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The Pilot's Lounge #122: We Worry About the Wrong Things, and It's Killing Us

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The Pilot's Lounge

Winter in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport can be pretty slow, with days of low overcast and generally lousy flying weather. Either no one comes out to the airport and our flight-school owner starts to panic over whether last summer's revenues can be stretched through the winter, or a lot of people come out and spend their time shaking their fist at the elements and drinking the flight school's coffee while the owner starts to panic over whether last summer's revenues can be stretched through the winter, especially with the high price of coffee. On this particular day I was alone in the Lounge, studiously avoiding the coffee pot, while I looked up some accident data. One of the regular visitors to the Lounge had talked to me regarding some material he'd read about how Americans tended to worry about the wrong things when making decisions about how to conduct their lives. He pointed out that we get all excited about the risk of terrorists using airplanes and spend billons of dollars on security procedures of questionable merit; we get all excited about shark attacks (more people get hit by lightning annually) to the point that a certain percentage of our population won't swim in the ocean; parents give in to fear and refuse to vaccinate children over a side effect that is less likely to happen than the disease itself; and people refuse to go for walks outdoors for fear of Lyme disease and put themselves at high risk of a heart attack because they are sedentary. My friend then pointed out, correctly, that the real risks facing Americans have been amazingly constant over the years: death from the effects of either smoking or being around people who smoke (about 400,000 people per year); auto accidents, particularly not wearing a seat belt (about 50,000 people per year), side effects of continuing to put food in our mouths when we aren't hungry (about 300,000 people per year) and screwups in hospitals because the medical community hasn't figured out what we in aviation have known for decades: that checklists for even the most routine procedures and limiting the time that doctors can be on duty are very good things (150,000 to 500,000 fatalities per year -- depending on the source of the data). My friend just can't figure out why we Americans so blithely accept the true risks we face while continuing to smoke, over-eat, not wear seatbelts and not raise heck about hospital procedures, yet we get ourselves all in a twitter over the low risk items and take all sorts of expensive and often-redundant precautions that would be better spent on the high-risk stuff.

But What About Airplanes?

I didn't have an answer for my friend, but it caused me to look at the same question as applied to flying. While the fatality numbers for general aviation, just under 500 in 2006 -- far less than the number who die each year falling in bathtubs -- are very low, they have to be compared with the very small number of people who get into general aviation airplanes in the first place. With that in mind, our accident rate is far worse than the airlines and somewhat worse than automobiles, about the same as for motorcycles. Therefore, it's worth evaluating: Do we pilots worry about how to deal with the actual risks we face? As an aside, do we flight instructors teach students (and pilots in for recurrent training) how to identify and avoid doing stupid, high-risk things in airplanes? After looking at accident data, I came to a mixed conclusion; in some cases we do very well, in others, we just plain stink. On the plus side, we don't have very many accidents in icing or thunderstorms. While they occur each year, the number is pretty low, as is the percentage of overall accidents and fatalities, so pilots are generally getting the idea that boomers and the frozen stuff can be very ugly and tend to approach them with a great deal of caution. We also have few accidents during climb and descent or on go-arounds. Still, according to the 2007 Nall Report, about 74 percent of all accidents and 79 percent of fatal accidents are attributable to the pilot rather than some mechanical problem or "unknowns." That is a depressing introduction to the minus side of how we handle our airplanes. Our fatal accidents keep getting clumped into the same old places: year in and year out, it's VFR into foul weather, "maneuvering" and -- for a certain, creative seasoning to the mix -- those fatal events where pilots facing one emergency make the fascinating decision to intentionally create another and then fail to handle either well. On the non-fatal side, loss-of-control on landing is the big one, making up a staggering 40 percent of all accidents. The only good thing is that few of those are fatal.

Worry About the Right Things

So what do we do about all of this? First of all, may I suggest that we resolve to worry about the right things? Just as we decide not to put death from flesh-eating bacteria high on the list of things we lay awake worrying about at night, let's not put, for example, flying too slowly on final on that list, either. There are very, very few accidents involving an airplane that has stalled on final. Yet most pilots seem to be so worried about control responsiveness and about stalling that they fly final too fast. Because they worry about the wrong thing, they find they often cannot manage the excess speed and energy through the subsequent landing (and sometimes end up in that "loss-of-control on landing" group). Perhaps the way to reduce landing accidents is for instructors to spend a little more time emphasizing the speed to fly during the last quarter-mile on final approach. CFIs should explain that 1.3 Vso is plenty fast for control and a power-off flare, and it leads to a touchdown near stall speed ... that is, touchdown with minimum energy to dissipate. With proper aileron application into the wind, and staying alive on the rudders, the airplane has plenty of control authority to dissipate the speed and energy it had at touchdown. Coming down final faster means either floating a long ways down the runway (with associated issues of directional control) or touching down fast (with issues of lack of rolling control and brake effectiveness). These increase the risk on that landing, and, no surprise, increase the number of accidents that result. We know what the bad habits are; flight instructors have the chance to aggressively meet them head-on and fight them. While taking recurrent training only biennially is not frequent enough to do a lot to cut our accident rate, it is still a chance for instructors to try and concentrate on the landing loss-of-control accidents by insisting pilots fly on-speed during that last quarter-mile on final.

