Spring flying gets started with the first warm days, but theres a dark side to spring. Many pilots, high-time and low-time alike, believe their piloting skills are the same as they were before the winter kept them earthbound for long stretches at a time.
For some pilots, the spring return to the cockpit may not be difficult at all. But those who didnt fly much during the cold and snowy season past may be surprised at how much their skills and their airplane may have run down over the winter.
Youre asking for trouble if you just go out and fire up, expecting things to go smoothly and without incident. You need a tune-up.
The rust on pilot skills is insidious – and pilot skills need to be at their best in springtime. There is a mix of unusual and hard-to-forecast weather. Gusty winds are part of the package. Temperatures can swing wildly. Pilot skills need to match the conditions.
Theres another part to the equation, too. If the airplane has been sitting mostly idle for the last few months, dont expect the engine or airframe to respond as it did last fall.
The problem, then, is twofold. Usually the problems arise when pilots pick up where they left off in the fall, only to discover their skills have atrophied. Other times, pilots who are eager to fly dont listen when the airplane suggests it doesnt want to. And if they do coax it into the air, their skills may not be enough to get it back down safely.
Heres the type of accident that happens all too often to unlucky springtime pilots. The flight was out of Farmingdale, N.Y., in a Beech Sierra. During run-up the pilot discovered the engine was running rough, and he told his passenger they would taxi back to the ramp and speak to the owner about the situation.
They couldnt find the owner, and by this time the pilot decided the engine was running normally. They returned to the run-up area and took off.
Once airborne, the engine surged and failed, but the pilot was able to restart it. He advised the tower, at which point the engine failed again and could not be restarted. The pilot made a forced landing in a cemetery 1800 feet short of the runway, damaging the airplane and leaving the two occupants with minor injuries.
The pilot said he had no recollection of the day of the flight, but the passenger reported that he had observed the pilot perform a preflight examination of the airplane, including removing the fuel tank caps and looking into the tanks.
The passenger said he did not see the pilot drain fuel from either fuel tank or the main sump drain. Investigators found that the main fuel bowl of the fuel strainer was contaminated with water, dirt, rust, paint and sand. Rust was also found on the inlet screen to the fuel injection unit and on the fittings to the fuel injection manifold.
Refresher flights with a CFI can identify areas where your skills are weak and help you refine your technique. The important thing is that you get your moneys worth out of the flight instructor by obtaining improved skill rather than just a logbook entry.
There are two areas where rusty pilots tend to get into trouble – stalls and runway loss of control.
Inadvertent stalls, including mushes and spins, are responsible for about a quarter of light plane accidents. About 24 percent of stall-related accidents come in the takeoff/initial climb phase. Nearly 40 percent occur during cruise flight and approach and landing accounts for about 36 percent.
Takeoff and climb stalls come in several flavors. Some stem from lousy judgment, others stem from poor technique.
Taking off with an overloaded airplane, from too short a field with obstacles or from a soggy grass strip is just poor judgment – and thats something you wouldnt be able to blame on a seasonal layoff. Poor technique is another story.
The main error associated with takeoff accidents involves insufficient right rudder. With the pitch attitude high – particularly if you are combining a short field takeoff with an obstacle clearance – the turning moment is to the left. The average pilot uses too little right rudder and compensates instead with right aileron to correct the turn.
That creates a slipping turn to the right – the ball indicator is far to the right – and a departure stall means there is real trouble ahead. The airplane goes over the top and spins rapidly to the left. If this happens at a low altitude, recovery is close to impossible.
Takeoff stalls can also happen when a pilot takes off in an overloaded or poorly performing airplane and pulls the nose too high in an attempt to convince the airplane to fly. Precise aircraft control during climbs is one of the first skills to go when a pilot is grounded for a while.
With springs gusty winds, rusty pilots can assume theyll need to go around occasionally – and go-arounds contribute heavily to the traffic pattern accident rate.
One kind of go-around accident involves the pilot deciding the landing will be too long and applying full power to try again.
Without aggressive nose-down elevator, the nose pitches up, especially on airplanes that have been trimmed nose-down to allow full flaps to be deployed during the approach. The airplane assumes a very high angle of attack, leading to a stall or spin. The problem is especially severe if the airplanes center of gravity is near its aft limit.
