When Good Pilots Go Bad

October 1, 2006

Yanking and banking toward trouble

Quickest way to die in an airplane? Horse around at low altitude. If your pilot friends don't believe you, print out a copy of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's 2005 Joseph T. Nall Report. The statistics are right there.

The pilots who are going to buzz houses aren't reading this article right now. After all, it's a safety article. So that leaves the rest of us — good pilots who may get caught up in the excitement of finding a friend's home, and angling for that great photo. The angle of bank that normally would frighten you — especially without a parachute — suddenly becomes not only possible but necessary. The vertical speed indicator starts warning of a descent but nobody's home in the cockpit. The altimeter does the only thing it can in such a bank — it unwinds.

Maneuvering refers to more than just fooling around: It of course includes aerobatics, low passes, buzzing, and abrupt pull-ups. But it also refers to crop spraying, or direction reversal as might occur when trapped in a box canyon, or when the engine fails after takeoff and the pilot tries a 180-degree turn back to the runway at too low an altitude. No goofing off there — just questionable judgment.

Riding around in airplanes

But back to yanking and banking. One of the greatest privileges of your private certificate is the right to take nonpilots for rides. You'll want to show them their house, or fall colors, or area attractions (see " High Excitement," page 96). They'll care almost nothing about your amazing skill at straight-and-level flight, smooth takeoffs, or the aircraft's many impressive capabilities — such as the GPS you haven't yet paid for. The trip depends on their seeing the promised sights, and on a smooth landing afterward.

So you try to accommodate — or maybe you're alone in the aircraft, but just hellbent to find a friend's home. The Webster definition of hellbent is, "...stubbornly and even recklessly determined." That'd be you. You're not a bad pilot, just a determined one. When the wing is in the way or the subject is about to disappear behind a strut, you may be tempted to unleash a flurry of maneuvering.

An instructor put it best recently when he said, "Once the mind goes outside of the cockpit, there is no one in it controlling the aircraft. There needs to be one person flying and one looking." Your mind, meaning attention, goes to the ground (where your body shall soon follow) and you fail to notice it. You're in a spiral and with the wrong control inputs, the spiral can easily become a spin.

What to do? You might think the first thing to do is to level the wings and pull up, but remember, the power is still on. You don't need help going down. You're doing that just fine, but unfortunately at too low an altitude. Get that power off. The rest you'll do instinctively.

Talk it out

Let's say it's not you. Just like it wasn't me dogfighting with that 50-foot-wide wisp of cloud back in the 1970s. If you have a friend who is given to buzzing, talk to him or her. I know you would rather not, but as an instructor pointed out for this article, we all should be doing that.

Want a few facts for the talk from the Air Safety Foundation? Here they are: The landing phase is the most likely phase for nonfatal accidents, but maneuvering is the most likely for fatal ones. The 2005 Nall Report refers to 2004 numbers, so we'll look at those. There were 89 single-engine fixed-gear maneuvering accidents in 2004, of which 40 resulted in fatalities. Loss of aircraft control or hitting terrain, wires, and trees were the most common contributing factors. In 22 percent of the accidents, the main factor was performing aerobatic maneuvers. Although it is not part of the report, there's a good chance those doing aerobatics had little training or discipline. (Pilots trained in aerobatic maneuvers know to start the maneuver with a safe altitude margin. And doing an abrupt pull-up on takeoff? They regard that as stupid. You're not impressing anyone.)

Overall, general aviation safety is improving. Over the past 10 years, accidents of all types are down 25 percent, but there is still room for improvement. When there's a pretty sight on the ground, make sure there's still a brain in the cockpit.

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Links to additional information about maneuvering flight accidents, including the ASF Safety Advisor: Maneuvering Flight , may be found on AOPA Online.