By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the April 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Perhaps the most important factor in being a pilot is that we are in control. Especially in an emergency, we have the authority to take whatever action is needed to ensure the safe outcome of the flight. The whole idea of losing control is one that may shake us to the core. The last thing we want to do in an airplane is lose control.
That said, loss of control (LOC) is a leading cause of general aviation accidents. Stall/spin accidents — the most recognized among various loss of control accidents — are a leader in aviation fatalities, and are often associated with inclement weather. With all this in mind, we’ll take a look at LOC accidents and identify strategies to lower the risk of their occurrence.
Accident statistics reveal that LOC accounts for a high percentage of accidents during maneuvering flight, descent and approach, landing, and takeoff and climb. It’s no surprise that loss of control is more likely to occur in these phases of flight; we’re relatively low, slow, and must pay closer attention to where we (and others) go. A number of factors are likely contributors in the chain of events leading to loss of control accidents, but we can apply strategies to help avoid such events.
One factor that can put us squarely in the danger zone is a high workload that causes a loss of situational awareness. When too much is going on at once, we can easily end up over our heads and out of touch with what’s going on around us. On a recent departure, while checking the flight instruments, retracting the flaps, adjusting power, and turning off boost pumps, I almost missed the traffic crossing my flight path. Another second and I might have needed a radical flight maneuver to avoid collision. The same can happen when entering the pattern for landing. While completing a full prelanding checklist in the pattern, we might easily miss other aircraft, fail to notice the effects of wind, or end up poorly positioned for landing — all potential setups for an LOC scenario.
To lessen our workloads, we might simplify our procedures or complete them at a more appropriate time. Instead of completing our prelanding check in a busy traffic pattern, perhaps we can complete it as we enter the airport area, maybe within 5 miles or so of the airport. By slowing the airplane earlier in our arrival, we give ourselves more time to complete our prelanding tasks and get established in the pattern.
Another way to minimize workload is to adopt a simplified set of flight configurations. An infinite number of combinations of power settings, airspeeds, flap settings, gear positions, and attitude are possible. If we’re constantly tweaking any of these variables, we must constantly pay attention to them and adjust pitch trim to maintain desired airspeed and altitude. If we instead choose to use a limited set of configurations (climb, cruise, descent, approach, etc.), we limit the workload and the time needed to make the changes. This allows us to be more heads-up, more situationally aware, and in a better position to maintain aircraft control.
Right on the heels of high workload come distractions, which can easily put us behind the eight ball, resulting in loss of airspeed control, failure to follow or complete procedures, and failure to comply with clearances. Any of these can put us at greater risk for an LOC scenario.
Once again, completing checklists early allows us to deal with distractions that arise as we enter a busy traffic pattern. But other steps can also help us minimize distractions. First, we need to focus on our cockpit resource management. We don’t want to be ransacking the cockpit in flight looking for a chart, sectional, or tablet charging cord. We don’t want to be digging through our flight bag looking for a flashlight. Good preflight planning also goes a long way toward a chaos-free cockpit, so we need to do our homework.
Sterile cockpit procedures can also limit distractions. We should warn our passengers to avoid casual and unnecessary conversation during critical phases of flight that distract us from critical communications and tasks.
At the heart of our safety is a set of well-honed flight skills. This includes proper traffic pattern procedures, visual scanning, clear communication, checklists, proper aircraft speeds and configurations, control coordination, and proper crosswind corrections. Including a scan of our ADS-B, in addition to our visual scan, can also help us maintain situational awareness. For landings, we should perform a quick prelanding check such as GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop, switches), even if we’ve already completed our full prelanding check.
With LOC being the leading cause of landing accidents, we should keep our landing skills sharpened. Gusty crosswind conditions can create a serious challenge, but many LOC landing accidents occur in less severe conditions. Knowing how to recover from bounces, perform go-arounds, and manage other abnormal landing scenarios is critical to avoiding such situations.
A good landing begins well before we touchdown, so we should fly a pattern that sets us up for a normal flight path to touchdown. One way to stay ahead of the game is to fly a stabilized approach. For VFR flying, we should be stabilized (proper configuration, airspeed, and glide path) from an altitude of 500 feet AGL. For IFR flights, we should be stabilized at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
One factor that can undermine our efforts to maintain control is what is referred to as the “startle response.” This occurs when an unexpected event startles us, causing us to momentarily freeze rather than take appropriate action. Such a scenario might occur when an engine fails shortly after takeoff.
To avoid the startle response, conduct a departure briefing prior to takeoff that includes a plan of action for engine failure and other situations. Briefings should include an evaluation of weather and wind conditions, available runways and off-field locations for emergency landings, critical decision points (runway markings, takeoff distances, and decision altitudes), terrain and obstacles, and appropriate speeds (VX, VY, best glide speed, etc.). The idea is to have a plan for what to do when an emergency develops during the takeoff phase of flight.
One final factor to consider in evaluating our LOC risk is the weather. A loss of visual cues (i.e., continued VFR into IMC conditions) can lead to loss of control (stall/spin) and is often fatal. The remedy is to have the ability to control the aircraft by reference to instruments. Even for those not instrument rated, periodic practice in basic attitude instrument flying can be a lifesaver.
Other weather factors can also put us in a high-risk situation. Gusty winds, up- and down-drafts, turbulence, and wind shear can increase the risk for loss of control. Developing the skills to safely fly in windy and turbulent conditions is important, but we must know where to draw the line with our go/no-go decision-making.
Loss of control has long been a major focus for improving pilot safety, and for good reason. If we focus on the critical phases of flight and take steps to minimize risks, we improve our chances of staying in control.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.