Like many student pilots, I really, really hated, practicing stalls. Notwithstanding my patient CFI’s attempts to explain, I didn’t understand why it was necessary to do such things. As I suffered through this phase of instructor-inflicted torture – which is exactly how I saw it – I was darkly muttering about how I would never put myself in the position of stalling (much less spinning) the airplane. Yeah, sure, I could parrot the mantra on how it’s possible to stall an airplane at any airspeed and in any flight attitude, but the only stalls I saw (or practiced) were the ones involving very low airspeed and high angle of attack. Not me!
Fast forward a few years. I was piloting my club’s Cessna 182 in the traffic pattern at my home airport. The airplane was heavier because I had two passengers aboard. The winds were westerly, which gave me a tailwind on base and a much faster ground speed than I had anticipated. I overshot the base-to-final turn. Yes, I had been taught to go around. But I thought I could make it work. I had been trained to avoid steep turns in the pattern, so I didn’t go much beyond a 30-degree bank. Since that clearly wasn’t enough to correct my overshoot, I unconsciously applied “bottom” rudder to slew the nose around to the runway heading.
Fortunately for my passengers, my airplane, and me, the stall horn did its job. That high-pitched beeeeeeeeeeeep that I had previously heard only in training yanked my brain away from its single-minded intent to make this landing work, and cued up the well-drilled stall recovery procedure that my instructor had made me practice so much. I executed the go-around I should have done to begin with, and even made a pretty decent landing on the second attempt. I was shaken, though, to realize that I could have become a maneuvering flight statistic.
The silver lining is that my mistake provided strong incentive to delve more deeply into aerodynamics and causes of loss of control (LOC). Sadly, I’m not the only pilot who needs this review. A study by the FAA/industry General Aviation Joint Steering Committee last year showed that loss of control inflight (LOC-I) fatal accidents occur at almost three times the rate of the second leading cause; controlled flight into terrain. As my near-statistical experience showed me, being able to accurately recite words from the textbook did not mean that I had a practical understanding of how, or why, they trans¬late in real-world flying. Because I learned so much from my brush with LOC-I, I now consider it one of the most important events in my aviation education.
There are, of course, easier and far safer ways to learn these lessons. One learning tool that can benefit all pilots – and especially anyone just get¬ting back into the flying game – is a paper recently released by the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE). The paper, titled Maintaining Aircraft Control, is available free to the public in the SAFE Resource Center (www.safe.org). Authored by experts including Rich Stowell, Randy Brooks, Jeff Edwards, Janeen Kochan, and Paul Ransbury, the paper discusses fatal GA upsets attributable to pilots, the flight environment, weather, aircraft system anomalies, and operations that take the aircraft outside its design limitations. A special section explains the difference between upset prevention and recovery training, and traditional aerobatics. Much of the paper will also be included in the forthcoming revision of the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook.
The paper attributes many LOC-I accidents to lack of pilot proficiency. It also suggests that the GA culture does not typically provide sufficient LOC-I avoidance guidance or emphasis on continued pilot education and training.
As Stowell notes, “It takes ongoing practice and refinement to maintain the skills needed to be a safe, competent pilot.” And, as I can personally attest, it’s definitely an effort worth making. (FAA Safety Briefing -Mar/Apr 2014)