Make It Real

While looking at the true risks we face and worrying about them, I also suggest we make sure there isn't a disconnect between flight training and reality, especially as we look at some of the fatal-accident causes. For example, the accidents involved with continued VFR into foul weather are distressingly constant from year to year. They are truly the ones we, as pilots, should stay up at night worrying about. This is especially true because the data show that having an instrument rating is no particular protection against the process of bad decision-making that results in an pilot winding up low, below low clouds, in crummy visibility after taking off in weather that was at least decent VFR. I've long advocated that primary instruction include a few lessons during marginal weather. The ground portion may simply be the process of getting the weather information and discussing what it really means to someone trying to fly in it and then, if possible, going flying so the student can see just how lousy it is. It all starts out on those somewhat hazy days when a low-time student seems to be having a "bad" lesson; it's not going as well as the last one. Instructors have known for years that primary students tend to do better during sessions of dual when there is good visibility and less well when there is haze or some other restriction to visibility. Bringing it to the student's attention when it happens is step one in instilling a gut feeling in a pilot for the negative effects of trying to fly VFR when visibility starts to deteriorate, even when it is perfectly legal VFR. Once the point is made, find a time to take the student out when there is not a clear horizon, but it's legal VFR (or the horizon appears much lower due to haze) and raise the matter of controlling the airplane, navigating and handling all the little things that need to be done to get the airplane safely from one place to another. Then go fly when it is barely legal VFR and see what that looks like. The instructor can make some strong impressions by showing how many towers there are out there -- probably erected by people who hate airplanes, with the sole intent of snatching them out of the sky -- and how fast those towers appear from the murk and come at the airplane. Finally, make sure the instructor can see to it that the student comes out to the airport for two or more lessons when the weather is bad, goes through checking the weather and canceling the lesson, so the student does not get a mindset of actually flying every time he or she goes to the airport, and gets the internalized understanding that it's OK to cancel a flight. I'm not sure how to quickly solve the "VFR into dogmeat weather" problem. I think there are a lot of small, discreet steps because it also involves judgment, something which seems not to have been divided evenly among aviators. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that it has to be discussed frequently with primary students and they need to experience the awful feeling one gets in marginal weather, and maybe sweat a little and discover how the quality of one's decision-making starts to slip. Then the instructor can make it clear that it is truly OK to divert; to not make it to the destination on a particular flight. It's probably a good idea for the instructor to mention to the student that the student knows what it is to get into trouble; he or she has been in trouble for being late for work or not showing up for an appointment, and that is a big motivator; but the student has never been dead. The instructor can transmit the knowledge and gut-level understanding that messing around in marginal weather, VFR, is not a way to make sure the student gets to the meeting or family gathering or other destination on time ... it's a way to get dead.

Do You Want An Emergency With That Emergency?

A nagging, annual addition to the ranks of fatal accidents are the ones in which the pilot is faced with an emergency of some sort, and then makes the decision to disregard years (or weeks) of training and intentionally create another emergency as part of dealing with the original event. (I keep wondering if the John Wayne tradition of mock-heroic movies is to blame for some of the incredibly stupid pilot tricks we get to see year in and year out.) I can't help but think of the pilot going to the local fast-food Burger-Doodle and, when ordering an emergency, the counter person asks if they want to super-size it and have another one. I simply don't understand the logic and, because a lot of them are dead, it's tough to conduct an inquiry short of a sťance. One of my favorites is the landing gear that won't extend. While it is exciting, and it's technically an emergency, history shows that it is not life threatening if the pilot makes a normal landing, preferably on a paved runway. Every once in a while I do a search of accident reports to see if I can find any that indicate anyone has been hurt or killed in a gear-up landing when the pilot makes a normal landing ... that is, doesn't try to stop or feather the propeller(s). I have not found an injury or death in such a landing since World War II. However, when the pilot adds an emergency by shutting down the engine(s) and trying to stop the prop(s) and glide to the runway (something few, if any, of the pilots have ever practiced before), there are accidents involving serious injuries and fatalities because the pilot either can't make the runway or is high and fast, and either slides off the end and hits something or has to land off-airport, with unpleasant results. The other knuckleheaded emergency-on-emergency is the attempt to make a steep turn, just above stall speed, at low altitude, when the engine on a single fails after takeoff. How many pilots have practiced steep turns at 300 feet AGL? Those are ordinarily done with power, and definitely not that low. Now, how many have practiced steep turns at 300 feet AGL, power off? Then why oh why do so many decide to try one when the engine takes the day off after takeoff, especially when they've been trained to land straight ahead?

