A Skosh of Paranoia

cirrus-wreckage

A fellow pilot and I got into a conversation recently about an AOPA accident reconstruction. A Cirrus SR-22 pilot was instructed to enter the pattern downwind at Melbourne, Florida, and then was simply cleared to land without being informed about another aircraft on a straight-in final for the same runway. By the time the Cirrus was on base, the tower tried to fix the conflict by urging the pilot to cut a hard right turn toward the runway. The result was a fatal stall/spin accident.

My friend wrote:

I can all but guarantee that controller had forgotten about the Cirrus on the straight-in when he cleared the accident aircraft to land. I don’t know of any controllers that would clear someone to land from the downwind with the intention of them following an aircraft that was on a straight-in.

Recovery should’ve been simple, have the accident aircraft just continue northbound and make a 270 to join the final for 9R, once clear of the arriving Cessna for 9L and the Cirrus for 9R. Or, a go-around.

Yelling “Cut it in tight” is quite possibly the dumbest thing you can tell a landing aircraft to do unless you’re trying to get them killed.

I agreed with him: the controller probably forgot about the Cirrus and his urgent-sounding instruction to “cut it in tight” was a poor move. AOPA concluded that the issue was a communication breakdown, and while that might be a contributing factor, it’s not the controller who is responsible for the flight. It’s the pilot.

Despite the stall/spin character of the accident, this wasn’t necessarily a stick & rudder flying problem per se. It seems to me that his error was trying to please the controller, that commanding, disembodied voice on the other side of the frequency who seemingly knows best. A better idea might have been for the pilot to simply add power and climb straight out. Or make a (more gentle) turn. Or anything else, as long as he didn’t stall the aircraft.

It’s a shame we pilots feel the compulsive need to follow the flying directions of people who don’t know how to fly. If you step back and look at it from that perspective, the folly of abdicating even the slightest bit of our PIC authority and decision-making power to another becomes evident. But for some reason, this deferral seems to be baked into our DNA, and we ignore that tendency at our peril. Skepticism and a skosh of paranoia are not always a bad thing.

In this case, the smarter move would have been to simply say “unable, I’m going to climb out to the north and circle back onto the downwind” and let ATC deal with it. I actively watch for moments like these when I’m instructing, because they present a vital learning experience for the student that might save their hide somewhere down the line long after I’ve left the cockpit.

I bet if you played this clip for a dozen pilots and ask them to identify the fatal flaw, most would either blame the controller for the poor direction or the pilot for stalling the airplane. Both made errors, no doubt about it. But if you look at it from a larger point of view, I think the issue was simply trying to comply with a controller directive when the correct action would have been to realize it was patently unsafe to do so.

This is all after-the-fact Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course. I can’t claim to know what the pilot was thinking when he cranked into that tight left turn. Perhaps he thought the other aircraft was about to hit him and turned away for that reason. Sometimes immediate action is called for.

Speaking of which, I was being coached in the aerobatic box at Borrego Springs a few years ago and while in the middle of a figure — a 45 degree up-line, no less — the guy coaching me called over the radio and said, “Traffic, turn right NOW” and I simply did it. Good thing too, because a Bonanza went right through our waivered and NOTAMed airspace, totally oblivious to what was going on just feet from his aircraft. If I’d delayed by another second I’d probably be dead.

On the other side of the coin, I was taxiing out from the ramp at São Paulo/Congonhas Airport in Brazil a couple of months ago and the ground controller gave us a taxi route which required crossing a runway, but didn’t include the runway crossing instruction in the route. That was odd, but in foreign countries it’s not uncommon for them to use slightly different words or phraseology. I asked the other pilot to confirm with the controller that we were, indeed, cleared to cross that runway. ATC replied in the affirmative. Whew!

