Posted by: Jeff Rhodes | September 1, 2011

(Lack of) Pilot Skills in the News

Pilots’ over-reliance on automation is still in the news, because of a recently published report. 


I think this attention is needed and I’ve been saying for a while that this is a real safety concern.  Pilots have long used money to bypass experience, and it often gets them in trouble when something goes wrong.  I certainly have nothing against high performance airplanes – or the pilots flying them.  It’s how I make my living.  But if you are one of them – or employ one – consider the following when mapping out a training plan.

Below is a re-post of my article from a couple of years ago.  You can find the link HERE :

I release from the towplane at 3,000 feet above the ground.  Powerless in the Grob sailplane, I nail the airspeed at best glide and begin to search for rising air.  After an hour of soaring in the summertime thermals, I find myself in the airport pattern and getting low.  800 feet AGL, midfield left down wind – time to land.  Abeam the touchdown spot, the spoilers are deployed halfway.  Airspeed 60 – left base.  Airspeed 60 – turn final.  The touchdown spot appears stationary in my view through the windshield – not sliding up or down.  That means I’ll hit it.  In the flare, inches above the ground the spoilers come out to kill the ground effect as my touchdown spot slides under the nose.  The single wheel touches the grass and I keep the wings level and stow the spoilers to extend the roll enough to get me to a parking spot clear of the runway.  The sailplane rolls to a stop exactly where I want it and I open the canopy and climb out.  An hour long exercise in energy management.

The following accident happened at my hometown airport recently.  Compare the energy management techniques below with the ones described above.  A stark contrast.  A Private pilot was attempting to land the FBO’s rental Cessna 172 SP at the airport on a VFR day.  On rollout, the Cessna ran off the left side of the runway and struck a runway sign and its concrete base, damaging the right main landing gear.  The pilot applied power and performed a go around from the grass adjacent to the runway.  Noticing that the landing gear was significantly damaged, the pilot entered the traffic pattern and performed a number of fly-bys while he discussed the situation via Unicom with people on the ground.  The pilot then landed the damaged aircraft in the grass next to the runway.  The right wing and horizontal stabilizer stuck the ground and the veered to the right and came to a stop.

The pilot, the sole occupant of the aircraft, was uninjured.  The right main landing gear strut was bent up and touching the right side of the fuselage.  The right horizontal stabilizer was bent upwards at mid-span.  Presumably there was also damage to the right wing where it contacted the ground during the final landing.

The NTSB report of this accident (ATL07CA047) indicates that the Cessna 172 first touched down more than 1,000 feet beyond the (displaced) approach threshold.  Marks on the runway indicate heavy braking 2,000 feet past the threshold. The airplane left the runway 500 feet later and then hit a runway sign 100 feet beyond where it left the paved surface.  There was still enough energy left during the collision to severely damage the landing gear and then to get the airplane flying again fairly quickly after the go-around was initiated.

The operating handbook for most Cessna 172 models lists the ground roll distance around 560 feet.  During this landing, this Cessna seems to have consumed about three times that much pavement and 100 feet of grass, with the brakes locked and tires screeching for almost half of it.  After that ground roll the airplane must have still been traveling 25-30 knots, allowing a quick go around on broken landing gear.  What must this pilot’s approach and touchdown speeds have been?  Certainly they were far higher than the 63-68 knots recommended in the operating handbook.

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 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 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. 

But, like the Cessna driver 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 “250 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 tendencies, 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.

In addition to this basic handling refresher, why not occasionally go rent a minimally equipped IFR trainer.  You remember the type –  with two VHF navcom radios, a transponder, and the basic six flight instruments.  These trainers have no autopilot, no ice protection, no GPS, and no glass cockpit display.  Perhaps there would be an ADF.  Go do an IFR cross country and practice some partial panel IFR flight including holding and perhaps a good ole NDB approach.  I know – we have no use for NDB approaches anymore.  But nothing teaches airplane control, instrument scans, and mental situational awareness better than the hand flown partial panel NDB approach. This is certainly no-frills training, but modern avionics and systems have eroded modern pilots’ aptitude for IFR aircraft control.  When you get back to the “big” airplane, 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 Cessnas, or corporate turboprops, or light jets, in good weather and with no mechanical problems (or heavy airliners in POOR weather WITH mechanical problems), we know that they have not been effectively taught 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 front left seat. 

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