Posted by: Jeff Rhodes | November 10, 2011

The Simulator Is Not Enough

The pilot transitioned to the high performance turboprop after owning a Piper Saratoga for a few years. The turboprop offered pressurization, near 300 knot cruise speeds and a good sized cabin – perfect for his business and personal missions.

In his second year of owning the airplane, he put the airplane down for a lengthy maintenance event. There were some unexpected delays and additional maintenance, and ultimately, it would be five months before the airplane was ready. Due to travel and business commitments, the airplane would sit another month before the owner / pilot’s schedule allowed him to pick the airplane up from the shop. The preflight issues were completed and the pilot departed for the 500 mile return flight to his home base.

As the airplane approached the destination airport, the tower controller had one additional delay in store for the hurried pilot. Due to heavy pattern traffic on a pleasant VFR weekend day, the pilot of the faster turboprop was given instructions to “extend your downwind for a few departures. Your traffic is a Cessna on the downwind ahead of you.”

The pilot configured for landing and reported the preceding traffic in sight. The Cessna turned base and a long three mile final with the turboprop closely behind. Slowing to 90 knots in trail of the Cessna, the turboprop was hanging on the prop, and still catching the traffic. The pilot began a series of wide S-turns to try to increase the spacing. During the turns, the airspeed began to degrade as the pilot fixated on the runway and the traffic ahead. Rolling into the second S-turn, the airplane shuddered as it stalled. The pilot rolled the control yoke quickly to try to level the wings. The uncoordinated input exacerbated the problem and the airplane half snap rolled as the wing fully stalled at 400 feet.

The turboprop impacted a wooded lot about a mile short of the runway threshold, killing the pilot – thankfully, the sole occupant of the aircraft.

How do you practice unusual VFR maneuvering in high performance aircraft? Too often, we focus on the more top-of-mind killers: IFR procedures, systems failures, weather. The simulators that we use are great systems and procedures teachers, but their motion often doesn’t do a very good job simulating maneuvering flight. The visual cues when maneuvering low to the ground can be as misleading as disorientation in the clouds. Lack of currency with unusual – but otherwise normal – airplane handling skills has claimed many airplanes and, unfortunately, quite a few lives.

Take the time to address VFR maneuvering as part of your recurrent syllabus. Practice “out the window” reference flying on a regular basis. While consistency and appropriate cockpit procedures are important, challenge yourself by changing up the regular procedures on purpose from time to time. Try to fly a power-off pattern to touchdown. Put the wheels on the point that you aimed for from the downwind. Ask the tower for a close in pattern, or perform a go-around from short final. When alone, and ahead of schedule, spend ten minutes at minimum controllable airspeed to become reacquainted with how it feels in the real airplane instead of the simulator.

The basics are still as important in our real-world flying as they were when we were student pilots. It’s just that we practice them less now than we did then.


  1. I’ve been reading along for a while now. I just wanted to drop you a comment to say keep up the good work.

    • Dear Mac:Please note that VFR flight is not pmteirted between sunset and sunrise out there, and that few airports have fuel or tiedowns. The airspace status is duly charted e.g. 6,000 and below is class D from just East of the Bimini chain all the way to 76 degrees latitude, 12,000 and below near Nassau. But you’re right, good luck even establishing communications with Nassau Approach if you’re that low and farther than about 60 miles from Nassau. Unless you arrange for a weather observer, forget about getting a clearance to fly an approach anywhere but MYNN/MYGF/MYEF.

  2. Maybe I should reblog it as “The Narrative Is Not Enough”. Where is the link to NTSB, or at least a date?

    • Thanks for your comment, Pete. The story was not meant to be an analysis of a particular accident. It was an illustruation. It is based on an accident that I witnessed several years ago. I didn’t care to document or cast dispersions on the actual people involved – therefore I left those details out – on purpose.

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