In 2015 there were 384 deaths in general aviation accidents. According to the FAA, the cause of the majority was loss of control (LOC). The FAA’s definition of LOC is an unintended departure of the aircraft from controlled flight. We think that the discussion of LOC should be more encompassing.
Of concern to us—which became part of the impetus for this article—is that Aviation Consumer‘s research into aircraft accidents on a model-by-model basis for its monthly Used Aircraft Guide points to LOC as the cause of the majority of all general aviation accidents, not just those involving fatalities. We think the definition has to include operations while the aircraft is on the ground—either during rollout after touchdown or on takeoff.
In the materials the FAA has put out focusing on LOC accidents, it points out that in virtually every one of those accidents the pilot either initiated the LOC sequence through his or her actions or could have broken the chain of events leading to the accident with appropriate control inputs.
Pilot responsibility for LOC accidents leads to the follow-up question as to what a pilot can do to up her or his skill set through training. The convenient excuse that the pilots who suffered LOC events simply didn’t have the “right stuff” doesn’t cut it. There is extensive research—notably by NASA—as to why smart pilots have accidents. We know LOC accidents aren’t limited to dumb pilots. What has been learned is that avoiding LOC accidents requires training that allows a pilot to recognize a developing hazardous situation, overcome the “startle” or terror reflex when suddenly presented with an aircraft upset/departure from controlled flight (or rollout) and act appropriately.
Reducing Your Risk
For a general aviation pilot who wants to take steps to reduce his or her exposure to the greatest risk of having an accident, what training is out there, what is involved and what does it cost?
The answers are that there is a surprisingly large number of organizations and individuals offering upset and LOC avoidance training; the training should be done in an aerobatic airplane (with parachutes—required by FAR 91.307) and you should come out of it capable of safely dealing with the majority of upset/LOC risks faced by GA pilots.
You should be able to complete an upset/LOC in VMC course in two days, with four or five flights and six to 12 hours of ground instruction for $2000 or less. We saw a number of upset courses consisting of one hour of flight and one hour of ground school. We do not recommend any of them because we do not feel they can cover the subject in the time available.
In this article we’ll describe how to find an upset/LOC training facility, break down LOC accidents so you can explore your exposure to them and go into detail as to what we think should be in a loss of control training syllabus, and why, so that you can work with an upset/LOC training instructor to tailor an effective program for yourself at a price you can afford. We’ve included a list of elements that should be in what we consider to be a good upset course in a sidebar on the last page.
We found that the best spot for locating upset training is the International Aerobatic Club’s websiteunder its aerobatic school reference. Choosing a trainer, after you have read the remainder of this article, involves the same process you’ve followed in choosing a good CFI—discuss what you want to accomplish, listen to what the CFI says and decide whether you feel the instructor will work with you to challenge you, keep you comfortable during what may be some uncomfortable flying, will tailor a course to your needs and whether the two of you can communicate effectively.
Upset Training Elements
We recommend that any upset training course include the following elements in its syllabus:
• Aerodynamics—aircraft performance envelope; angle of attack and how a wing stalls; aircraft behavior in an uncoordinated stall; incipient spin recovery; spin dynamics and recovery; control surface function, with emphasis on rudder use and effectiveness; that there are times it is necessary to put a control surface to the stop and that it’s OK to do so; trim fundamentals and emphasis on trim effect on recovery from a spiral dive.
• Causes and contributing factors of upsets—environmental, pilot-induced and mechanical and warnings available to a pilot that the aircraft has entered a region of a high risk of an upset/LOC.
• Review of upset accidents and incidents including where recovery was successful and why.
• G-awareness—Effects of g-loads physically and on comprehension and problem-solving; g-load management and airframe limitations for positive, negative and lateral g-loads.
• Energy management—risk of low-energy flight regime and stalls after takeoff or go-around; kinetic energy versus potential energy versus chemical energy (power); relation between pitch, power and performance.
• Upset prevention and recovery techniques—recognition and intervention before an upset occurs; stall recovery coordinated and uncoordinated (stopping the roll with immediate rudder input); spin recovery; diving spiral recovery; nose low and nose high low-energy recovery; high bank angle/inverted recovery.
• System malfunctions—autopilot/automation; instrument; jammed controls and stall warning failure.
• Runway loss of control—energy management; appropriate approach speeds; rudder and aileron use while rolling on takeoff, landing and go-around; response/recovery to directional excursions.