Still, something didn’t feel right. We looked at each other, I set the parking brake, and we agreed that we weren’t going to go anywhere until we were fully convinced that the controller knew exactly where we were. Long story short, our inclinations were correct and ATC was completely confused about our location despite our specifying the exact intersection numerous times. A skosh of paranoia already accompanies most international flying, but this really put us on our toes for the rest of the trip.

You’ll hear all sorts of advice on emergent situations. Some say never rush into anything, others will tell you immediate, decisive action is invaluable. It would be lovely if there was a single “best strategy” for every situation, but like many things in the world of aviation, there are times when one of those responses can save your bacon… and just as many when it might get you killed. The real trick is knowing which is which.

Mandated Spin Training

Mike Goulian - Extra 330SC

Unless you’re an instructor, practical spin training is not required by the FAA for any pilot. I’ve always been amazed by that. Even if you plan on performing spins intentionally, no training of any kind would be legally needed. Does that make sense to you?

But it gets worse. Flying a massive airliner with hundreds of people on board? No spin training required; these days, the computers will take care of everything. Stall shakers, stick pushers, and AOA probes are infallible!

Even if you are an instructor, your spin training could have been as simple as a single flight, perhaps a spin entry, a half turn of rotation, and a recovery. Call me crazy, but that seems… inadequate. My flight training experience was rather old school, consisting of tailwheels, spins, and aerobatics in stone-simple aircraft which bear little resemblance to today’s glass-infested airplanes. With all due respect to those who think I sound eerily like an 80-year old complaining about how “things ain’t how they used to be”, let me say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so stick with me for a moment and see if you don’t agree.

There was a time when practical spin training was required for even the most basic pilot certification. Unfortunately those were the early, wild west days of flying, and I can only imagine spins weren’t approached by barnstormers with the level of forethought and consideration we typically give to those things today. As I’ve previously noted, they had a appreciable tolerance for risk back then. By the late 1940’s, conventional wisdom was that the training itself was leading to more accidents than inadvertent spins occurring in the wild.

Mandated spin training was discontinued by the Feds in 1949.

So how has this policy been working out for us? Not well, in my opinion. I’m often asked where my zeal for spin training comes from. The answer is simple: decades of accident reports. A search of the NTSB database for the word “spin” reveals 4,019 accidents — most of them fatal. That’s approximately 4,019 too many. It’s also worth noting that the database only goes back to 1962, so we can’t compare the statistics to what came before. According to the Air Safety Foundation:

Stall and spin-related accidents are among the most deadly types of GA accidents, with a fatality rate of about 28 percent, and accounting for about 10 percent of all GA accidents.

To be fair, some of the 4,019 NTSB reports referencing spins were helicopter accidents and others did not involved an aerodynamic spin. For example, a recent RV-6A accident report involved a loss of directional control on landing, leading the aircraft to “spin” off the runway. Even so, I still count nearly 20 spin-related crashes in the past twelve months. That doesn’t sound too bad when compared to the 50 year average, but keep in mind GA flying activity is down sharply (22 million fixed-wing GA hours in 2000 vs only 12 million a decade later).

Empirical evidence suggests that spin training might help avoid some of these tragedies. Unfortunately the average GA pilot doesn’t necessarily look at spins very favorably. More than any other maneuver, spins come with a long litany of baggage. Horror stories from other pilots, tall tales of spins that swallow the aircraft whole like Moby Dick, apprehensiveness about motion sickness, and so on. This requires delicate handling by those who do provide such training. Unfortunately, some still approach this using blunt force. “Just do it”. That works about as well as exposing a GA neophyte to advanced aerobatics. They run away and never return, while the bad experience only grows with each retelling over the years.

Teaching spins is not rocket science, but it must be done methodically. It’s very tempting to skip items that a more experienced pilot “ought to know”, but 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time flying straight-and-level. As a result, I’ve seen some really weird explanations from spin students about basic aerodynamics. One of the most common errors is a belief that aircraft stall at a specific speed rather than a specific angle of attack. If you’re always wings-level at 1-G, that might seem like gospel after decades of uneventful flying. If only the laws of physics would abide such misconceptions!

