Toe'n the Line

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Do you know the most common mistake a solo student can make to cause an accident during takeoff and landing? Do you practice to avoid it, or spend lots of time with your students on it? Before you send a student up again, you may want to read Brett Justus' article.

Low-Wing Crosswind Landing

Ask any flight instructor what his or her most fearful moment has been and you will hear multiple stories of dire positions students have put the aircraft in, and how the instructor had to save the day. Was it a spin with full flaps entered during a power-off stall as the student decides for some reason to put in full left rudder as he brings in full power? Or how about the student who knows she is ballooning beyond hope, slowing to a near stall twelve feet above the runway, and initiates a go-around by immediately bringing the flaps up to zero? There's no doubt these situations can test the reactive abilities and cardiovascular fortitude of the instructor, but remedy (or not) comes quickly and the event is over almost as soon as it began.

Ask the same question again, replacing the word "fearful" with "nervous" or, better yet, just watch a new instructor send up his first solo student. You will see the instructor give some last words of advice and encouragement before closing the door and walking away from the plane. As the student taxis off toward the runway, any nervous habits attributable to the instructor will soon become apparent -- cigarettes will be lit, nail biting will begin in earnest, and pacing is a certainty. After the first successful takeoff, a wide grin will form on the instructor's face as he sees his student join the sky, alone, for the first time. The smile dissolves as the student makes her way about halfway into the downwind leg. Everyone knows the moment of truth is coming next. The landing tests the mettle of the student pilot more than any other maneuver. The instructor wonders, "Did I teach her everything? Will she flare too high? Too low? Am I sure she can recover from a bounce? Does she have the go-around procedure down cold? Will she remember the carb heat?" These thoughts and a hundred others are going through the student's mind at the same time. What's important is to set priorities and keep the most important things at the top of the mind. We've all heard the phrase, "Fly the plane!" First and foremost, no matter what happens -- fly the plane first.

What Causes Student Accidents?

(click graph for larger version)
  Graph of Accident Causes
Student Solo Accident Causes (During Takeoff & Landing) for 1997 & 1998

When I was a new flight instructor, with one of my students nearing his first solo, I thought it would be a good idea to do some research to find out what mistakes students commonly make on their first few solo flights. The results surprised me. I pulled up the NTSB Aviation Database Records for a two-year period from January 1, 1997, through December 31, 1998. I sifted through the reports until I had only the accidents involving solo student pilots who crashed during takeoff or landing. I thought botched go-arounds and improper flares would lead the pack. I was amazed to find that, of the 29 accidents, only one was due to an improperly executed go-around! Two of the mishaps resulted from a misjudged flare/balloon, two from improper bounce recovery, and there were three due to mechanical failures, including one wheel falling off because the pilot forgot to put the wheel nut back on after changing his tire. There were several other causes with only single occurrences: over-braking, pilot-induced oscillation, wake turbulence from an airliner, and one plane hit a snow bank on short final, misjudging the actual beginning of a snow-covered runway. The causes mentioned so far account for 12 of the 29 accidents -- what about the other 17? The single most common cause of student landing and takeoff accidents was something as obviously fundamental as keeping the airplane on the runway!

As flight instructors, our number-one priority is to be sure we turn out safe pilots. What is safe? The simplest definition is, "Safety is freedom from risk." So we work hard to eliminate or control risks. "Risk" is essentially a subjective value we place on a hazard, multiplied by the level of exposure to it. We put a significant amount of effort into identifying and then training to avoid or handle the really scary hazards. Engine fires and failures, for example, can be catastrophic, so even though the actual frequency of occurrence of these events is relatively slight, we label the risk as one to be "dealt with." When I look at the results of my little research project and see one single cause resulting in more accidents than all the other causes put together, I would submit that we have another risk to add to the top of the list of those to be "dealt with."

What Can We Do About It?

So we agree we've identified an accident risk which is "ripe" for reduction. We want our students to maintain directional control at all times, stay "glued" to the runway centerline, and never unintentionally depart the runway.

1. Eliminate the pointless risks first. Six of the 17 loss-of-control accidents had contributing factors, such as ice on the runway, snow, significant crosswinds, etc. Several of the accidents occurred during an attempt to land or take off in a crosswind component exceeding the limits of the plane! Obviously, student pilots on their first few solo flights have no business flying in these conditions. While we should certainly teach crosswind technique for drift correction and aircraft alignment prior to solo, most instructors set a very conservative crosswind limit for student pilots during their initial solo flights.

2. Advertisers use the phrase, "Top of Mind Awareness." They hit you with their issue, company name, or product repeatedly, so when the time is right, it is at the forefront of your mind. Close your eyes and think of motor oil -- what brand name do you see? The company whose name appears has achieved T.O.M.A. with you. So, have a T.O.M.A. party with your pre-solo students. Sit them down and remind them, first things first. The good old mantras still ring true, but with a slightly different twist:

  1. Aviate (Even on the ground or very close to it, control the plane first!)
  2. Navigate (You shouldn't get lost on the runway.)
  3. Communicate (Keying the mike and perfectly uttering, "Skyhawk 12345 is going around on runway five," is far less important than staying on the runway centerline and not crashing.)

Fly the plane first. Control the plane first and always. When the going gets tough and the student, alone in the plane for the first or second time, gets stressed or task-saturated, he or she may revert to old driving habits and earnestly try to "steer" the plane back to the centerline by turning the yoke or pushing the stick. Constantly remind the student to watch out for this and remember to use their feet.

High-Wing CrosswindTakeoff

3. Have you ever heard the following statement? "But I am putting in right rudder, and it just isn't working!" You push the rudder in another inch and a half for them and say, "See, you just needed some more." This is a form of resignation on the student's part. They push the rudder in more than they ever have and it doesn't keep the plane from steadily drifting toward the edge of the runway, so they just give up. Remind the students that they will always have enough control authority if they fly the plane within the established limits and to do whatever it takes until they see the correct result. Ensure they know how to use ailerons properly when they are needed, and watch closely to pick up on any misuse in training before it becomes a habit.

4. Accept nothing less than having the plane on the centerline throughout every takeoff and every climbout until turning on course or into the pattern. Teach them to establish alignment with the runway immediately upon turning final and to hold that alignment all the way to touchdown. Do not accept diagonal approaches to the runway! Reward proper runway alignment frequently with positive praise to solidify the habit. The nosewheel should not venture from the centerline more than a few inches until it becomes locked on to the yellow taxi line that is followed off of the runway, and then likewise it should, from then on, stay glued to the taxi line. By insisting on precision in this way, we will not shortchange our students and we will ensure they develop the ability to perceive when they are where they should be -- on the centerline!

About the author...

Brett Justus is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with instrument and multi-engine CFI ratings who has given over 1000 hours of dual instruction.