• Human factors—startle/threat/terror response (physiological, psychological and cognitive effects); situational awareness; human information processing; inattention, fixation, distraction; perception illusions; instrument interpretation; active monitoring; threat and error management; fatigue management; workload management and crew resource management (usually single-pilot).
Breaking it Down
LOC is a huge topic. Our review of ICAO and FAA publications on the subject and several thousand accident reports as well as teaching aerobatics for many years led us to the conclusion that LOC needs to be broken down into three distinct areas: RLOC (runway loss of control)—losing control on the ground, LOC-I (inflight) VMC—loss of control inflight in visual meteorological conditions and LOC-I IMC—loss of control inflight in instrument meteorological conditions. We’ll look at the most common causes of each and then at how upset/LOC training can be targeted at those causes.
We note up front that our review of accident data and reports of deployment of ballistic parachutes in aircraft equipped with them has made us of the opinion that they have prevented a number of LOC-inflight accidents.
We also note that those who have studied all types of LOC accidents write that contributing causes include: poor judgment, failure to recognize an impending or full stall and execute corrective action, intentional disregard of FARs, inexperience, lack of proficiency, failure to follow standard operating procedures and reduced ability to think or act due to fatigue or intentional use of meds or drugs that inhibit cognitive ability or motor skills.
Runway loss of control makes up from 20 to 65 percent of general aviation accidents—broken down by airplane model. The higher end represents tailwheel airplanes. RLOC accidents are rarely fatal, but injuries are not unusual and the damage suffered is often enough to total the airplane. Most all RLOC accidents occur on landing, although about one out of 15 is on takeoff.
To the extent data are available, the common thread behind the accidents is a crosswind, too much speed on final, touchdown well above stall speed and failure to use all available aerodynamic control on rollout.
In our interviews with upset/LOC instructors all pointed out a reluctance of pilots to put a control to the stop—and that many had never done so. That, combined with the need to manage excess energy due to a fast touchdown, means an increased risk of LOC during rollout.
Stalling while on final accounts for just 1 to 2 percent of all GA accidents, yet CFIs told us that many private pilots they flew with were so uncomfortable with flying at the POH approach speed that they tacked on from 10 to 30 knots. Four-time national aerobatic champion and aerobatic school proprietor, Patty Wagstaff, referred to “watching people land at warp speed.”
When speed is doubled, energy is quadrupled—that basic equation spells out the problem of aircraft control on rollout. It means a swerve will be more powerful and the needed action to stop it more forceful—which means that the pilot must be ready to put the rudder to the stop. Extra speed on touchdown also means that the airplane has a longer period of deceleration before it reaches taxiing speeds, where there is good rolling control. During that period of exposure, the tires aren’t developing enough friction to keep the airplane going straight and aerodynamic control—which is diminishing with speed—is the only method of directional control. Catherine Cavagnaro, who runs Ace Aerobatic School, described pilots dealing with impending loss of control events in the air and on the ground as “so shy with the rudder.”
Full Control Deflection
We are of the opinion that one of the most effective ways for a pilot to improve his handling of an airplane on takeoff and landing is to take some aerobatic instruction—or at least some upset/LOC training. We’ve explored the matter in more detail in our sister publication, AVweb. It tremendously improves a pilot’s confidence in handling the airplane at low speed. Being comfortable coming down final on speed, touching down slowly in a crosswind and putting the controls to the stop as needed will, in our opinion, dramatically reduce a pilot’s risk of RLOC.
We recommend that a portion of the syllabus of any upset/LOC training include takeoff and landing practice, including steep slips to a landing.
The majority of fatal LOC crashes occur in VMC. The causes are consistent—stalls at low altitude (most commonly shortly after takeoff, a go-around or a buzz job, with traffic pattern stalls in second place), upsets into steep banks and, surprisingly, near the bottom of the list, spins.
In our opinion, upset/avoidance LOC-I VFR training should concentrate on three areas: low-energy/low speed/high AOA (whether the pitch attitude is high, level or low), diving spirals with the airspeed well above cruise and increasing and upsets involving overbanking—from 60 to nearly inverted (because the natural reaction to pull is precisely the wrong one).
At the low-speed end, training should include recognition that it takes some altitude for a stalled airplane to enter a developed spin. Many accidents classified in the “stall/spin” category involve stall events in which the ball is not centered—which results in an aggressive roll and pitch down that may be an incipient spin or a spiral.