Stupid Maneuvers

The final, big clump of fatal accidents that tend, on first glance, to fall into the "stupid" category are those the NTSB sticks into the all-purpose hopper of "maneuvering." Some of those are the ones the investigator-in-charge can't figure out where to pigeonhole appropriately, so it gets shoved into maneuvering. A fair number might better be put into the VFR-into-IMC class as the pilot finally starts trying to turn around to go back to better weather, but has delayed action so long that he or she is down low, in crummy visibility and blows the turn. The majority, however, are tied in with intentional low flying; something that is not taught in the Private pilot syllabus. Given that so many pilots are killed flying low, why not? Maybe it's a little like sex: Rather than talk about it and inform people, we just say, "Don't do it," and hope for the best. The "keep 'em ignorant and tell 'em not to do it" approach doesn't seem to be working. Those who have flown crop dusters, low-altitude aerobatics and nap-of-the-earth military operations know that the world looks different below 500 feet AGL. The horizon seems, oddly, just a little higher. The big deal is that the ground is no longer an abstract, intellectual exercise, some distance away, that the passengers look at and remark, "It seems like we're going so slow." Instead, it's right there. It's a vivid, visceral part of the pilot's existence, filling peripheral vision and going by in a blur. In any turn, the changing groundspeed as the airplane goes to or from a headwind or tailwind is instantly noticeable and a very powerful presence. To this day, I recall the first time I was given instruction for aerial application in a Piper J-3. At six inches above the crop, the world was just a green smear. And that airplane was only going across the field at about 85 mph. I didn't know where to look. It was utterly overwhelming. And yet, I was lucky. I got instruction from instructors who were also aerial-application pilots. I was taught where to look and what I would be experiencing. Flying low is exciting ... there are no two ways about it. The world is whizzing by and the sensation of speed is a huge rush. With a tailwind, some of the more modest retracts can reach a groundspeed over 200 mph and the pilot can feel a little of what it is like to scream down the straight at Indy in an open-wheel racer. A noticeable proportion of pilots try it once or twice; some get killed on those first tries and some get away with it for a while. Some get a certificate action from the FAA for stupidity or aggravated stupidity for their efforts in buzzing a friend's house. Every year, more than a few pilots manage to discover that low altitude is a different world and, when untrained for a high-risk maneuver, they truly don't know what they are doing. Many pay with their lives. What is sadly ironic is that every year at least one or three actually crash fatally on the property of those whom they thought they were going to impress. Wrong impression.

We're All Teachers

How do we solve it? Educate. Educate on as many levels as possible so as to hit what motivates as many pilots as possible. Make it known that, post-9/11, a heck of a lot of people out there are scared silly of airplanes. If they see one flying low, they are convinced it is going to crash, fall on them, is flown by a terrorist or all of the above. Let it sink in that everyone has a cell phone and most have cameras. Those scared or angry people subjected to low flying (of all the stupid things -- to fly low down a beach full of people or over a housing development on a nice summer day) now take pictures of the offending airplanes and use them when they call 911 or the FAA to complain. It makes the enforcement action by the FAA easy. I suggest that we let student pilots know that, while they think airplanes are incredibly cool (they are), there are those who do not share that opinion and will complain about low flying and will vote to close airports. So, just to protect against a certificate action, there is a powerful incentive to stay at altitude. In my opinion, we should publicized that those who fly low for a living and have been trained for it still crash at an unpleasantly high rate. An amateur at the game is going into it with the deck stacked in favor of the house. Every aerial application pilot I worked with or know and who has been in the business for any length of time has crashed at least once, usually after hitting something (and they usually know the area around the fields they treat repeatedly). They usually survive because those airplanes are specifically built for the risks faced with continual low flying. The military, which spends millions training pilots to fly low, loses several pilots and crews each year on those low-altitude training flights, even though they follow routes that have been surveyed to avoid obstacles. We lose more than our share of aerobatic pilots who do low-altitude acro when they again demonstrate that one can only tie the record for low flying, and each of them has had to demonstrate his or her ability to fly low in order to get one of the low-altitude waivers. Instructors can take their students around the area at 1,000 feet AGL and point out the plethora of cell phone and other towers, power lines and other things that stick into the air. The instructor can walk the student out of the door of the FBO and point at nearby telephone poles on a hazy day and ask the student to point out the lines. Invariably, some will be invisible. Walking up to them, they eventually pop into view. It's a powerful lesson. There are a lot of things you can't see, so once the airplane is below 1,000 feet AGL, the risk factor climbs fast. Finally, if the airport is in an area where it may be done without bothering the neighbors, fly some traffic patterns at 400 feet AGL. Let the student see that the perspective is different. Then fly down the runway at 20 feet and ask how busy the student is when doing so. He or she has been challenged to hold altitude within 100 feet of a target when up high -- ask how that translates when flying low. Then ask what happens if one gets a little exuberant during a pull-up at the end of the runway and a little distracted while trying to look back at those you were seeking to impress with your skill and daring, and whether the student could recover from a power-on stall at 300 feet AGL, especially if the ball is not centered. We can't stop the stupid pilots from killing themselves, but maybe we can educate the smart ones so they recognize that a buzz job doesn't make them come off as macho. Maybe they'll decline to perform one and they'll live to bore their grandchildren with tales of their flying. However, if the admonitions don't work, maybe the education will and they won't kill themselves in the process but only have to defend themselves against an FAA certificate action. After all, you have to be alive for the FAA to go after you. And I much prefer live pilots. See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.

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