Whatever Happened to Practice?
I got a nice note from AVEMCO CEO Jim Lauerman on this week's blog about traildraggers and training. He confirms what we have all noticed—or should have noticed—in the accident records: Lack of stick-and-rudder skills cost pilots and their insurors millions every year and a great majority of this—if not all of it—is avoidable. The question is, how?
Every month when we prepare a new Used Aircraft Guide for Aviation Consumer, we sweep through between 100 and 200 accidents for a specific model. These almost always yield the depressing finding that between one-third to as much as one-half of all accidents are what we call R-LOCs or runway loss of control. These are overshoots, undershoots, skids, slides, crosswind incidents, hard touchdowns and all sorts of runway mayhem related to the inability to just basically control the airplane. It's hand-eye stuff.
Here's an astonishing fact: Our June 2010 UAG on the Cessna 182 revealed that 58 percent of all the accidents listed for this model are R-LOCs. Few other models come even close to this. A significant number of these were nose-first touchdowns or hard landings that damaged the nosegear and crimped the firewall, which is common damage for a Skylane. Why is this?
Anyone who has flown a Skylane will tell you that even when trimmed correctly, it's nose heavy on landing and it requires a purposeful tug to keep the nose from either touching down first or slamming down after the mains make contact. I haven't pursued this issue with Cessna yet, but I have to think this airplane could use some design tweaking to help with this. But the larger issue remains pilot proficiency or lack of it. If most pilots can land a Skylane without bending it—and most can—why can't everyone?
Carry that logic out and you can apply it to any model, even new ones like the Cirrus and Diamond line, which have their share of runway prangs. Most of these are expensive embarrassments, but they can also be spectacularly fatal, as was the crash of a Cirrus SR22 at Caldwell, New Jersey last summer. The NTSB hasn't ruled on a cause of this accident, but you can read the factual for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
There may be no single reason to explain why these R-LOCs continue to happen. More likely, I think, is a confluence of factors. First, the instructional community in general underates the difficulty of developing and maintaining landing skills across a range of conditions, including gusty winds, slick surfaces and night or poor visibility.
Economics drive this and it's getting worse because flying is more expensive than ever so once a student obtains minimal proficiency, there's little incentive to polish further. Nor is there much time, because now the student's time gets taken up with mastering the complexities of glass panels and airspace. All of these skills are perishable, none more so than the simple ability to set approach speed, flare and control the airplane through the rollout.
I see the tech effect all the time when I'm reviewing a new glass panel or some other tech product. Two years ago, when Cirrus introduced the Garmin Perspective, I flew it on a gusty Duluth morning. The demo pilot was enthralled with the display's new flight path indicator, explaining in great detail that if I'd just put the indicator on the end of the runway, I'd land right at that spot. Of course, the FPI doesn't account for trim or speed, so it will happily drive you to a 110-knot impact right where it promised it would. In gusty conditions, following it is like playing bad pinball. In a fit of annoyance, I finally said, "Why don't I just look out the %^$#*^ window and land the airplane, just like I always do?" He laughed and conceded the point. But I digress, because this isn't about bashing techology.
The overarching question is how to keep a proficient edge and the overarching answer relates to something a skydiving team mate once observed. Hey, you know this practice stuff really works. And that's the nut of it, really. Blog poster Jack Romanski nailed it: Go out and practice an hour or two a week. Or if it's all you can afford, two hours a month. Concentrate on landings in all kinds of conditions, including crosswinds and throw in some proficiency airwork like steep turns, slow flight, pylon turns and other ground reference maneuvers suitable for what you think you need. You don't need an instructor to do this. Just do it yourself.
As for further regulation, forget it. We already have the flight review requirement which is both laughably insufficent and abused by some CFIs and pilots who are perfectly happy with paper sign offs and no actual training or review. I doubt if this sort of abuse is a substanital factor in lack of stick-and-rudder skills; it may in fact be more of a symptom. I'm a big believer in taking personal responsibility and not looking to outside influences to force us to do what we should be doing for ourselves.
Even at that, organizations like AOPA Air Safety Foundation, which has resources for this, ought to look toward hands on clinics devoted laser-like to landing proficiency. So should manufacturers and maybe insurance companies, too. Not videos. Not webinars. Not slideshows. Actual hands on clinics. It would be something different. Personally, because it's about the most fun thing you can do in a Cub, I get about a dozen landings a week in. But I recognize that some owners and pilots can't or won't do that and a little outside encouragement represents an opportunity for them to get off the dime and actually do this critical practice. Some people just take more nudging than others.
But in the end, the solution is between the ears. No amount of instruction or encouragment will ever displace the value of simply doing it yourself and learning by trial and error.