Most general aviation airplanes will not enter a spin unless the pilot continues to assertively apply pro-spin controls. However, when the stall, roll and pitch down occur at below 1000 feet AGL, whether the sequence is an incipient spin, diving spiral or spin is a distinction without a difference—there is a dramatic loss of altitude. Usually, there is time and altitude to recover if the pilot recognizes what is happening, breaks the stall by pitching down and stops the roll with the rudder. Too often the pilot has “a too-long ‘Duh’ moment” to quote Catherine Cavagnaro, and the airplane hits the ground.
In many such accidents, the witness statements could have been written with a rubber stamp: “I saw the airplane flying slowly, the wings seemed to be wobbling and then one wing dropped and it dove into the ground.”
Upset training is not the same as aerobatic training. In aerobatics the pilot is intentionally placing the airplane into unusual attitudes. In an upset, the unusual attitude is not intended, comes as a horrible surprise and may not have been seen previously by the pilot. Upset training accordingly requires ground instruction on the distinct mental and physical demands of recovery. It also teaches a pilot to recognize that a deadly LOC chain is developing and how to stop it.
The syllabi we saw for what we considered satisfactory upset recovery training included at least one hour of ground school for every hour in the air. As Greg Koontz, airshow pilot and upset recovery trainer, told us it’s necessary to “lay down a good foundation through ground school—not just hop in the airplane.” Laying a background helps a pilot dealing with a new situation draw the right conclusion about what to do, especially because some upset recovery techniques are not intuitive.
Such things as the disorienting effects of g-loading and how they can slow a pilot’s thought processes to a crawl should be discussed in detail. The goal of the recovery portion of upset training is for the pilot to be ready for the “startle” she is experiencing, handle it, evaluate the situation correctly and apply the techniques necessary for recovery in the altitude available without overstressing the airframe.
Once in flight, Steve Green of the Aspen Flying Clubtold us that it’s important to make upsets as real life as possible to show how they can develop. All of the instructors we spoke with said they use various distractions and otherwise routine tasks to induce the pilot to inadvertently stall the airplane or enter a diving spiral or steep bank.
Cavagnaro told us that she often sees pilots who are overly concerned about the slow-speed portion of the flight envelope and not cautious enough about the high-speed end. She spends time going over what the airframe will and will not tolerate—the limitations and misconceptions of maneuvering speed, flutter, the yellow arc in turbulence and what will happen above redline.
She shows that recovery from slow-speed upsets needs to be done quickly and assertively—high-speed upset recovery is a more gentle affair.
The right airplane should be aerobatic while being as representative of the airplane the pilot regularly flies as possible. Because most aerobatic airplanes use a control stick instead of a yoke and have tandem rather than side-by-side seating, all CFIs we spoke to recognized that things aren’t perfect. It was agreed that a roll rate comparable to that of the pilot’s regular ride was important, especially when dealing with a steep bank upset. The instructors felt that the pilot should experience the need for full aileron deflection and get comfortable with putting the aileron and rudder to the stop.
The list of airplanes that developed included the American Champion Decathlon and Citabria, Cessna 150/152 Aerobat and Beech Aerobatic Musketeer.
The Aerobat ranked especially high because so many LOC accidents are low-energy, low-altitude stall events, so training in lower-powered aerobatic airplanes is valuable. It allows a pilot to see that the nose doesn’t have to be pointed straight up to stall the airplane at full power and get used to flying the airplane very near the stall and then accelerating to a safe climb speed without losing altitude.
Most of the LOC in IMC accidents resulted in high-speed ground impact or inflight breakup. Virtually all of the inflight breakups involved thunderstorms or severe turbulence. Yet, thunderstorms were not the primary instigators of LOC in IMC.
Many pilots simply couldn’t keep their airplane upright even when all the instruments and avionics were working. To the extent reasons were found, they were consistent over the years—ill health affecting ability to control the airplane, incapacitation, lack of recent instrument experience, no—or very little—instrument experience, distraction, being overloaded, spatial disorientation and/or vertigo.
Some LOC in IMC events had mechanical failure in the accident chain. Vacuum pump failures in IMC in high-performance piston singles are high-risk affairs. In our opinion, unless a pilot has had recent recurrent training flying partial panel and is very good at it, the chances are high that he or she will lose control of the airplane, especially if there is any turbulence and the pilot is trying to fly using a turn coordinator.
We recommend that upset training for IMC repeat the unusual attitude recoveries in the VMC course but do them by reference to a full panel of instruments and then partial panel, but using any backup instruments and/or tablet computer instrument backup app the airplane and pilot have available.