That’s why my spin training always begins with a thorough review of basic aerodynamics: how lift is developed, stalls, coordination, wing drops, and finally the mechanics of the spin itself. When teaching spins, the best advice for a CFI is: assume nothing.

In the air, it’s vital that the spins are worked up to slowly, beginning with stalls of various types. Remember this is not only a new activity for most trainees, but the aircraft is unfamiliar and the instructor is an unknown quantity as well. Earning the student’s trust early on allows them to focus on the spins later rather than questioning whether they’ll survive the experience. I’ve found falling leaf stalls are particularly valuable because the student must be comfortable with high angles of attack. If they gain nothing permanent from the training beyond this, it is a success, because we all must fly at high angles of attack during landing.

A quality spin training syllabus will include many things that even those who’ve got spin experience might not be familiar with: demonstrations of the difference between spins and spiral dives, drills to build confidence, techniques for assisting apprehensive students, advanced spin modes for those who take to it with greater ease, and so on.

One of the most common misconceptions about spin training is that its primary purpose is to help you recover from a spin. The truth is you aren’t terribly likely to encountering one inadvertently. If proper coordination is maintained (and it’s often not — that is why we have these stall-spin accidents), few pilots will encounter one in the heat of battle. No, the best reason for teaching spins is to eliminate fear of the unknown. Such fears can be debilitating at a moment when the pilot can least afford to be indecisive. The same can be said of upset recovery courses.

I’ll take it a step further and state that many landing accidents are caused by a lack of spin training. What does one have to do with the other? Students who are afraid of spins will be afraid of deep stalls. It’s only natural to fear the unknown. Those wing drops can be scary if you don’t understand what’s causing them, what will happen if you don’t correct properly, and how the resulting spin entry should be handled. A fear of stalls means they’ll be apprehensive about high angles of attack and low airspeeds. So they approach the runway with too much energy just to be on the safe side, with predictable results.

With all that in mind, it astounds me that the FAA proclaims spin training as unnecessary. I see people every day who have had no spin training and their flying is often marked by poor rudder skills, limited understanding of the related aerodynamics, and a lack of appreciation for the importance of coordination.

That’s the benefit of spins, and the reason I feel strongly it should be mandated as a central part of primary training. The stick-and-rudder skill deficiencies in today’s pilots didn’t start today. It began years ago when they were learning how to fly. Fixing it will require a journey into the past. It’s time to get back to basics, and you won’t cover all the bases unless spin training is a central part of the mix.

Aviation Myths, Part 3

Is this dangerous?  Depends on the altitude, dude.

[For the rest of the series, see Part 1 or Part 2]

Myth #11: Aerobatics are dangerous.

Aerobatic flight has played a prominent part in many fatal accident reports. Sadly, that has given acro a bad name. A more thoughtful analysis, however, clearly shows that many — perhaps most — of those crashes are due to intentional low-altitude maneuvering. When aerobatic flying is pursued in a prudent, intelligent manner with sufficient altitude, the risks are far outweighed by the benefits.

Many fatalities come from the world of air shows. Air show flying can be extraordinarily dangerous because there’s virtually no structure or limit on what a pilot is permitted to do. As long as pilots don’t direct the energy of the aircraft toward spectators, a person holding a zero-altitude waiver can perform multiple outside snap rolls starting 1′ off the deck if they so choose. The flying is certainly dramatic, fun to watch, and a demonstration of complex skill. But pilots are free to fly without much, if any, altitude buffer. And many of them do.

Competitive aerobatics, on the other hand, is highly structured, limited, and categorized to the specific skill level of individual pilots. The altitude cushion is far higher and the safety record is much, much better. I’ve been involved in competitive aerobatics for eight years and know of only one accident during a competition.

The other category of accidents is people with inadequate training, experience, and/or equipment performing low-level aerobatics and buzzing terrain just to try and impress spectators or passengers. I’ve written extensively about why that’s a bad idea.

