That Which Does Not Kill Me Improves Rudder Technique

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When I went through basic training, there was a sign somewhere in camp that said, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” One could internalize this, I suppose, and pretend that if you tried real hard and spent that extra five minutes shining your brass buckle, you’d somehow escape getting shot. Whether we did or we didn’t, the drill sergeants still called us bloated, worthless piles of civilian excrement so we sweated just enough, which wasn’t much at all in barely heated barracks in February.

Flight training at the time had a similar, albeit unstated, ethos, which was the more we make training realistic to the extent of actually having smoking craters and bodies, the fewer of the really weak candidates will sneak through to become actual pilots. It pretty much worked because the word “appalling” falls kinda short of describing the accident rate then. If your world perspective is shaped by airplanes with parachutes and autopilots that nanny you out of killing yourself, I’ll point out that the fatal rate in the early 1960s was more than six times what it is now. In the peak year, there were more than 5000 accidents—almost 100 a week. A substantial portion of those pilots were drunk.

Why it took us so many years to figure out it was a really bad idea to pull the mixture post-takeoff in a twin escapes me. The insurance companies may have had a hand. But it did keep the salvage yards well stocked with recent model parts. You could practically build an Apache out of scrap, only to realize after you’d done this that you had … an Apache.

Flight training is more tame now. Much of it is done safely and more effectively in simulators. But some things the sim can’t do well, such as crosswind landings and the actual feel, look and terror of a post-takeoff engine failure, of the sort covered in this week’s video.

When I was preparing that and talked to my former partner, Dana Nickerson, he refreshed my memory on the training we did. I had forgotten I favored taking him out on windy, challenging days and throwing emergency problems of various sorts into the mix. He came into the partnership with little or no retractable time and for some reason—and I do not remember why—I thought the biggest risk for him would be a power failure after takeoff. In retrospect, that didn’t make as much sense as more instrument and upset training or just basic landing work. Engine failures on takeoff, although often fatal, are also low incidence.

As the video explains, the training must have paid off. I remember how I did it with him and with other pilots I was training. And how I was trained to do it. To get the feel for how much you have to command pitch down, you can’t fool around and do this at altitude; that masks the absolute terror of filling the windshield with the dirt below. If you hesitate, the least you’ll get is a stall mush, the worst an incipient spin.

My habit was to train these from several altitudes, including as low as 50 feet. From that altitude, I prefer to have the flying pilot handle the power rather than invoke the surprise of yanking it myself. From higher, I would throw in a distraction and then smoothly reduce the power and have the pilot deal with it. There is no sugarcoating that this is risky training. If it goes bad, you could provoke the very crash you’re training to prevent. I always felt the risk was worth the gain and I guess Dana did, too.

I still think this is true, even for my own flying. I mentioned to a friend the other day that when there’s a choice of landing with a crosswind or into the wind, I’ll always take the crosswind. He was genuinely baffled by this. But I explained that anyone can land into the wind and everyone should be less fearful of crosswinds. They’re a fun challenge.

And even more fun if the crosswind is just ripping. According to the date stamp on the photo here, on Jan. 17 I took the Cub out for some crosswind work in 20-knot winds, with gusts to about 25 knots. At Venice, the wind was straight down Runway 5, but close to a direct crosswind on 12.

Flying a kite like a Cub is challenging in that much wind. It will take off in about 50 feet and land in about the same. I made several passes at the runway, not necessarily intending to land but to see if I could. Because there are hangars and buildings upwind, the turbulence had the sharp, knife-edge quality that really gets your attention. So does a 30-degree crab angle on final. With the rudder to the stop, I could hold the upwind wheel on the runway. A better taildragger pilot than me could have planted it, but I decided not to push my luck. I spent a half-hour doing tail-up wheelies on the upwind runway, where it was smooth as silk. With just a taste of power, you can hold the tail up in that much wind to a near stop.

And the photo? I have a sour look on my face because while I was opening the hangar door, the wind cranked the airplane around 90 degrees. They say you have to keep flying a taildragger right into the tie downs, but at some point, you have to crawl out of it. Next time, maybe wing walkers?

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13 COMMENTS

  1. We’re on the same page regarding crosswind landings being a fun challenge, as long as it is on grass (of the kind that was on your Takeoff Mistakes video). I dislike any landings in my 120 on pavement, but I hate crosswind landings in my 120 on pavement. Something about tire wear. “And the photo?” Your T hangar appears not to contain so much as a cabinet, let alone a couple of chairs, a small fridge and a coffee pot. What’s with that Paul? Are you sure you’re having enough fun?

  2. “Engine failures on takeoff, although often fatal, are also low incidence.
    As the video explains, the training must have paid off.”
    Hmmm. Maybe, and Yes. Paul, along with your video, two of the four reports in the General Aviation Accident Bulletin posted earlier this week report loss of power soon after takeoff, so realistic training for same is probably a not-so-bad idea.