We also recommend that a pilot install or obtain some additional instrument reference be it standby vacuum, an additional attitude indicator or tablet computer app tied to an ADS-B receiver.
Tablet Computer Apps for IMC Backup
Historically, an additional attitude indicator and/or vacuum source were the only backup options available for instrument or vacuum failure in IMC—and they weren’t cheap. Plus, a renter pilot had virtually no chance of finding a rental with such backups. With tablet computers and apps that tie in with ADS-B receivers providing instrument displays, I’ve been curious if they are a satisfactory alternative to trying to fly partial panel. Do you still have to invest in an additional attitude indicator or vacuum source?
To find out, I set out to use the ForeFlight 8 app on an iPad Mini with a Bluetooth connection to a one-year-old Stratus 2S portable ADS-B receiver. My standard for success would be modest—keep the airplane upright, under control and be able to make turns, climbs, descents and speed and configuration changes. I decided that “under control” would be holding altitude within 200 feet, heading within 20 degrees and airspeed (in this case, groundspeed) within 20 knots. Those were not adequate for shooting an instrument approach to minimums, but they were, in my opinion, safe while getting the airplane to VFR flight conditions.
I used a Cessna T210L because, in my opinion, high-performance singles are the most difficult airplanes to hand fly in IMC, especially in turbulence.
On a VFR day, with a safety pilot and under the hood, I set up level cruising flight with ForeFlight 8 showing the map display. I had not practiced using the instrument backup display in some weeks. I covered all of the flight instruments with sticky notes, a process that took 10 seconds. I waited five more seconds before trying to activate the backup instrument display. I then realized I didn’t recall which icon to push. That added to the delay in obtaining attitude and altitude information. While it’s difficult to simulate the startle and fear response a pilot experiences when placed in a loss of instrumentation situation, using up some 20 seconds after the instruments were covered before coming up with the correct icon to push was a step in that direction. Once the backup display (split screen with map) appeared the airplane was in an accelerating, descending right turn with bank increasing.
The ForeFlight display proved intuitive enough that it was easy to level the wings and resume level flight before safety pilot Dan Travis started to hyperventilate.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes I made turns, climbs and descents in light to moderate turbulence and tried to convince Denver Approach to give us a practice approach into Centennial Airport. They were overloaded and, after a series of “standbys,” advised they could not do so. I was interested to notice that an ordinarily simple matter of trying to negotiate a clearance with ATC significantly increased the workload and degraded my ability to fly the airplane precisely. Had the situation been real, I would not have hesitated to declare an emergency.
I was able to keep the airplane within the parameters I’d established, and got better with practice, although I frequently would enter a bank unintentionally and wander off heading. The screenshot shown was taken during the flight.
The iPad was on a yoke mount, which made viewing it easy. That changed with any repositioning of it to an angle—as one might do mounting it to one side of the panel, or on my lap as on a kneeboard. Having to turn my head or look down increased the workload and had the potential for bringing on spatial disorientation.
I decided to simulate a total electrical failure in the airplane, a 500-foot ceiling and an airport without an instrument approach. I planned to fly directly to the airport, using the terrain-alerting features of ForeFlight as well as its synthetic vision.
When I extended the gear and approach flaps, I found that dealing with configuration changes using the standby instrument presentation was no big deal, although it was challenging to establish a desired descent rate. Reaching 500 feet AGL just inside two miles from the airport and pulling the hood resulted in needing a very simple heading change to line up with the runway and land.
Conclusions: The standby instrument presentations on tablet computers (at least an iPad and ForeFlight) have reached a level of sophistication that, in my opinion, allow a high-performance single-engine piston airplane to be safely flown to VFR flight conditions in an emergency. It’s far easier than partial panel flight using a turn coordinator. The key word is emergency—it’s not unusual for an iPad, Stratus unit or the ForeFlight app to shut itself down for one reason or another. In my opinion, a pilot who would intentionally fly in IMC with such a display as sole reference is a fool, and might be considered criminally negligent if he has an accident while carrying passengers.
If there is an electrical failure in a glass panel airplane, the backup battery has a 45-minute life. Out west, that may not be adequate time to get to VFR conditions or reach an airport with an instrument approach. The battery life of a Stratus unit and iPad could potentially mean the difference between success and a mess.
I also think that it’s essential to practice using the backup instrument display on a tablet—instrument skills deteriorate with alacrity.
Because LOC is the most common cause of GA accidents, we recommend pilots take targeted initial and recurrent upset training. Besides improving your skills and confidence markedly, it’s a lot of fun.