Speaking of buzzing, here’s a YouTube gem of a Bonanza and L-39 flying into IMC while in formation at low altitude. You’ll see the terrain flash by before the Beech loses part of the right wingtip in a tree.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? Low-altitude = high-risk. When you take out the low level stuff, aerobatics becomes a much different thing. There’s room the screw up a maneuver, laugh about it, fix it, and still be far above the ground. That’s safe. That’s sane.

I’m a big proponent of aerobatics because in my experience, nothing does more to build up a pilot’s stick-and-rudder skills and confidence than the precision, proficiency, and control demanded by quality aerobatic flight. An inadvertent spin, wake turbulence encounter, or other upset is far more likely to be handled properly by a pilot with aerobatic training. Aerobats are comfortable with full control deflections, odd sight pictures, high pitch/bank/yaw rates, accelerations, and sounds which can cause the straight-and-level crowd to freeze up, panic, or even worse, aggravate the situation with improper control inputs.

Myth #12: “Aerobatics” means exceeding 60 degrees of bank and/or 30 degrees of pitch.

Well 'chute!

This misconception is rampant among pilots. I’d say 85% of my primary acro students give me that definition when I ask about it early on in training. The FAA defines aerobatics in 14 CFR 91.303 as “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.”

Notice how there are no specific bank or pitch angles attached to the definition? That’s why a 45 degree pitch angle after takeoff in a Cub would be considered aerobatic (it’s not necessary for normal flight), whereas flying solo in the Pitts S-2B, that same pitch angle would be just about right for holding a normal Vx climbout and therefore, NOT aerobatic in nature. The FAA’s definition is simple and elegant, yet also allows for the differing performance characteristics of each aircraft type.

The 60/30 degree thing comes from 14 CFR 91.307(c) and concerns parachutes, not aerobatics:

(c) Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crewmember) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds—

(1) A bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or

(2) A nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon.

Myth #13: A spin in the pattern is unrecoverable.

This myth is demonstrably false. I’ve performed thousands of spins, and every plane I’ve spun eats up about 500′ of altitude from entry to recovery during a full 360 degree spin. Of course, that assumes the guy in the pilot seat can effect recovery properly and do so within 360 degrees of yaw. Might we have yet another argument for spin training? I think so.

I’m not suggesting you try a spin from a typical 1,000′ AGL pattern altitude. That would fall into the “low altitude follies” category of myth #11. But to say that a spin in the pattern is unrecoverable is just false. With even a little practice, it’s not hard to recover from an inadvertent spin in less than a quarter of a turn. That would eat up but a couple hundred feet of altitude and be more of a wing-drop than anything else.

I’d even go so far as to say that if you doubt your ability to stop a stall-spin entry from 1000′ AGL and recover to level flight before hitting the ground, you need to get some instruction before proceeding further. With sufficient training, the recovery technique will become virtually automatic. Idle power, full opposite rudder, lower the angle-of-attack.

Myth #14: Exceeding 30 degrees of bank in the pattern can lead to a stall/spin.

I was at an uncontrolled airport one day watching pilots do their thing, when a student pilot entered the pattern and announced her intention to land on runway 25. On her first attempt her Cherokee blew through the final approach course and she wisely went around. The next time she did the same thing. The third attempt was a larger pattern with an earlier turn to final which resulted in an undershoot. Trying to fix that, she allowed her glidepath to get too high. Another go-around.

Cherokee

By this point the student was pretty rattled and, I’m sure, more that a little embarrassed by her inability to land. You could hear it in her voice as she made various radio calls. After four or five attempts someone had to talk her down via the radio.

What the heck had happened, I wondered? Was there an abnormally high wind aloft just pushing her through the final? Was she turned loose by her instructor with insufficient training? Perhaps there was a mechanical problem with the airplane. Was the traffic on the CTAF too distracting? Maybe she was from a quiet country airport (as if we have any of those in Southern California…).

