Sky Kings: Loss of Control — Our Greatest Nemesis

It was a setup for loss of control. Martha and I were brand-new VFR-only pilots and, while returning from California to Indiana, had decided to scud–run through Tennessee to hurry our way home. The ceilings had pressed us down below the tops of tall antennas, and we were circling tightly over a small town while studying the map and trying to miss the antennas. The challenge was to figure out which road and railroad combination was the one that would lead us to the airport.

We got the airplane on the ground without harm, and we certainly scared ourselves in the process, but we didn't understand the full extent of the risks we had taken. Tight circling is a frequent way of losing control. And loss of control is the number one way pilots and their passengers come to grief in general aviation airplanes.

There is a lot of talk about loss of control with the implication that, if we could only solve this particular difficulty, we could dramatically improve the general aviation fatality rate. The problem is that loss of control is a very big and diverse category, and more of an outcome than a cause.

Many flight instructors feel the way to prevent loss of control is to drill learning pilots on their physical skills to ensure they never suffer loss of control. Sometimes, however, pilots get themselves into situations from which no amount of skill could rescue them.

When Martha and I decided we wanted to become multiengine-sea rated, we chose as our instructor the owner of a Grumman Widgeon. He was a current pilot for a major airline and as a sideline did a lot of seaplane training in the Widgeon. Our choice of instructor was great. Our choice of the airport at which to begin training was lousy. We were at Lakeland, Florida, on an afternoon during Sun 'n Fun. The wait in line to get to the runway seemed interminable.

When it was our time to take the runway, the flagman frantically signaled for us to go and make room for the next airplane in line. Our instructor swung smartly onto the runway with a left turn. We had a strong crosswind from the left, which of course served to tighten the left turn. As he brought in power to the dual Ranger engines, the clockwise-turning propellers added to the left-turning force. Then, when he briskly raised the tail, gyroscopic effect even further added to the airplane's desire to go left. That airplane was going to go to the left. Our instructor had full right rudder in as we rapidly departed the runway to the left. There just was not enough rudder available to counteract all those things making our airplane want to turn to the left. Fortunately, we missed all the campers' tents and came to a stop in the grass.

Many would characterize the cause of this excursion as a lack of stick and rudder skills. Instead, I see it as a failure in risk management. Our instructor had a high level of skill, but the situation was a setup for failure. Once he was in that situation, no amount of skill could have effected a recovery.

There are innumerable scenarios that could lead to loss of control, and through the years Martha and I have sampled a lot of them. At AirVenture one year Martha avoided falling prey to loss of control in our Falcon 10. We were flying Young Eagles at Oshkosh and were to land on Runway 18R. The tower instructed us to stay south of Runway 27 on our left base to Runway 18R. Then it told us to land behind an airplane that was already on the runway. The news that there was an airplane on the runway meant that Martha had to adjust her approach to get lower and slower a lot sooner. Plus, she thought she might overshoot final. Rather than wrapping this highly wing-loaded, sweptwing jet into a steep bank at slow speed near the ground to continue an approach that wasn't working out right, Martha elected to add full power and go around. Sadly, just a few years later the pilot of a Premier in nearly identical circumstances stalled his jet and crashed.

Another instance when we were at risk for loss of control occurred back when we had a Cessna 340. We were over Klamath Falls, Oregon, on our way back home to San Diego. We had put a friend in the left front seat and I was acting as his flight instructor. We were on an instrument flight at 11,000 feet when we flew into the top of a developing cumulus cloud. Instantly, the airplane was coated with ice. It was clear we were collecting ice at a rate that even this full-deicing-equipped twin couldn't handle. I looked down to get a sectional chart to check for a descent path. When I looked up, I saw that we were losing altitude. "Hold your altitude," I warned our friend. When he pulled back on the wheel to return to altitude, the airplane immediately entered a stall buffet. I took control, called ATC for descent, simultaneously applied full power, and pitched down to best rate of climb speed. This caused us to enter a thousand-feet-per-minute rate of descent, which continued until we were below the freezing level and shed the ice. When we had a chance to reflect on what happened, we realized that this was yet another scenario that was a setup for loss of control.

Since there are so many and varied ways that we can be exposed to loss of control, and there is no way to anticipate them all, how do we as pilots deal with the issue? One way is to recognize trouble when we see it. Just as when we are driving a car, we need to be able to know when we are entering a dangerous neighborhood. "Dangerous neighborhoods" for loss of control include those situations that put Martha and me at risk — like maneuvering over landmarks, flying with low ceilings and/or visibilities, and unusual maneuvering in the traffic pattern, particularly when turning base to final. Bad neighborhoods for IFR loss of control include flying IFR when not proficient and flying in icing conditions.

The reason why we study aviation knowledge and risk management is so we will learn when we are entering these dangerous neighborhoods. We need to be able to "smell" trouble. It is part of our situational awareness.

Martha and I are proof that pilots don't always stay out of dangerous neighborhoods. Sometimes avoiding loss of control requires good stick and rudder skills. When we talk about stick and rudder skills, we are often thinking mostly about the physical manipulation of the controls. But knowing what to do with the controls and when is key. That requires a sensitive "seat of the pants" — a feel for what the airplane is doing. There are many "sensitivities" that help us avoid loss of control, but two in particular are essential.

First is a sensitivity as to whether the longitudinal axis is yawed directly into the relative wind without looking at the slip/skid indicator. When the airplane is neither slipping nor skidding, the wings are equally exposed to the relative wind. So if the aircraft stalls, it won't tend to spin, and recovery is much easier. Keeping the nose yawed directly into the wind has the bonus of making the flight much more comfortable for the aircraft's occupants.

Second is load factor sensitivity — an awareness of when there is more than one G on the seat of the pants. High load factor causes the airplane to stall at much higher speeds with much less warning. Load factor can come from turbulence and changing our pitch attitude, but the most common source of load factor that leads to surprise loss of control is steep banks with back pressure.

Pilots who have these two sensitivities are far more likely to keep their airplane under control even if they stray inadvertently into a "dangerous neighborhood." Martha's first instructor put special effort into seeing that she had learned these sensitivities. It is easy for pilots who do most of their flying in jets to lose the habit of keeping the nose yawed directly into the wind. It is not a problem for me, though, because thanks to her primary instructor, Martha is very sensitive to it and helpfully points out to me whenever I need more rudder.

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John King
John KingAuthor
John King started King Schools Inc., with his wife, Martha, in a spare bedroom of their home. Today, the school operates out of a dedicated complex in San Diego, California, that includes a video and software production facility. John and Martha have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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