Shiny Side Up!
Avoiding Loss of Control
By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Editor
Goose: “No. No, Mav, this is not a good idea.”
Maverick: “Sorry Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower.”
Ever been tempted to do something “daring” (read: “stupid”) in an airplane? If so, a little voice in your head, much like the Mother Goose character in the original “Top Gun” movie, may have guessed what you were thinking and urgently issued a “don’t do it!” warning. A wise pilot would have listened and stood down. A wise guy pilot like the Maverick character would brush off the warning and barrel ahead, risking a lot more damage than the tower chief’s spilled coffee.
Impromptu stunts (aka “stupid pilot tricks”) are among the ways that some pilots find themselves in a loss of control (LOC) situation during phases of flight that should carry less risk. If you are among the many pilots who shun such behavior, great. But you can still be at risk, because a far more common way to lose control in cruise flight is continued VFR into IMC.
Loss of control in flight (LOC-I) persists as the leading cause of fatal GA accidents in the United States and commercial aviation worldwide. Preventing LOC-I in GA has thus been one of the “most wanted” items on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements.
If you need a definition, check out the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook. It defines LOC-I as “a significant deviation of an aircraft from the intended flightpath [that] often results from an airplane upset.” It observes that maneuvering is the most common phase of flight for general aviation LOC-I accidents to occur, while cautioning that LOC-I accidents can — and do — occur in all phases of flight. The handbook appears to state the obvious when it notes that preventing loss of control is the pilot’s most fundamental responsibility; after all, what could be more important? With all the authority that the regulations (i.e., 14 CFR section 91.3) confer to the pilot in command (PIC), the expectation is that as PIC, you are fully in control of your aircraft.
The unfortunate reality is rather different. Far too often, performing maneuvers that should be well within the capabilities of a certificated pilot melts pilot mettle and aircraft metal.
Signal to Noise
When it comes to ideas on how to reduce or eliminate LOC-I, pretty much everyone agrees that appropriate training is a critical piece of the answer. There is also broad agreement that, as the FAA states in the Airplane Flying Handbook:
To prevent LOC-I accidents, it is important for pilots to recognize and maintain a heightened awareness of situations that increase the risk of loss of control. Those situations include: uncoordinated flight, equipment malfunctions, pilot complacency, distraction, turbulence, and poor risk management — like attempting to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) when the pilot is not qualified or proficient. […] To maintain aircraft control when faced with these or other contributing factors, the pilot must be aware of situations where LOC-I can occur, recognize when an airplane is approaching a stall, has stalled, or is in an upset condition, and understand and execute the correct procedures to recover the aircraft.
There is less agreement when it comes to the question of how to ensure that pilots actually get the appropriate training.
As you may know from debate in recent years, the FAA maintains that there is a difference between the larger universe of what is required for training, and the subset that constitutes what is appropriate for “checking” — more colloquially known as testing. Until June 2016, the testing standard (formerly the Practical Test Standards, or PTS; now the Airman Certification Standards, or ACS) for the slow flight and stalls area of operation framed the slow flight task to require flight at an airspeed at which any further increase in angle of attack would result in a stall. This construct required an applicant to perform the “slow flight” maneuver with the stall warning activated. Many of us who were certificated in those days can remember having gritted teeth and a white-knuckled grip while the stall horn blared incessantly.
With the release of the first private pilot — airplane ACS in June 2016, the FAA revised the slow flight evaluation standard to reflect maneuvering without a stall warning (e.g., aircraft buffet, stall horn, etc.). The agency explained this change in Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 16010 as one approach to addressing LOC-I accidents in general aviation, noting that the previous inclusion of a maneuver that required intentional disregard of the stall warning activated is neither desirable nor intended. Rather, the point of the slow flight task is to assess the applicant’s ability to operate safely at the low airspeeds and at high angles of attack used during the takeoff/departure and approach/landing phases of normal flight. As revised, the slow flight task verifies that the applicant has learned airplane cues in that flight condition, how to smoothly manage coordinated flight control inputs, and the progressive signals that a stall may be imminent if there is further deviation from this condition.
Loss of control in flight (LOC-I) persists as the leading cause of fatal GA accidents in the United States and commercial aviation worldwide.
Not everyone was on board. One of the primary concerns was that removing the requirement to test an applicant at what pilots like me learned as “minimum controllable airspeed,” or MCA, meant that instructors would not bother to ensure that pilots are still trained and proficient at maneuvering near the critical angle of attack (AOA) — or, just as important, understand what happens beyond the stall warning.
Train As You Fly
In addressing this concern, the FAA asserted in SAFO 16010 (since replaced by SAFO 17009) that a pilot is still expected to “know and understand the aerodynamics behind how the airplane performs from the time the stall warning is activated to reaching a full stall.” To ensure that at least some aspect of “checking” would drive specific training in this area, the agency revised the evaluation standards in the June 2017 editions of the ACS for the private pilot–airplane and the commercial pilot–airplane certificates.
With the primary focus on understanding aerodynamics associated with flying slow in different phases of flight, there is now only one knowledge element for slow flight available for evaluators to select for the practical test. The FAA refined and consolidated the risk management elements. In the skill task section of the slow flight task, the current phrasing requires an applicant to “establish and maintain an airspeed at which any further increase in angle of attack, increase in load factor, or reduction in power, would result in a stall warning (e.g., aircraft buffet, stall horn, etc.).”
The “MCA” task element never disappeared from the practical test requirements — after all, it is not possible to perform a full stall task required on the private pilot–airplane practical test without first passing through that flight condition. Still, to more clearly convey the expectation for evaluation of an applicant’s ability to recognize the indications of impending and full stalls, the FAA added a requirement for the applicant to “acknowledge cues of the impending stall and then recover promptly after a full stall has occurred.”
Here’s a practical, real-world way to think about the rationale for this approach to the slow flight and stall tasks:
- Slow flight — that is, flight at the airspeeds and configurations used in the takeoff/departure and approach/landing phases of flight — is a normal operation that should not be performed with continuous activation of the stall warning.
- Except in the case of a thoroughly briefed full stall maneuver, a pilot should always treat the stall warning as an “abnormal” situation, and promptly perform the stall recovery procedure.
- A pilot should always treat an unbriefed/unintentional full stall as an emergency and execute a prompt and correct stall recovery.
You have probably heard the cliché that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while (somehow) expecting different results. The aviation community was not making headway against LOC-I by testing pilots in a way that encouraged, indeed required, intentional disregard of the stall warning. Accordingly, it only made sense to try a new approach.
If you’re wondering how discussion of evaluation standards applies to you, it helps to remember that a good pilot is always learning and training. Make every flight count! If you are heading out to fly with no particular destination or purpose in mind, make it your purpose to practice maneuvers that will sharpen your ability to maintain aircraft control in all phases of flight. Review the applicable ACS and aim to meet the same tolerances you’d expect to achieve with a designated pilot examiner in the right seat. If you don’t feel comfortable practicing a particular ACS maneuver, hire an instructor to help you scrape off the rust. It will be worth every penny you spend, and it will help you confidently keep your aircraft under control in all phases of flight.
Susan K. Parson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.