Further investigation revealed that her CFI had taught her not to exceed some arbitrary bank angle in the pattern. I don’t remember if it was 20 degrees or 30. Maybe it was 15. The exact figure is not important. This poor lady’s instructor had told her that the way to avoid an inadvertent spin in the pattern was to limit her bank angle.

For a long time I thought her CFI’s instruction was terrible, but thankfully not common. Unfortunately that’s starting to change. I even see this kind of advice provided by AOPA in their publications now! A quick Google search turned up an AOPA Safety Publication where the author suggests limiting base-to-final turns to as little as 15 degrees.

I am in agreement with teaching 30-degree banked turns in the pattern, for all the reasons mentioned. But I make an exception for the turn from base to final. The pilot flying this traffic pattern has begun his turn early, using a much shallower bank–perhaps 15 to 20 degrees. The result is a somewhat sloppier-looking, but safer, pattern. It gives the pilot more time to assess the effect of any crosswind and adjust his turn to smoothly intercept the final approach course. Because he starts the turn to final with a shallow bank angle, he can safely increase his bank (within limits) to counter an overshoot. Likewise, there should be little reason to tempt the pilot to skid. Even if he does, at the shallower bank this is much less likely to result in disaster. Check out the stall speed versus bank chart in your aircraft’s flight manual. Although a pilot who increases his bank from 30 degrees to 45 degrees and one who increases it from 15 to 30 are both increasing by the same number of degrees; the effect on stall speed is much more dramatic in the first case.

The stall speed only changes if one is maintaining level altitude flight during the turn. Who makes a base-to-final turn like that? The bottom line on this issue is that it’s wrong to attach a specific bank angle to safe flying or spin avoidance, regardless of whether it’s in the pattern or elsewhere. Maintain the same load factor on the airplane during the turn and the stall speed doesn’t change whatsoever!

You can spin a plane from wings-level flight. That how most intentional spins are performed, actually. Likewise, you can continuously bank a plane a full 360 degrees, turning in the opposite direction while you do so, and neither spin or stall. It’s called a rolling turn — a competitive aerobatic maneuver.

Let’s go over it one more time: spins are only possible if the airplane is allowed to exceed the critical angle-of-attack while in an uncoordinated state. It has absolutely nothing to do with airspeed, bank angle, altitude, or proximity to the traffic pattern or runway. If the poor girl flying that Cherokee had been properly taught, she would have avoided tremendous stress, embarrassment, and risk.

Myth #15: Flying is difficult.

This last one is for the non-pilots. I wish I could tell you that it takes super-human effort to fly, that only a steely-eyed genius with hand/eye coordination even the best video game gurus could never hope to possess can operate an aircraft. That’s what many passengers seem to think.

Alas, the truth is that physically flying most airplanes is not hard. Landing can be a bit of a challenge, especially if your standards are high and you want to nail it every time. But the taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, and descent are pretty easy. I’ve had total neophytes do all the flying on many occasions. I’d only take over for the last few seconds before landing. It’s just not that hard.

Now, learning the regulations, aerodynamics, aircraft systems, meteorology, navigation, emergency procedures, signage, ATC communication, aeromedical factors, decision making, performance calculations, and the dozen other areas one must master in order to fly in today’s world? That’s a bit tougher. But the physical act of flying an airplane is not as hard as aviators would like to make you think.

The Case for Spin Training

Bob Miller at Over the Airwaves frequently touts the fact that ‘nobody’ provides spin training anymore. Perhaps my perspective is not typical, but I don’t find this to be the case.

At Sunrise Aviation (KSNA), we have the largest aerobatic program on the west coast. Not only that, but our private pilot students are all required to experience spins in a Decathlon before they solo. We’ve taught thousands of people to fly over the past quarter century using this philosophy. I was trained this way myself.

I can think of several other large operations which provide quality spin training just here in California. CP Aviation in Santa Paula, Attitude Aviation in Livermore, and Tutima Academy in King City.