Another fairly common go-around error occurs when the pilot attempts to salvage a long landing by floating down the runway at close to stall speed. When he finally initiates the go-around, the end of the runway is close enough that he retracts flaps right after applying power, rather than waiting for the airplane to accelerate past the flaps-up stall speed.
The airplane then nibbles at the stall, and accelerating requires dropping the nose a bit. Delay that recovery and you can get into a stall or strike obstacles at the end of the airfield.
A third common go-around error is the result of a crosswind from the right, in which the pilot is approaching the runway in a slip, with right aileron and left rudder. On a go-around, the pilot applies full power and establishes a climb pitch attitude, but doesnt release the left rudder.
The result is a nose-high attitude and a rapid turn to the left. Depending on the pilots reflexes and reaction, a successful outcome is highly in doubt.
Approach and Landing
Traffic patterns, particularly the turn from base leg to final, can also cause trouble for rusty pilots.
The pattern is a prime spot for cross-control stalls. The problem usually starts when the airplane is too low turning from base to final. The pilot doesnt want to make steep turns so close to the ground, so he attempts to skid around with rudder to line the airplane up with the final approach course.
The excessive rudder induces the nose to pitch down and increases the bank angle. The pilot then tries to bring the nose up with elevator and applies opposite aileron to hold the bank angle. The airplane snaps inverted, completing the flight in short order.
If the pilot overshoots the turn from base to final, he may crank in aileron without coordinating the turn with rudder. Again, the nose pitches down and the sink and roll rates increase. Impulse says to pull back, at which point the airplane stalls and heads for the ground or into a spin.
The pilot can also get into trouble when trying to fit into a congested traffic pattern behind slower airplanes. Watching the aircraft ahead too intensely may pull attention away from aircraft control.
The overtaking pilot reduces power and increases the angle-of-attack to slow down. With the distraction of spotting traffic, the rusty pilot gets behind the airplane and forgets about airspeed. A stall can result.
The pilot may also extend the downwind leg to allow traffic in front to land and clear the runway. What the pilot sometimes forgets is to maintain altitude on the downwind.
I see this one all the time in flight checks. The pilot continues a normal descent while chugging along on the extended downwind. By the time he turns base, hes way low and way far out.
Some pilots get so worried about banking around to final and risk losing more altitude they yaw the airplane, skidding through the turn. The speed is slow, the flaps are usually extended and the next event can be a nasty cross-control stall. This kind of stall comes as a great surprise to pilots who have always associated stalls with high pitch angles.
There are a lot of ways landings can go wrong. The worst case scenarios for landing problems: hard landings, bounced landings, ballooning, and touchdown while drifting or in a crab.
There are a number of components that take a beating in hard landings. The tires and shocks help, but the landing gear transmits most of the force of the touchdown right to the airframe.
Take this accident that involved a Cessna 182H in New Jersey. The pilot said he eased the yoke back to initiate a flare but the airplane didnt flare as he expected. It continued in a nose-down attitude until the airplane touched down hard and bounced.
The pilot went around and landed uneventfully on his second try. However, he had difficulty turning to the right while taxiing to the ramp. An examination of the airplane showed that the tips of the propeller blades were bent, the firewall buckled and the nosewheel damaged.
Bouncing is typical in hard landings, although not all hard landings will include a bounce. If the gear strikes the ground too hard or the sink rate is too high, the airplane will tend to bounce back into the air. A proficient pilot can salvage a severe bounce, and a less proficient one may rescue a moderate one. But when in doubt, add power and go around.
It can be hazardous to make an attempt to rescue a landing from a severe bounce because the airspeed dies off very fast in a nose-high attitude. The airplane may stall and drop onto the runway or the pilot may land nosewheel first and porpoise down the runway.
The pilot of a Cessna 172 learned the lesson firsthand at Ramona, Calif. The pilot said he was landing into the setting sun and there was glare on the windscreen, impairing his depth perception. The airplane touched down nosewheel first, followed by three or four porpoises. Then the nosewheel collapsed.
The pilot suffered a couple of problems that could have been addressed with a little practice: the misjudged and delayed landing flare and the inadequate recovery technique from the porpoise. The sun glare was a bummer, but knowing how to deal with it takes practice, too.
A bounce in a crosswind is going to call for your best stick and rudder skills. Most pilots release crosswind correction after a bounce, which causes the airplane to drift downwind. If the airplane touches down again while drifting, the landing gear will experience extreme side loading and may be damaged or fail.