  3. Excellent article as always. Personally I think there has been a general dumbing down of training starting with instructors who are not confident in their own skills. They just cancel the lesson if the conditions are even a little adverse and so the students are deprived of the opportunity to stretch

    If you are a low time pilot it is worth finding the old timer who has been there and get him to go out with you on a blustery day

    With respect to the engine failure after takeoff (EFATO) I teach my students to always articulate a plan for the first 1000 ft of climb. The briefing starts with what they are going to do if the engine fails on the ground and the most important part “In the event of an engine failure after lift off, I will immediately push forward on the wheel/stick and establish the attitude for best glide airspeed”. While he is saying that he/she will physically push the wheel forward so that muscle memory is established. I hope that in event the engine fails they will react.

    The bottom line is if you do only that you will probably live, if you don’t you will probably die

    Finally, I did a survey of engine failure accident reports. Approximately 75% were directly caused by the actions or inactions of the pilot. The best way to deal with an engine failure is to not have it fail in the first place.

  4. My pre-solo instruction ALWAYS includes takeoff engine failures, from about 100 feet AGL in a best-rate climb. The student isn’t going to solo until s/he can demonstrate three successful landings from that setup.

  5. It totally makes sense to take a cross wind landing when available. The airport I fly out of now has a 2,300 asphalt runway with trees at both ends and trees and hangers close along the side runway where the prevailing wind originates. This configuration serves up some very challenging landings. About midway down the runway there is a gap in the trees and the winds tend to funnel through the trees to create a scooping effect. The local pilots have learned to anticipate this but it has caught all of us at one time or another. The effect is you will touch down then all of sudden you are flying again and scooting off the edge of the runway. It takes some serious stick and rudder skills to keep the airplane from careering off the runway. At my previous airport I got a little sloppy because we had a large wide open grass runway.

  6. Certainly this has been covered but I don’t want to miss a chance to hear what y’all have to say (unless my question is so stupid no one even bothers). Paul says engine failures on takeoff, are low incidence… but shouldn’t that be zero incidence? I’m an 8-hour student pilot, crushed by COVID who reads Kathryn’s Reports daily as my bedtime, sweet dreams habit. Casual survey says about 8 pilots a week either forget to lower the landing gear or bounce so hard it collapses, about 8 per week get blown off the runway and 2 or 3 have some sort of engine failure. How? The 1930s was a long time ago! I understand these Continentals and Lycomings are sorta like airhead BMW motorcycle engines with more jugs, but those bikes aren’t littering the side of the road with connecting rods out the sides of the crankscases. What gives with GA powerplants. Thanks

    • Paul has been studying aircraft engine failures for years. There are some pilots who fly all their lives and never have an engine failure. Others have a few. In over 40 years of flying I have had three. Two with two stroke engines and one IO-360. Both two stroke failures were due to fuel starvation. One was due to a fuel level float that broke loose and was sucked into the fuel outlet in the tank and the other was an idle jet that came loose in a carburetor and got lodged under the float flooding one cylinder. I always, always, always do a thorough preflight inspection. The preflight didn’t catch any of these situations. They were well hidden. The point is that engine failures not just things breaking in the engine. It’s a system of fuel, spark and air that keeps and aircraft aloft. The system is fairly complex and if any component of the system fails, the engine quits. Think of the “engine” as a system. All that being said, I believe with the cheap senors and computers available today, there is a lot more that could be done to analyze the system and prevent failures. However, certifying this technology is prohibitively expensive.

    • I should amplify this. I went back into my recent dataset, collected earlier this year.

      Mechanical failures account for 14 to 18 percent of all accidents, according to Nall data. That’s fairly consistent year to year. For fatal accidents, it’s about 10 percent. Of these, about 80 percent of those are engine related and the lethality of these is around 10 percent.

      Of all the engine failures, a little over a third occurred on takeoff, a third in cruise and the rest in other phases of flight. So in retrospect, low incidence is probably not a good descriptor.

  7. John D

    The dirty little secret is that a lot of engine failures after takeoff are fully preventable. But the prevention is the unsexy discipline to do a full preflight check before the first flight of the day, every time. To not only do that run-up, but truly understand what you are looking for, to have a procedure to ensure that the aircraft systems are fully configured for flight, and finally to not accept something wrong with the aircraft because it is going to be inconvenient to return to the ramp

  8. During a former lifetime I flew high performance, heavily loaded single engine aircraft off of unimproved airstrips full time. On 20 of the most frequently used airstrips I had go-to spots picked out off each end in case of engine failure within the first 30 seconds after liftoff. Having picked those spots out and always keeping them in mind on every takeoff ingrained in me the habit to the extent that I found myself naturally identifying such spots on the less frequently used airstrips as well. Fortunately none of those emergency spots were ever needed.

    Call me a wuss. At the age of 65 I made a conscious decision to reduce the amount of risk in my life. The first activity to go was glider towing, easily the most fun flying I have ever done, mostly in Pawnees and Cessna 185s. The engine out scenario below 400 feet began to weigh heavily on me, particularly with gliders requiring very slow airspeeds.

  9. The sad part of instruction today is modern trainers allow the peddles to be used as foot rests without penalty. It sure got discouraging when I was teaching the instructor rating to pilots holding a commercial license and I had to continually nag them to keep the airplane coordinated…

    A bit off topic but my favourite go to move was to cover the airspeed at random points in the flight. Everyone of my private students did a takeoff a lap around the pattern and a landing with the ASI covered.