The experience conundrum

September 1, 2001

Thomas B. Haines has served as editor in chief of AOPA Pilot since 1994.

Statistically, weather and low-level maneuvering accidents do in more pilots than any other categories. In actuality, though, we — the pilots — are our own worst enemies. Succinctly, it is our lack of experience that keeps a few of us from flying another day. Wouldn't it be great to be able to fill the brain of every new pilot with the experience of some graybeard who's seen and done it all?

As has been said, we won't live long enough to make all of the mistakes we need to so that we can gain the experience to become the super pilot we strive to be. There's only one way to gain experience, and that's to fly. Education and technology can help, but experience is still the best teacher — as unforgiving as she may be. Three recent accidents prove this in spades.

A few months ago, a Beech Bonanza pilot and his companion died a fiery death when they crashed shortly after takeoff. Just before the accident, the pilot reported to departure control that he was returning to land because of an open door. The preliminary NTSB report suggests that an open cowl door contributed to the accident — or more likely, the pilot's inexperience in flying behind such a distraction contributed the accident. A flight instructor who had flown with the pilot a few days before the accident reported that the cowl had popped open on startup. A maintenance technician who had worked on the airplane said the owner had mentioned the balky latch when the airplane was in for an inspection.

I've never flown a Bonanza with an engine cowl flapping in the breeze, but instructors from the Bonanza/Baron Pilot Proficiency Program tell me that it will fly just fine — once you overcome the surprise. In fact, during certification, the test pilots must prove that the airplane can be safely flown with the cowl door open.

On several occasions, I've had cockpit doors pop open on both Bonanzas and Piper Saratogas. It's certainly a distraction, but it doesn't affect the flying qualities of the airplane at all. The flight instructor for the pilot involved in the above accident told investigators that she had never popped open a cabin door during flight to give the pilot experience flying with a commotion. Having a cabin door pop open may not be a perfect simulation of a flapping cowl door, but it is reassuring to know that, for the most part, our airplanes are fairly immune to such aerodynamic disturbances.

When a cabin door does pop in flight, it opens a few inches, creates a lot of noise, and sends any lose charts to the wild blue yonder, but that's it. Don't bother attempting to close it in flight because it's nearly impossible. Instead, fly the airplane in a normal pattern at normal speeds, land, and close the door.

In this case, it appears — according to witnesses — that the pilot tried to fly a tight, low pattern to quickly return to the airport for a landing. In doing so, he apparently got into the classic base-to-final-turn stall and crashed short of the runway. The pilot knew about the stubborn cowl latch, but yet he still wasn't prepared to deal with an unlatched cowl in flight because he had never experienced it before.

I'm not advocating that you go fly around with the cowl unlatched, but the next time you have an instructor on board for some proficiency training, have the CFI unexpectedly pop the cabin door open right after takeoff. You'll be surprised at the racket it makes. You'll also have added to your experience level once you see the airplane flies just fine.

Running out of gas is another accident scenario that can be prevented after just once experiencing that gut-wrenching feeling of being uncertain of how much fuel you have. It's happened to most new pilots at least once. For me it was in a Cessna 172. I had a particular airport in mind for a fuel stop. With that mindset, I overflew many perfectly good alternatives. With the fuel stop in sight, I suddenly became very uncertain of how much fuel was on board. I flew a tight pattern, convinced that the engine was going to quit at any moment. In actuality, I had about seven gallons on board — plenty for a 30-minute reserve on that VFR day — but I vowed to never be that uncertain of my fuel supply again. Today, I fly with a fuel computer tied to the GPS so that I know within a half-gallon how much fuel is onboard and how much I'll have upon landing. The computer only knows what I tell it, though, so if I set it wrong, I have no one else to blame. And, of course, I back it all up with my watch.

A student and a flight instructor learned that lesson the hard way. As is typically the case, the accident had more than one contributing factor. The pair took off at about midnight in a Cessna 150. They were doing some night VFR exercises, probably after working all day. So already they had darkness, fatigue, and circadian rhythms working against them. At 3:45 a.m. — 3.8 hours after the initial takeoff — the engine quit as the student was doing a maximum-performance takeoff. The instructor took control of the airplane and managed to land it on the remaining runway. The 150 rolled off the end of the runway and struck a barbed-wire fence before coming to rest in a ditch. Neither pilot was seriously injured. Investigators reported less than a half-gallon of fuel in each tank. Not many 150s will fly four hours without refueling, even with the most conservative power settings.

Another student pilot didn't get the chance to learn from such an experience. Despite admonitions from his instructor against low-level flight, the student on a solo flight was seen flying low and erratically over his neighborhood — after using his cellular telephone from the airplane to advise his family that he'd be passing overhead. A short time later the airplane entered a steep dive and crashed into a field. The student died.

A safe altitude and proper airspeed control will eliminate low-level maneuvering accidents. It's not a difficult concept. Unfortunately, this is one where few ever get to learn from the experience.

Certainly one of the most difficult tasks for a pilot to manage is attitude control in the clouds. Loss of control while in instrument meteorological conditions represents a large percentage of accidents. Here, technology may help, although it's been slow in coming. One cause is the failure of a vacuum-driven attitude indicator, because of either malfunctioning gyros or the loss of the vacuum pump. Time after time, we've shown that we're just not very good at flying partial panel, especially when the failure of the indicator is slow and not noticed until the airplane is in a dangerous attitude. One solution is a standby electric attitude gyro, which backs up both the primary gyro and its power source.

A more high-tech solution is the Highway-in-the-Sky concept, or HITS in industry parlance. I flew the Sierra Flight Systems HITS display in the company's Cessna 210 at EAA AirVenture last year. It's an impressive presentation. The pilot maneuvers the airplane to stay inside a series of rectangular boxes that come flying at you. Using navigation data from a GPS and internal terrain and obstruction databases, the system generates a cartoon-like depiction of the real world on the display. Even on a serious IMC day, you can seem to be flying VFR by following the system guidance — always knowing which way is up relative to the generated horizon.

This year at AirVenture, NASA Chief Technologist and Associate Administrator of Aerospace Technology Sam Venneri flew in a Lancair Columbia 400 equipped with a HITS system developed by an Avidyne-led team. Venneri's blessing on the design means the system can move forward toward certification, to one day soon perhaps show up in the cockpits of production airplanes.

All indications are that the progress will be better than earlier attempts. This magazine in 1966 carried an article about a HITS system (it even used the same terminology back then) under development by Kaiser Aerospace & Electronics Corporation. Its Flite-Path system was very similar in concept to today's version. The article noted that work on the project had begun 10 years earlier. It was projected to start shipping in the fall of 1966. To my knowledge, none ever went out the door.

Avidyne expects to have its system certified by the end of 2002.

Such technology and an ongoing commitment to pilot education promise to help us continue to improve the general aviation safety record. The efforts will only be successful if pilots embrace the technology and the training. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation reports that after a decade of intensive instruction on weather decision making, the fatal weather accident rate has declined slightly. Perhaps it's the beginning of a trend.

We can do our part by flying often to maintain proficiency. And, whenever possible, fly with a more experienced pilot who is willing to share what he has learned. We'll all benefit from it.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.