Watch this!

October 1, 2003

AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg has avoided Rapture of the Sky — so far.

"Watch this!" is frequently heard just before a pilot does something that results in a spectacularly bad outcome. The numbers show that over the past decade, maneuvering flight has consistently been one of the leading fatality producers in light aircraft. The NTSB defines maneuvering flight as aerobatics, buzzing, low passes, pull-ups, and turns to reverse direction (a box-canyon-type maneuver). It also includes an engine failure after takeoff when the pilot tries to return to the runway.

Maneuvering is required, to a certain extent, on every flight, and that's fine as long as it's done with discretion and a reasonable angle of attack. In the practice area we develop aircraft handling skills and there usually isn't a problem. Routine sightseeing, done from a safe altitude, is also accomplished daily without incident. But when "Rapture of the Sky" strikes and the pilot is overcome with an irresistible urge to go beyond what training and prudence would dictate, then the trouble begins. Musing through maneuvering accident reports yields a remarkable lack of judgment and common sense. Sometimes the proposed action sounds reasonable but suffers badly in the execution, and sometimes it's just plain dumb from the start.

After looking at maneuvering mayhem that occurred during the past several years, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation decided that our next safety seminar series should address the topic in a way that would be thoughtful, yet entertaining. Staff at the FAA Aviation Safety Program, our partner in many seminars, agreed to fund the project. Sadly, there was no shortage of data because some pilots didn't quite understand physics or still thought there was a lot of unproven theory involved. Gravity, measured in pounds per square inch at the point of impact, will make quite an impression. The "buzz" is almost always a bad idea. Buzzing has been around since the Wrights, and most pilots have indulged in it, at least according to our surveys. Just so we're clear on this, buzzing is defined as a low pass, or circling over a particular point. It frequently involves someone of the opposite sex on the ground or there is a spectator on board who the pilot feels is in need of a thrill. The NTSB doesn't define it in quite that detail — this is based strictly on limited observation. The problem with surveys is that we can't talk to the unsuccessful pilots to find out why they did what they did and what they would have done differently, if given a second chance. There usually isn't one.

From an NTSB narrative: According to a friend, the pilot occasionally performed a "fly around" of his residence. The friend was in his garage and heard an airplane fly overhead, so he went outside and waved his arms while the pilot "waggled" the wings. The airplane, a Beech 23, circled the house twice, and during the second circuit, it quickly banked left. The Beech rolled out and approached the house again. It then began to lose altitude, and the witness heard the engine rev to full throttle. However, the flight continued to lose altitude and the pilot raised the nose approximately 10 degrees. The airplane cleared the house by 25 to 30 feet, struck a tree at 50 to 60 mph, and came to rest in the front yard. Three fatalities resulted from the exuberance of a 400-hour private pilot who didn't quite understand the nuances of angle of attack.

In the seminar, we have some interesting video of maneuvers done by the military. While GA pilots typically follow a haphazard approach, the military trains and practices in highly controlled circumstances. Accident pilots apparently fail to grasp that a vertical turn, or pull-up, can use a surprising amount of altitude and requires considerable practice to execute consistently well. The military devotes months and dozens of practice flights before it'll sign someone off for ground attack duty. Consistency is key to longevity when performing close to the ground.

Canyon running is another popular pursuit that periodically claims the unwary. Preliminary information on a fatal accident that claimed two aircraft and six lives last year involved a group of eight Beechcraft Bonanzas on a weekend outing. With the accident pilot in the lead, they formed up at 4,500 feet. The witness reported that after flying around the area for about 25 minutes, the lead instructed everyone to separate and follow in trail.

The lead and the number-two airplane stayed in formation and then separated from the rest of the group, descended to an estimated 500 to 1,000 feet agl, and proceeded up a canyon. A few moments later, smoke and fire were observed. The two Bonanzas came to rest within 75 feet of each other at the head of the canyon at an estimated elevation of 4,925 feet. The slope of the terrain at the accident site was approximately 45 degrees. A saddle, or low spot, at the head of the canyon was estimated at 5,400 feet, and less than a half-mile from the accident site.

Experienced mountain pilots recognize that terrain will outclimb most aircraft and that a 10-degree nose-up pitch attitude is no match for a 45-degree hill. For most light aircraft, after converting cruise speed to altitude, 10 degrees nose up will put you close to V Y, best rate of climb, and perhaps just a little more for V X, best angle of climb. No amount of wishful thinking or skill changes this. If the mountainside forms a steeper angle — well, you get the picture. Not many GA aircraft are equipped with terrain-following radar coupled to the autopilot, which is what the military frequently uses for this type of flying. It also has just a bit more performance to work with. The only alternative is to know the territory exceptionally well, and accident pilots prove regularly that they don't.

There is a profound saying, not original, that two of the following are required: airspeed, altitude, or brains. Put another way, high and fast is safe while low or slow ups the risk equation significantly. Aerobatics conducted in the right kind of aircraft, with the right kind of training, with the right kind of altitude are done daily and with a high degree of safety. On a per-hour basis, I suspect the risk is somewhat higher than non-aerobatic flight, but certainly acceptable. Trouble starts when one of the three conditions isn't met. Leave out just one and the risk-o-meter pegs in the red zone.

In the following report, a Bellanca 8KCAB piloted by an airline transport pilot with more than 20,000 hours total flight time hit the ground after putting on an impromptu airshow for the aircraft co-owner who witnessed the accident. The report states that the witness was inside his residence when he heard an airplane make a low pass over his property at approximately 500 feet agl. Outside, he saw the airplane approach at an altitude of 40 to 50 feet agl, and after the low pass the Bellanca climbed to about 500 feet agl. The airplane did another low pass, lower than the previous one.

In the final pass, it barely cleared some power lines. The pilot pitched the nose down slightly to increase airspeed and then pulled upward to approximately a 30- to 40-degree pitch to gain some altitude. The witness observed, "[The pilot] then attempted a barrel roll to the left and after completing the maneuver, the aircraft's nose was down and the right wing hit the ground...."

So how does a senior aviator with jet type ratings and a boatload of good decision making during a career of flying succumb to Rapture of the Sky? The record shows he had just over 100 hours in the Bellanca, but we don't know what kind of aerobatic training, if any, he had received. According to the Bellanca 8KCAB owner's manual, "Remember, altitude is your best insurance when doing aerobatics. According to Federal Aviation Regulations, the minimum legal altitude for aerobatics is 1,500 feet agl. Keep in mind that 1,500 feet is therefore the minimum recovery altitude from any inadvertent maneuver and that 1,000 feet of altitude can often be lost in a three-turn spin." What more can be said?

Pilots who come to the seminar are almost guaranteed to be inoculated against this type of accident, but those who don't may think that they already are. Care to make a wager on which group will have fewer hard-ground encounters? The cost of maneuvering mishaps is staggering to the industry, raises already-high insurance rates, and brings discredit to all of us. A quick review of ASF's accident database showed that between 1997 and 2000 there were about 570 fatalities, with 201 resulting from stalls/spins and 196 caused by buzzing. Put into the roughest financial perspective, that translates to about $1.7 billion (that's with a B), including lost wages, insurance claims, lawsuits, and the like. This doesn't take into account the very real emotional toll, and public relations damage, which is limitless. Don't fall victim to Rapture of the Sky, and if the pilot you're riding with says, "Watch this," that would be time to discuss the main objective of every flight: To have takeoffs and landings come out even.

This free program will be held in dozens of cities this winter and will be released as a Seminar-in-a-Box after the first run. We also hope, when funding becomes available, to put a version on the AOPA ASF Web site (