Posted by: Jeff Rhodes | August 4, 2010

Low Tech Left Seat

In the past weeks we have seen serious accidents involving a number of Cirrus aircraft.  Several of these accidents appear to involve loss of aircraft control on the part of the pilot.  One Cirrus overran a 4,000 foot runway and crashed into the water.  Another SR-22 appears to have stalled and spun following a high and fast approach, long touchdown, and go-around attempt resulting in a steep climb.  An SR-20 attempted a fast, downwind landing, bounced severely, and departed the left side of the runway and impacted trees after the initiation of a go around (left turning tenancies at low speed / high power / high AOA).   The week also saw – very publicly – Jack Roush’s landing accident in Oshkosh, where a well known, high-time pilot lost control of and stalled a small corporate jet, just feet above the runway.   All of the pilots involved in each of these accidents presumably had attended an insurance company required training course in their respective aircraft and all had hundreds of hours in the make and model. 

In the aviation insurance business we see many losses associated with poor energy management techniques.  Stall / spins, runway overruns, bounced landings, and loss of control accidents lead to millions of dollars of hull insurance payouts every year.  As illustrated this week, they can also lead to injuries and loss of life.  As new high performance personal and corporate airplanes become more and more automated and advanced, better equipped, and better performing, it is more important than ever to train and be proficient in the basics of putting an airplane in the proper point in space at the right time and at the right speed. 

I speak to aviation underwriters frequently about underwriting trends for low-time pilots transitioning to turbine or high performance aircraft as well as veteran pilots going through recurrent training or moving to another model.  These days, simulator training rules, as it allows pilots to experience situations too risky to recreate in an actual airplane.  The sims also allow pilots to quickly and efficiently check off the maneuvers in which they are required to demonstrate proficiency.  Initial and (at least) annual recurrent training for turbine aircraft isn’t going anywhere and I believe that it has contributed to a marked increase in the safety of corporate aircraft over the last two decades.   Even the required training to fly a Cirrus, while not simulator-based, is quite thorough and requires the use of a Cirrus approved instructor following a factory-approved transition course.

But, like the Cirrus and Premier jet accidents described above, all too often we see aircraft lost and people hurt or killed because of approaches flown way too fast or way too slow.   Accidents during near-to-ground maneuvering (often in VFR conditions) seem to be the result of rusty or poor pilot technique and lack of basic airplane handling skills.  Maybe part of our personal recurrent training plan should include some regular seat of the pants basic training.

My suggestion would be to find a school and go get that glider add-on.  Or, take an aerobatics, a mountain flying, seaplane, or a tailwheel transition course.  These kinds of activities help “200 knot straight and level” pilots brush up on – or maybe experience for the first time – techniques like energy management and feel of the airplane in all corners of a performance envelope.  We get to remind ourselves about stall buffet, the effects of torque, P-factor, low speed turning tenancies, and spins.    These things have all been engineered out of the airplanes we fly on a regular basis.  We only see them when something goes wrong and too often, we have forgotten the proper way to deal with them when it counts.


This is certainly no-frills training, and many pilots feel put upon to “waste time” in a low end trainer.   While so much of our high performance training is dedicated to their use and function, modern avionics and flight management systems seem to have eroded modern pilots’ aptitude for basic aircraft control.  When you spend some time practicing the basics, the procedures and techniques that the “hard way” has reinforced will keep your muscle memory and mental awareness where it really needs to be all the time.  

When we see licensed pilots losing control of high performance singles, corporate turboprops, or light jets in good weather and with no mechanical problems, we know that they have not been effectively taught or practiced the basics of aircraft control and energy management.  As capable and modern as our airplanes are, we must remember to continually tune up the decidedly low tech piece of “equipment” sitting in the left seat.

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