Showing Off

Low-level maneuvering flight can put you and the airplane in a position from which neither can recover.


Each year, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (AOPA/ASF) releases its excellent Nall Report, a review of a previous years accidents and causes, taken from NTSB data. And each year when perusing the report, we find pilot-related accidents-as opposed to mechanicals or unknown causes-to lead the pack by an overwhelming margin. In 2006, the last year for which the AOPA/ASF has crunched the NTSB data, pilot-related causes comprised 73.8 percent of all accidents and a whopping 79.1 percent of fatals.

In fact, from 1999 through 2006, inclusive, maneuvering has accounted for approximately 25 percent of all accidents in the U.S. The annual numbers vary, but never dip below 20 percent and too-frequently arch above 25 percent. Breaking down the numbers, we find maneuvering accidents as a whole-which AOPA/ASF says “often involve questionable pilot judgment, such as decisions to engage in buzzing, low passes, or other high-risk activities”-outpaced all other fatal accident causes in 2006, including weather and those occurring during the descent/approach flight phases.

When the data for single-engine, fixed-gear airplanes are examined, we find maneuvering to lead the various causes of fatal accidents in 2006 by a large margin (33.9 percent, with takeoff/climb, the next-closest category, coming in at 15.3 percent).

All of which makes my head explode, since these accidents are completely avoidable: If the pilot doesnt engage in buzzing, in unwarranted low flying or in impromptu aerobatics without appropriate training and experience-or in an airplane not designed for it-he or she likely will return from the flight without a scratch.

The AOPA/ASF said it better than I could: “Maneuvering accidents are generally preventable through the use of good pilot judgment and decision making (e.g., dont buzz under any circumstances or perform aerobatics without proper training and equipment). Some of these accidents also result from inadequate basic airmanship skills such as stall recovery and airspeed/altitude maintenance.”


On November 28, 2007, at about 1530 Central time, a Cessna 172N was substantially damaged when it collided with terrain while maneuvering near Marlow, Okla. The flight instructor and passenger sustained fatal injuries. Visual conditions prevailed. The local flight originated from the Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, near Lawton, Okla., around 1515.

Three eyewitnesses saw the airplane shortly before impact. Two witnesses were approximately a quarter mile west of the accident site when they observed the airplane. They observed the airplane at less than 1000 feet agl when its wings started rocking from side to side. The airplane then rolled right and became inverted, with its nose 90 degrees to the terrain. One witness thought the pilot was attempting to do a loop as it looked as if the pilot was trying to pull out of the dive. The third witness saw the accident airplane flying over the house owned by the pilots parents shortly before the accident, about two miles away. The witness estimated the airplanes altitude to be about 700 feet agl. The airplane was flying with a tailwind of 20 knots gusting to 26 knots.

Fueling records establish the airplane was fueled earlier the day of the crash with 21.2 gallons of 100LL.


The airplanes main wreckage came to rest upright in a flat wooded area. The initial impact point was the top branches of an oak tree. The debris field was approximately 125 feet long by approximately 30 feet wide. All major components of the airplane were accounted for at the site.

The wing flaps were in the retracted position at the time of impact. Control continuity was established to all flight controls. The fuel tank selector valve was found in the “Both” position. The elevator trim tab was found in the 15-degree nose-up position. Both fuel tanks were breached, but the right one, as well as the fuel tank selector valve, contained a blue liquid consistent with 100LL.

One propeller blade was bent aft approximately 30 degrees, and its leading edge was twisted aft. The blade tip was curled forward. The other blade was bent aft about 90 degrees near mid-span. The leading edge near the tip exhibited an estimated one half inch by one quarter inch deep gouge. Both blades exhibited chordwise scratching and leading edge polishing. The investigation did not reveal any anomalies with the engine or airframe preventing normal operations.

Toxicological results were negative for carbon monoxide, cyanide, ethanol and tested drugs.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilots failure to maintain airspeed while maneuvering, which resulted in an inadvertent stall/spin and impact with terrain. Contributing to the accident were the low altitude for recovery and the gusty tailwind.”

Attempting a “loop” or split-S so close to the ground, even in something as benign as a 172, isnt likely, so the NTSBs conclusion is as good as any guess as to what happened here. (And were not going to get into the “turns into the wind at low altitude” trap the probable cause finding lays.) But there are two things going on here all pilots can easily avoid.

First is the matter of buzzing a house and flying too low. Its one thing to fly over a structure or group of people on the ground to let them see you flying an airplane. Its something else entirely to do it low and slow, where the margins between an engine failure, or stalling and leaving enough room to recover, are reduced. Thats one of the main reasons maneuvering flight has proven so dangerous over the years. Another is the overwhelming lack of training and preparation involved in the “average” low-level maneuvering event. In any situation, maintaining sufficient airspeed is rule number one.

To us, the second thing usually involved with a maneuvering accident is distraction. Too often, we can get so caught up in performing the operation-a low pass over a specific location, for example-that we forget to fly the airplane. While we “need” to put the airplane in a certain spot at a certain altitude, we also need to stay ahead of the airplane and ensure it has the power, energy, speed and altitude with which to maintain flight.

Its one thing to show our piloting skills to others in a safe, stable operation. Its quite another to be showing off.


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