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Who's In Charge Here?

Consider The Unthinkable On Every Flight

We were on final approach to our little Virginia airport on my first flight with Dave. The checkout had gone extremely well, but to tell the truth, I'd expected him to be good. He'd learned to fly in a Piper Cub at a field shorter than our 2,200 feet, and he had logged a couple of hundred hours in various airplanes before coming to our FBO. He'd studied up on the Piper Cherokee we were to fly and knew all the numbers. I was very comfortable with his coordination and control. This was a pilot who was very much in sync with the airplane, and his flying was a joy to behold. A few landings on our little sway-backed runway and I'd be happy to sign him off. I knew he'd take good care of our airplanes.

Final to Runway 1 was over a stand of trees that crowned the top of a hill. Then came a sloping grass field dotted with short brush, a two-lane country road, a few hundred feet of overrun and, finally, the runway. Landing close to the end was best, because the runway sloped for about half its length, then rose. It wasn't unusual for novices to find the runway dropping out from under them, then rising at an alarming rate. But Dave was on top of the situation, and his stable approach was going right to the numbers. I was reflecting on how well things were going when, suddenly, they weren't going well at all.

Just as we passed over the road Dave hauled back on the yoke, and the Cherokee reached for the sky. Trouble was, we were throttled back to land, so unless some power was applied we weren't going to go very far in the up direction. I grabbed my control wheel and lowered the nose while adding full power. Once we were established on the go-around I retracted the flaps. Then I had time to look at Dave.

He was pale and wide-eyed and generally looked as if he'd had the fright of his life. Heart rate starting back to normal I asked, "What was that all about?" "The wires," he said, "I thought we were going to hit the wires." What wires, I wondered-oh yeah. He'd seen the power line poles that ran along the road. The poles that I'd neglected to mention before or during our flight. The poles that marked the point where the lines were buried so as not to snare airplanes on their way into and out of our airport.

I felt foolish for setting up a situation that, at best, scared the daylights out of a new customer. I didn't want to contemplate the worst-case scenario, but I had to admit that if I'd been just a little further behind the power curve, we might have crashed in the overrun short of the runway. If Dave had been less proficient - if I'd had less confidence in his ability - I would have been closer to the controls on that first approach to an unfamiliar field. That incident really brought home the fact that I'm the CFI and the guy who's ultimately responsible for the safety of flight. I had failed in my duty to expect the unexpected, but I got away with it. Other CFIs haven't been so lucky.

Sven instructed for a helicopter school that operated the then-brand-new Robinson R22s. He had come to the United States to learn to fly helicopters and build enough time to fly in support of the North Sea oil platforms back home. His was truly a Catch-22 situation. Every time he approached the requisite number of hours and prepared his r¿sum¿s, the helicopter companies would up the ante and require more experience. But Sven took it in stride and plied his trade of rotary-wing educator while the hours piled up.

One of Sven's students was so enamored of the helicopter experience that he asked Sven to do an intro ride with a lady friend who was not a pilot, so that she might experience the activity that was making so many demands on his time and his money. The flight was scheduled, and half way through it Sven was frankly amazed. He'd never flown with anyone who took direction as well as she did. She was doing very nicely - flying more like a pilot about to solo than a first-hour helicopter student. After 20 minutes in the air they were back at the airport, and she was actually hovering.

Sven was about to take over the controls for the landing when it happened. He had failed to read the tension building in his student - tension that built throughout the flight until it became unbearable. "I can't do this," she said, and pushed the cyclic stick away. Immediately the helicopter accelerated across the airport. Sven was working frantically to get the situation under control and was almost on top of things when they hit a small bush. The helicopter rolled over, and after the dust and flying-parts storm subsided, instructor and student pulled themselves out of the wreck. There was no reason to expect that student to hand over control of the flight in that manner, but it happened - and Sven wasn't any more prepared than I was when Dave thought we were about to hit the wires.

Instructors have to let their students push the edges of the envelope. Ample altitude and airspeed give us time to correct even the most egregious deficiencies, but every flight begins and ends on the ground. We have to allow our students to operate in the low-and-slow environment, but here, there's much less time to let them sort things out. Instructors must be prepared to act quickly and correctly. When our students are having difficulty with a task, we know we may have to act, and we're better prepared to do so than we are with those students who seem to have a solid lock on the situation. It's tough to anticipate disaster when things are going well, but we must do it. Veteran instructors have seen most of what students have to offer, but things can go terribly wrong for them as well.

Larry instructed for the U.S. Air Force, flew combat missions in Vietnam, and had several thousand civil hours in his logbook - all without so much as scratching an airplane. He was the instructor that we youngsters hoped we could become, and on this day he was checking out a pilot in a Piper Aztec. The pilot was also a multiengine flight instructor but hadn't taught in five years. He worked for the company that owned the airplane and had been hired to fly for the business as well as teach the boss to fly multiengine airplanes. So the tasks were relatively simple: Get a good checkout in the airplane and brush up your multiengine flight instructor skills before taking on the CEO.

It was the third flight Larry and the student had made together, and the day's agenda called for engine cuts on takeoff. They briefed the scenario before taking off. The training will take place at another airport with a longer runway. The cut will occur prior to rotation. There will be plenty of runway ahead so, when it happens, reduce power to idle on the operative engine, maintain runway alignment, and bring the airplane to a stop. Then we'll taxi off the runway and proceed to the approach end. There were no questions.

They had accelerated to about 55 knots on the takeoff roll when Larry pulled the mixture on the left engine. The student kept both throttles open and applied left rudder and brake. Right engine howling, the Aztec leapt off the runway and into a drainage ditch. The right engine stopped in a shower of debris when the nose gear collapsed, bringing the propeller into contact with terra firma.

After the FAA interview at the scene I was dispatched to bring Larry and his student back home. Neither had much to say, but it was obvious that they both felt terrible. I stayed around to console Larry after his interview with the boss. I wouldn't have thought it possible but Larry looked worse after that meeting than he had after talking with the FAA. "What happened?" I asked.

The boss held Larry responsible for the incident. "You failed in your duty," he said.

"But why would anybody expect a multi-rated aviator - a CFI, for crying out loud - to do everything wrong?" Larry asked.

"I repeat," said the boss, "you failed in your duty," and that was the end of the interview. I didn't know what to say then, but I thought a lot about it and, in the end, decided the boss was right. No matter what our student's qualifications and experience, we're responsible for the safety of flight. In this case, that means:

  • Consider the unthinkable. If the student does the opposite of what you expect, what will you do to control the situation and produce a safe outcome?
  • Cut the engine at a slower airspeed so there's more time if the student doesn't perform as briefed.
  • Keep your hands on the controls so you can cut the operative engine if the student doesn't retard the throttle.

Larry's incident happened nearly 20 years ago. He continued to instruct and ended his career without further incident. Even though it happened a long time ago and it didn't happen to me, the memory is clear - and I consider the unthinkable on every instructional flight.

John Steuernagle, formerly vice president of operations for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, is a program development consultant.

By John Steuernagle

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