Most dangerous game

November 1, 1996

Computers have introduced millions of adults to aviation gaming technology, and it is an appropriate place to play. Twist and turn down impossibly tight canyons to evade enemy radar. Pop over the crest of a hill and the target warning indicator is flashing. Roll in 10 degrees nose down; now 20; squeeze off a shot or two and pull hard. The ground is coming up rapidly and the aircraft is shuddering, even though the speed is high. The stall is abrupt and, with a dissatisfying crunch, the game is over — mission failed, rookie — try again.

With the exception of the guns or missiles, and sometimes the canyon, this scenario has been repeated enough times in real-life general aviation that the AOPA Air Safety Foundation decided to look more closely at maneuvering flight mishaps. Maneuvering is defined by the NTSB as aerobatics, low passes, buzzing, sharp pull-ups, or aerial application maneuvers — crop dusting, in the vernacular. It also includes turns to reverse direction, such as a box canyon type maneuver or engine failure after takeoff, in which the pilot tries to immediately reverse course for landing.

The common elements generally involve steep turns or pullouts in which the wings are highly loaded and the altitude is low. Collisions with an unseen object close to the ground are also popular. This recipe for disaster was repeated with fatal results 114 times last year, according to ASF's 1996 Joseph T. Nall Report. This is our first look at preliminary accident summaries from the preceding year and, based on prior experience, the circumstances of these accidents were highly predictable. Mix ignorance with arrogance at low altitude and the results are almost guaranteed to be spectacular.

Fixed-gear single-engine aircraft and homebuilts dominated the category, but high-performance retractables were not too far behind. Pilots flying multiengine aircraft are not immune. But their involvement is much less — since, presumably, the airplanes are used more for transportation and less for horsing around near home base. Most of the accident flights occurred close to home — and, in some cases, over someone's home.

Here are some typical scenarios:

Witnesses reported that a Cessna 172 piloted by a 700-hour CFI crashed after making low passes for 15 to 30 minutes. The wing struck the top of a 45-foot tree and the aircraft continued into a wooded area.

A Piper Lance was observed to be flying 100 feet above an interstate highway before colliding with a high-voltage power transmission line. The weather was clear at the time of the mishap.

A Cessna Cardinal was on a flight to take pictures of a newly constructed home on the shore of Long Island Sound. The pilot decided to photograph some boats, as well. A witness on a boat stated that the pilot made several passes over the boats, with the final pass at about 30 feet. The witness stated that the airplane passed his boat in a steep left turn, when the pilot apparently realized he was in trouble and applied full power. However, the left wing impacted the water and the airplane crashed.

A 6,000-hour commercial pilot carrying two passengers in a Cessna 182RG decided that some low-level aerobatics would be impressive. After takeoff and gear retraction, the aircraft was held at a very low altitude to gain airspeed. At the end of the 3,500-foot runway the flight was observed to pull into a steep climb followed by a rolling maneuver to the left. Before recovery, the aircraft struck trees in a nose-low attitude although the engine was operating at high power until impact.

A Piper Cherokee 160 departed with a 1,500-hour pilot and three passengers to scout for elk in preparation for a hunting trip the next day. Approaching a mountain meadow they spotted a herd, and while they were turning around for a better view, the ground "suddenly came up fast." The aircraft hit a slope rising at 25 degrees at an elevation of 7,400 feet. This type of animal distraction accident is so common in Alaska that the locals refer to them as "moose stalls."

There are literally hundreds of records like these in the ASF database; after reading a few dozen, some similarities become obvious. Low-altitude flight and accelerated stalls are exceedingly common. The pilot is frequently distracted from flying. Looking at the ground or a moose, discussing something with a photographer, or trying to close an open door are regular factors in this accident chain. Wire strikes, generally below 200 feet, are a regular occurrence.

To learn about more low-altitude maneuvering, we went to some experts. The Air National Guard has had more than a little experience in training pilots on strafing runs and on how not to become a statistic in an F-16. There are, not surprisingly, more differences than similarities between low-altitude maneuvering as practiced by the military and the typical GA pilot out to excite his passengers or the local populace.

Most nonaerobatic lightplanes are certified only for 3.8 to 4.4 Gs, while an F-16 can easily handle 12 positive Gs. As the ground rushes up, the F-16 jock will pull somewhere between 5 and 7 Gs to rapidly curve the flight path back to safety. Try that in one of our aircraft and chances are that you'll get to do it only once. A "hard deck" — the absolute minimum altitude to which the fighters will descend — is always specified. Depending on the angle of the run, it could be as high as 1,500 feet. The ground is unyielding, and there are no options when dueling with gravity.

The Guard pilots understand inertia, radius of turn, target fixation, and ground rush. They have trained continuously with expert instructors and are graded on every mission. They obviously know much more about the dangers of pushing the envelope than does the average hot dog, and they practice regularly to stay within limits. Having the proper training and the right equipment makes the difference between survival and an obituary.

Invariably, these accidents mean a black eye for general aviation and the potential for higher insurance costs and more regulation. In learning to fly, flight instructors do not teach new pilots low-altitude maneuvering as described here, for several good reasons. First, the regulations are explicit as to how low we may fly relative to people and obstacles. Second, it tends to annoy the neighbors, since not everyone enjoys aircraft noise as much as we do; and third, if it isn't already obvious, low-altitude maneuvering can be quite hazardous. My apologies for sounding like a Dutch uncle, but those are the risks. The reward is that you might get to enjoy the sensation of speed for a few seconds before impact.

ASF, in our free public service seminar series that goes to over 200 locations each year, will focus on — you guessed it — the most dangerous game pilots play: maneuvering flight. Additional items will be high-angle-of-attack scenarios, along with takeoffs and landings, which also rank very high on the accident scale. In a spoof of the best network television sportscaster style, we'll be looking at the contestants who gamble against gravity, and in most cases, slept through the aerodynamics lecture.

The programs are conducted in support of the FAA's Aviation Safety Program and are funded by individual AOPA pilot donors, foundations and corporate sponsors, and they have the support of several state aviation divisions. We encourage all pilots to come to see the Most Dangerous Game when it comes to your area. Flyers will be sent out by the FAA in advance, and dates are published in "AOPA Action" in AOPA Pilot. For more information, call 800/USA-AOPA.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.