You can also expect the airplane to weathervane into the wind if you land in a crab or while drifting. That can mean a ground loop or collapsed landing gear.
From the point of view of the NTSB accident reports, crosswind accidents have a single common trait: failure to maintain directional control due to improper compensation for wind conditions. Thats easy for them to say.
Just ask the Cessna 172 pilot who was landing at Blairstown Airport in New Jersey one June afternoon. The pilot said the wind shifted as he was in the landing flare from right down the runway to a 90-degree crosswind.
The gust blew the airplane off the centerline and off the right side of the runway. Just as he was managing to correct the airplanes path through the grass, the right wing clipped a tree and spun the nose of the Cessna into a dirt embankment and trees.
The NTSB determined the probable cause as: the pilots failure to maintain directional control, and that about sums up most of crosswind landing accidents. Skillful crosswind landings take practice. To consistently put an airplane where you want it when you want it there is one of those fragile skills that may surprise a pilot after a long winter layoff.
The Airplanes Fault
An airplane thats been sitting idle for much or all of the winter needs as much attention as the pilots skills do.
While engine failures are not exactly common, many of the ones that happen could have been prevented by good maintenance practices and reasonable preflight inspection.
Consider the Piper PA-18 that departed Felton, Minn., for a local flight. Shortly after takeoff, at 300 feet agl, engine stopped running. The pilot tried to make a 180-degree turn for the departure end of the runway, but stalled and crashed.
The pilot got away with minor injuries. The airplane was destroyed by a post-crash fire. The pilots preflight had missed some important points.
The carburetor float contained multiple cracks that led to fuel starvation. A mechanic may have discovered the cracks if given the chance, but the last annual inspection had been performed 21 months prior to the accident.
But while the airplane started it, the pilot finished it by losing control of the airspeed while trying to make the turn back to the runway – virtually impossible from 300 feet.
The impossible turn back to the runway is a tempting maneuver, but it takes altitude and skill to accomplish. Depending on the airplane, the conditions and the pilots technique, it takes 400 to 1,000 feet to accomplish safely. At low altitude, its a high-performance maneuver you shouldnt attempt unless youve practiced it in the same model airplane.
Landing straight ahead – turning only slightly to the left or right of track – is often the only option if an engine failure happens on initial climb.
If you think you have the altitude to turn back, there are a couple of factors that might spell trouble. Because youll be approaching downwind, the groundspeed will be high. That means less time to make decisions and course corrections.
You may try to slow down the approach by flying too slowly, but with neither power nor altitude to help you recover if you get too slow. At this point, it doesnt make much difference what caused the engine to stop in flight. Its too late to do the preflight inspection over.
The inspection also has to include more than a quick walkaround.
On a spring evening in Omaha, Neb., a pilot planning a local flight in a Piper Tomahawk had a normal engine start, with fuel pressure, oil pressure and oil temperature gauges in the green. During the initial climb, the engine seemed to be slowing down. Then the propeller came to a complete stop.
The pilot couldnt restart the engine and tried to land on a levee, but landed short, severely damaging the airplane.
A review of the maintenance records revealed the engine had accumulated nearly 2,150 hours since overhaul. Not only that, it had suffered two prop strikes since overhaul and the engine was not torn down and inspected after either one.
In the month before the accident, pilots had reported two instances where oil pressure dropped precariously, but both times the issue was addressed by repairing, adjusting and cleaning the oil delivery system.
An inspection of the engine after the accident showed the crankshaft had failed due to the failure of the No. 3 main bearing journal. The bearing had failed as a result of being displaced aft of center in the journal – precisely what would happen in a prop strike. Lycoming recommends tearing down the engine after any sudden stoppage and inspecting all reciprocating and rotating parts, including the crankshaft, gear and dowel parts.
Pilots generally think they are retaining their flying skills pretty well. The accident statistics show many have overestimated their actual capabilities. The evidence shows pretty clearly that – if not exercised -complex flight skills will get rusty.
Even pilots who fly some during the winter are not immune to rusty pilot syndrome. The type of flying they do may not involve emergency procedures or precise flying. In fact many pilots tend to let precision slip and end up with some unsafe habits.
A long winter hibernation from flying can seriously rust flight skills. Refresher training can keep your edge shiny and sharp and ready for action when a flight is no longer routine.
-by Raymond Leis
Raymond Leis is an ATP/CFII and an FAA Safety Counselor.