerobatics follows a plan. Both instructors believe it’s high time a pilot’s education included UPRT, with five to six hours being about right to teach them what they need to know. ICAO recently proposed requiring upset training for new pilots. Bob Agostino, former head of Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown and a Gulfstream G650 pilot, says he believes the airplane’s true limiting factor is the pilot. “Upset training should begin at the private-pilot level,” he urges.

Although Public Law 111-216 mandated UPRT training for the airlines, GA is still looking for a training sweet spot that encourages pilots to participate in an affordable program of necessary survival skills. Agostino says, “The movie Top Gun became the biggest recruiting tool for the U.S. Navy. Why not make pilots aware that people flying really sophisticated airplanes are doing this [UPRT], and maybe they should too.”

Experts Flying spoke with agreed the industry needs to better train pilots for all certificates. That could mean instructors persuading students to stretch training beyond their traditional comfort zone to demonstrate there's still more to learn. Coping with the unexpected might well demand new training tools.

Flight instructor Alyssa Cobb wondered just when the impossible turn back to the airport following an engine failure might become possible. Cobb flew with another instructor to nonscientifically discover an altitude floor beneath which pilots should never attempt a 180. She found that even a pilot who practiced these engine-out maneuvers and used well-coordinated turns would need at least 1,000 feet under them to be successful when the engine quit. That also means practicing and becoming proficient with the maneuver long before it’s needed.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute noted in its 2017 report “Keep the Wings Flying,” “The stubbornly high percentage of stalls associated with personal flying (more than two-thirds) may indicate a weakness in typical pilot training. Most pilots are taught to recognize and recover from stalls in a controlled, predictable and stable environment, with focus on recognition of aircraft response followed by proper recovery technique. Outside the training environment, though, pilots continue to maneuver into the stall envelope unexpectedly, with little time to recover.”

Training to avoid a stall-spin means understanding that recovery from a skidding base to final turn is next to impossible. It also means finding an instructor who can competently explain the aerodynamics of those skids as well as an in-depth session on angle of attack and the effects on LOC.

Cultivating a safe personal flying career demands realizing that a couple of training hours every few years is almost certain to ensure pilots remain in the dark on the causes of LOC. The best way to avoid becoming an accident statistic is to push for additional training, beyond the minimums, but only the pilot can press past the regulatory minimum boundaries. Waiting for the FAA to regulate advanced stall training for the GA world means many pilots and their passengers will continue to lose their lives.

Human-factors expert Tony Kern tells audiences at Bombardier’s Safety Standdown each year that there’s nothing anywhere that says nature can only throw situations at pilots for which they’ve been specifically trained. Even check rides with the feds or a designated pilot examiner test only to minimum standards. Those minimum regulatory requirements actually led to the LOC situation we’re experiencing today.

“Flying isn’t something that happens to the pilot, it’s something that happens because of the pilot,” Stowell says. “Pilots must realize their actions have consequences. It should be the pilot working with the airplane.” Ransbury says he believes “almost all stall accidents are preventable. Without previous real-world training to identify and appropriately respond to an airplane upset, pilots are often unable to react in time. Boeing and NASA studies indicate pilots often have only “10 seconds or less to recover after an LOC event.”

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter