There’s no need to go all Type A over this, but piloting an aircraft is among those activities where it’s to our benefit to be something of a control freak. It pays because of all the many bad outcomes that can result from losing control. The variations and possibilities seem infinite, as pilots find new and innovative ways to let physics and aerodynamics take over from them. Stalls—on rotation, turning final and elsewhere—promise particularly harsh results while running off a runway, another common example, hurts less often and less badly.
Regardless of the reasons—distraction, multi-tasking, poor judgment or insufficient training—the punchline is losing control of an aircraft leads many accident-cause categories. The sidebar on the opposite page has the details. Meanwhile, there are some common reasons we might lose control, even when well-trained and exercising sound judgment. Let’s explore—and fix them.
How bad is it?
First, though, how bad are we at this piloting “thing?” Pretty bad it turns out. The loss-of-control (LOC) accident category tops several lists. In fact, “pilot action” accidents by far lead all other categories—including accidents stemming from mechanical failures, weather encounters or fuel exhaustion. And the different types of LOC accidents dominate fatal-crash stats, accounting for nearly 79 percent of fatalities.
But this is nothing new. Accidents involving loss of control—both fatal and non-fatal—have been the top category for decades.
For the years 2001 to 2010, LOC prevailed as the top killer, with 1190 fatal GA accidents, followed by controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), a distant second, with 432. These statistics are summarized in the graphics on the opposite page.
What’s tough to understand is how a basic skill like keeping control of an aircraft seem so tough to sustain during the four phases most critical to flight safety:
• On the runway at takeoff;
• Climb-out and maneuvering to en route;
• Low-level maneuvering from en route and on approach;
• On the runway at landing.
On the Runway: Takeoff
Among these four operational areas, departure loss-of-control runway accidents rank fourth, with fewest fatalities. Which is surprising in many ways, since that’s generally when the airplane is at its heaviest, when performance is worst and when we’re trying to accelerate, building energy, not dissipating it.
The answer to the surprise comes when we understand this category includes hand-propping. But it also includes taxiing too fast and losing a tire or failing to negotiate a turn, getting blown off the runway while taxiing or on the takeoff roll, failing to become airborne and then failing to stop safely before rolling off the runway. We manage to lose our way in the dark or in muck; we also suffer failed brakes and locked brakes and blown tires—all of which complicate the job of keeping things under control on the ground.
Much of which is frustratingly unnecessary. Accident avoidance on the ground requires little more than patience, diligence and knowing when to say “No!” Testing brakes thoroughly before taxiing can preclude some LOC incidents; ditto for recognizing excess winds as an avoidable problem, even when they magically align with the runway. Remember: At some point you’ll likely have to turn the airplane 90 degrees into the wind where control surface authority may prove insufficient to overpower a gust.
Additionally, launching into winds with wide gust swings invites an LOC accident or incident. Imagine you’re pitched for a max-performance, VX climb after lifting off into 30 knots of gusty wind. Suddenly, that stiff breeze isn’t so stiff anymore, and its velocity plummets to a gentle 10 knots. When that happens at the wrong time, a stall close to the runway is a likely outcome. A stall, of course, is pretty much the ultimate signal you’ve lost control. And if you’re below, say, 1000 feet agl, that ride can experience an abrupt end.
On the Runway: Landing
But takeoffs are just half of the LOC problems we face on runways. Depending on the year, stats show that between 30 and 40 percent of LOC accidents occur at landing, even as they share some of the same contributory factors as a takeoff LOC accident, plus some different ones. For example, too little speed may leave control surfaces unable to overpower wind forces on a wing or tail but too much speed may place us in the confounding situation of too little runway. Reduce that speed and you may find the nasty crosswind will win just as you touch the ground, pushing the plane sideways or forcing it to weathervane away from the direction you’ve chosen and off the runway.
Sometimes the pilot attempts to land and decides to go around—LOC during rejected landings can come in the form of too little speed to overcome a crosswind or too much angle of attack and a stall at its worse—low down and out of altitude, airspeed and ideas.
Locked brakes can blow tires or, typically, one tire, sending the plane uncontrollably across and off the runway, toward a fence, runway lights, drainage culverts, windsock pole or ramps filled with other planes.
Here, focusing on power and pitch can help keep the airplane controllable and within its fly-away airspeed range. With enough speed, the crosswind factor diminishes. The downside, of course, is when the runway becomes too short. Also in this mix? Hard landings can damage gear, wheels and tires.
Judgment plays an enormous role here: Consider your ability—or inability—to handle winds. Even when the flow aligns with the runway, the impact of gusts can totally overwhelm the airplane and its pilot’s ability to respond quickly enough to avoid a problem. At the end of the analysis, though, fatalities in LOC landing accidents—when we’re decelerating—are relatively few and far between.
Climb After Take-Off
The ante goes up quickly, however. The rejected-landing scenario is one area where post-takeoff events for which we either didn’t plan or are incapable of handling are noteworthy. One of the worst threats to an aircraft here is the predictable stall and stall/spin, regardless of whether the climb is due to a normal takeoff or a rejected landing.
Can we say this too often? Airspeed control is the overall cure, with the combined need to manage pitch and yaw required to preclude—yes, preclude—a stall/spin event.
Over- or rapid-rotating can send an airplane past a flyable angle of attack and into out-of-control territory—and do it rather quickly. Failure to trim properly can do the same—particularly when trying to re-trim for a climb without letting the nose come up: When you release nose-down pressure, quicker than you can say, “What the…?” you’re pitched way too high to fly.
Popped cabin doors can contribute to climb-out LOC when the pilot fails to manage pitch while trying to deal with the door—generally a bad idea under 1000 agl. Cockpit distractions—recalibrating a device for a changed ATC clearance—anything that serves to keep a pilot’s focus off flying the airplane is a LOC threat.
Sometimes the solution is simple but one we resist. Many pilots of my acquaintance would, for example, be loath to land again just to close a balky door. But landing beats the airplane flailing around in the sky while the pilot fights with a recalcitrant door.
Arrival and Landing LOC
Starting at the descent to and through the pattern to touchdown, the airplane continually gets closer to the least-friendly object it can encounter: Mother Earth—at least, any part of her not designated as “runway.” In the pattern, the airplane also tends to slow toward stall speed in anticipation of touching down at the lowest controllable speed.
The low-and-slow combination is the deadliest of the four general areas of LOC accidents—precisely because of proximity to the ground. The lower the airplane, the less time we have to recover from the LOC—whether a full-blown stall, a spin or being blown off the centerline and away from the runway. Then there are other LOC types in this category: too much sink, leading to a short and hard touchdown—adding power can arrest this situation. An increasing headwind also can put our glide path short of the pavement—a situation that feels under control until you realize that if you had control you wouldn’t be about to land short.
Overbanking, underbanking, letting the nose yaw too far sideways as you slow, these are all invitations to losing control. Chant if you need to: controllable airspeed, safe altitude, proper attitude, under control. But letting the slip/skid ball slide far off-center sends a slowing airplane quickly into a wing drop and a spin—not a situation you want to face at or below pattern altitude.
The solutions to these problems aren’t elusive. The sidebar on the opposite page summarizes the high points: controlling airspeed is primary in all sorts of ways when it comes to preventing LOC accidents, but we also must ensure we’re not over our heads when conditions aren’t perfect. Coordinating our maneuvers—on the ground and in the air—within all three axes also is critical.
This stuff isn’t rocket science, but we still see LOC as a major cause of accidents. If nothing else, increasing our awareness may help prevent them.
Dave Higdon is a professional aviation writer/photographer with several thousand hours of flight time in hang gliders, ultralights and airplanes, many of which involved some element of control.