Sky Kings: Prevent Loss of Control by Managing Risk

The actual moment of loss of control can happen in an instant, underscoring the need for knowledge and well-honed risk-management habits to avoid classic traps. Illustration by Tim Barker

It was the slightest of rumbles. Both John and I felt it. John, who was at the controls, eased the yoke forward slightly and the rumble stopped. We landed and taxied to the ramp. We had an airplane full of pilots, but no one else had felt the rumble. It was the aerodynamic warning of a stall in our old Falcon 10. With hydraulically assisted, irreversible controls in this airplane, the pilots don’t get feedback. The rumble was the only warning we would receive. Had John reacted differently, the aircraft could well have stalled, and the aviation community would have racked up one more “loss of control” tragedy.

We had been on our way to Oshkosh for AirVenture. Ironically, we were diverted to Appleton, Wisconsin, due to the loss of control crash of another jet. The pilot was on approach to Runway 18 at Oshkosh and had been given instructions to slow for traffic on the runway and keep his approach south of Runway 27. These are the exact circumstances that John and I had escaped some years ago with a go-around.

Our diversion left us scrambling. We quickly briefed our approach, but at the last minute the tower directed us to another runway. The rumble occurred during John’s maneuvering with a steep turn from base to final to get lined up with the new runway.

What these situations have in common is that they were setups for loss of control. The National Transportation Safety Board includes loss of control on its most-wanted safety-improvement list, and for good reason. Loss of control is a big deal. Almost half of all general aviation fatalities are caused by loss of control.

I confess I have had a hard time wrapping my brain around the subject of loss of control. It has become the safety issue du jour, but it is a huge category. I mean, you could say there are only two conditions in which an aircraft can crash — either in control or out of control. I am not sure that learning that a crash happened as a result of loss of control gives us much actionable information. Plus, I have a tendency to see loss of control as a result rather than a cause. Having said that, if we as a community could crack the code to eliminating these types of accidents, we could save thousands of lives.

Loss of control can occur anytime the aircraft does something you don’t want it to do, and you don’t take swift corrective action. That can happen whenever you expect too much of either the aircraft or yourself as the pilot — asking one or the other to do something it just can’t do. For instance, asking an airplane to fly with too much load factor will result in loss of control. Yet pilots do it on the turn from base to final with regularity.

There are many ways to lose control, and pilots can be very creative about it. What they all seem to have in common is that almost all loss of control accidents occur in repeating scenarios; with perfect hindsight you realize the pilot should have seen it coming. The idea behind learning the habit of risk management is to turn that perfect hindsight into foresight for pilots when it counts. It means knowing what’s happening now and what bad thing might happen next if you don’t do something about it.

Looking at it that way, loss of control accidents are the result of a failure in risk management. When a pilot does manage to avoid an accident, it is hard to know whether it might have been superior risk management or ­superior skill that saved the day.

On our approach to Runway 18 at Oshkosh, it could be said that I executed a go-around so that I didn’t have to use superior skill, although cleaning up and doing a go-around in a highly wing-loaded, swept-wing jet from low altitude is not without its challenges. On John’s approach to Appleton, it could be said that John’s slight forward pressure on the control yoke in response to the rumble was a demonstration of superior skill. But with all due respect to John, it didn’t take much skill to apply that slight forward pressure.

The important point in each case is that a successful outcome required the knowledge and ­risk-management habits to recognize a scenario that was a setup for stall-spin and also to identify the mitigation needed. In ­addition to knowledge and risk management, skill was required to execute the response. That’s why the Airman Certification Standards, which in June will replace the Practical Test Standards for the Private Pilot and Instrument Rating tests, will require pilots to display all three.

Learning risk management, in this case for stall-spin, requires practice at recognizing scenarios that can lead to stall-spins and coming up with mitigation strategies. The specific scenario in the traffic pattern that most often leads to loss of control is the very one we had at ­Appleton — turning from base to final with lots of distractions. In this case there was also a last-minute ­runway change, requiring maneuvering to get lined up. Add in a tailwind from base to final and an overshoot, and it becomes an almost irresistible temptation to steepen the bank and maybe even add some bottom rudder.

The ideal is for pilots to become so practiced at identifying risky scenarios that they develop the ability to “smell” trouble and do not allow themselves to get into situations that might lead them to ask themselves or the airplane to do something impossible.

The problem with any kind of loss of control is that while it may take considerable time for the situation to develop, when it comes to the actual moment of loss of control, it can happen quickly. When things have progressed to that point, it is difficult to recover. The best recovery is not to need one in the first place.

Martha King and John King take turns writing Sky Kings. They have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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