I rarely have any problem getting pre-solo students to do multi-turn spins on their own (and recover on a specified heading). It’s simply a matter of proper technique when teaching this to students. Easier said than done. Most CFIs learn from instructors who have never done spins. There is no way they will effectively be able to teach it without proper spin training of their own.

Many pilots and instructors who do expose students (and perhaps even more egregiously, non-pilots) to spins introduce them by simply doing one unannounced. That is the worst possible idea. It guarantees the maneuver will simply blur by for the student, resulting in spatial disorientation and motion sickness. It also ensures they won’t learn anything other than to be afraid of flying.

More than any other maneuver, spins come with a long litany of baggage. Horror stories from other pilots. Tall tales of spins that swallow the aircraft whole like Moby Dick. Apprehensiveness about motion sickness. This requires delicate handling by the CFI, but instead it’s often approached with blunt force. “Just do it”.

Wrong approach.

Teaching spins must begin with a thorough understanding of the aerodynamics involved. That means ground training. I start with a review of how lift is developed. Then progress to a discussion of stalls, coordination, wing drops, and finally the aerodynamics of the spin itself. When teaching spins, the best advice for a CFI is: assume nothing. I’ve seen some really weird explanations from spin students about basic aerodynamics. One of the most common errors is a belief that aircraft stall at a specific speed rather than a specific angle of attack. The ground training is the place to get all that stuff taken care of.

In the air, it’s vital that the spins are worked up to slowly, beginning with stalls of various types. Falling leaf stalls are particularly valuable. The student must be comfortable with high angles of attack. Then, spin “drills” are introduced were the spin is started, then stopped within a quarter turn. Once the student’s technique and comfort have reached the requisite levels, a one turn spin can be introduced with appropriate ground reference. From that point it’s simply a matter of allowing the spin to develop through two and three turns while ensuring the student maintains situational awareness.

For the really apprehensive students, I begin the actual spins by having them work only one control, usually the rudder. Once they’re comfortable with that, I switch them to the stick. Then I have them do both, and eventually give them the throttle as well.

I also teach students the difference between a spin and a spiral dive. They are easy to confuse with one another if you don’t know what to look for. For students who take to the spins with more alacrity, I will sometimes introduce aggravated spin modes. Keep in mind these are all pre-solo students with maybe 20 hours of total flight time.

I’ve taught spins to countless students using this method. I’ve never had one get sick. I’ve never had one who didn’t feel more comfortable and confident with spins, stalls, high deck angles, high AOAs, and unusual attitudes afterward.

The importance of practical spin training doesn’t stem from the likelihood of encountering one inadvertently. If proper coordination is maintained (and it’s often not — that is why we have these stall-spin accidents), pilots are not likely to ever encounter one in the heat of battle. No, the best reason for teaching spins is to eliminate the “fear of the unknown”. Once they’ve completed the spin training, students uniformly feel that spins are “not nearly as scary as I thought”.

Personally, I think a lot of landing accidents are caused by a lack of spin training. Students who are afraid of spins will be afraid of deep stalls. It’s only natural to fear the unknown. Those wing drops can be scary if you don’t understand what’s causing them, what will happen if you don’t correct properly, and how the resulting spin entry should be handled. A fear of stalls means they’ll be apprehensive about high angles of attack and low airspeeds. So they approach the runway with too much energy just to be on the safe side, with predictable results.

There are many excellent reasons for practical spin training, but it’s hard to make any headway with those arguments when the FAA proclaims said training as unnecessary. To me, the proof is in the pudding. I see people every day who have had no spin training. It’s usually accompanied by poor rudder skills, limited understanding of the related aerodynamics, and a lack of appreciation for the importance of coordination. The low quality of basic airmanship skills can be quite dramatic.

And besides, just think about all the fun they’re missing out on!

Have you had spin training? If not, find a good aerobatic instructor and get the lead out. You won’t regret it.