Johnny Can Read, But He Can't Land
Landing an airplane might not be particularly difficult, but doing it well consistently—especially in gusty conditions—isn't easy. Year after year, this is reflected in the NTSB database. The leading type of accident for most aircraft is what we call R-LOCs or runway loss of control. This broad category describes a multitude of aeronautical blunders—from crosswind-induced excursions, to drop-ins, to landing long or short or just running into stuff. (Runway lights, localizer bars and, yes, cows.)
Lately, I've been researching LSA accidents and here the R-LOC problem is more pronounced. This is no surprise; LSAs are lightly wing loaded and most have much lighter control forces than do even the lightest certified aircraft, say the Cessna 152. Just as an example, I compared the R-LOC rate for 10 of the most popular LSAs to that for Cessna 152. It's more than five times higher. In other words, on a per-hour occurrence basis, LSAs have five times more R-LOCs than do 152s.
A caveat here: There aren't that many LSAs flying so the fleet numbers aren't high. Small number effect applies, meaning a few occurrences can swing the conclusion significantly. Nonetheless, that's all the data we've got, so it's fair game to consider it. Also, when accidents are considered on a per-registration basis as a sanity check, the trend is the same.
Why is this so? Can't pilots be trained to master the light control forces LSAs have? Yes, they can, say instructors I've spoken to. But LSAs still may be more difficult to land. In a Cessna 150 or 152, a CFI can let the landing go fairly far awry before assuming control because those airplanes are more durable and also more likely to right themselves without aggressive intervention. LSA instructors say you can't sit on your hands quite as long in Flight Design or a Remos.
Some instructors say the majority of, or at least many, LSA R-LOCs happen to older pilots who are transitioning from traditional airplanes into LSAs because they're worried about their medicals. They're used to heavier control forces and overcontrol the LSAs. The data I have doesn't shed light on this because NTSB summaries don't always contain pilot age and experience data for minor accidents. But the larger question isn't so much why, but what to do to improve landing skills. Additional beatings with rolled up sectionals probably aren't going to work.
One instructor I spoke with, Tim Busch, who runs Iowa Flight Training in Cedar Rapids, wonders whether simulators might play a role. Companies like his and Redbird Simulations are increasingly considering simulators as the primary teaching tool before the pilot even gets into the airplane. I think the idea has legs.
But for landings? I'm open minded, but I'm not so sure. Of all the tasks in flying, landing requires the most refined motor skills and hand-eye coordination in reaction to a stream of subtle cues. Some LSAs require more of that rather than less. When I was at Oshkosh last July, Jerry Gregoire put me in Redbird's novel J-3 simulator. (Here's a video.) They got the flight dynamics mostly right, but after landing it, I told Gregoire the sim just didn't bounce on the runway the way a real Cub would. Actually, it didn't bounce at all. Without that dynamic built in, you don't have a simulator, you have a video game. And not all bounces are the same. The small ones you get on a three-pointer can be ignored, but the 10-footers with roll excursions have to be dealt with aggressively. I suggested running up the gain on the runway touchdown, which he said they did. I never got a chance to try it again.
Even so, what separates an acceptable landing from one that's bound for the ditches are often subtle cues related to seat-of-the-pants sensing of acceleration, turning and slipping moments. You feel these in your butt or see them through the windshield and you respond with the appropriate control input. Sometimes that's gentle and subtle, sometimes not. But the airplane moving in three dimensions helps you discern the difference. Sims get close to that, but they don't nail it. Yet.
Some schools say it takes students longer to solo in an LSA than a heavier airplane, some say there's no difference. Personally, I've flown most of the LSAs and even though I should be one of those over-controlling geezers, I don't recall having difficulty with any of them. Well, one. The Czech Sport Cruiser's control forces are so light that it takes several passes to learn how not to PIO the thing on both landing and takeoff. You can master such an airplane, no doubt. But it would certainly be better if it were easier.
The countervailing theory is that if you can land an LSA, you can land anything. That's a version of the flying-a-taildragger-makes-you-a-better-pilot argument. I've never bought that, by the way. Flying a taildragger makes you a taildragger pilot and that's about it.
Of the 10 LSAs studied, four have no fatal accidents at all: Jabiru, Flight Design, Aeropro and the Cessna Skycatcher. Despite the low fleet hours, that's an impressive record, in my view. What's more interesting is that the LSA composite fatal rate is about 1.2/100,000—exactly what it is for the rest of GA. On the other hand, 10 of the 12 fatal accidents belong to three models: Evektor, Czech Sport Cruiser and Remos. As far as the overall accident rate for these 10 LSAs, it's about twice the GA average at 12.6/100,000 hours. That reflects the high incidence of landing accidents. (The overall rate for the Cessna 152 is about 1.8 and the restart 172s are near 4.3.)
What does all this mean? Two things, as I see it. One, before we can draw meaningful conclusions, we need five more years of data from LSA flying. While the fatal trend isn't bad, the overall rate needs work. It might trend downward as flying hours increase. Second, driving the overall rate down will be a challenge. Five years from now, maybe sim training will take a bite out of it.
CORRECTION ADDED 10/2/12: Tecnam has one fatal accident.