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Watch this!

The joys and perils of maneuvering flight

Maneuvering flight: Done right, it is evidence of skill and professionalism. Done wrong, or at the wrong time-often preceded by the pilot's uttering those famous last words, "Watch this!"-nothing in aviation is deadlier.

What exactly is maneuvering flight? "Basically, any type of flying performed close to the ground and/or involving steep turns and aerobatics is considered maneuvering," explains the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's newest seminar, "Watch This! Maneuvering Flight: Hazardous to your Health?" The seminar is scheduled to debut at AOPA Expo 2003 in Philadelphia and will be presented through the rest of the country in the first half of 2004; see a complete schedule of all ASF seminars on AOPA Online.

Every flight has its maneuvering phases. Some are brief intervals before and after long legs in cruise. Other flights, such as aerial surveys, photo shoots, and many training flights, can fall almost exclusively into the maneuvering category.

Buzzing: Too often the last hurrah

And then there's that other kind of maneuvering-buzzing-that blends the three hazards of bad judgment, abrupt control inputs, and low altitude, into a potion frequently fatal to people in the aircraft and dangerous to those on the ground. This kind of maneuvering accident not only breaks faith with the trust placed in pilots by their passengers but also becomes the lens through which the news media, its viewers and readers, and makers of public policy view aviation.

All too often, an impromptu buzz job has catastrophic results. ASF's 2002 Joseph T. Nall Report on GA accident trends and factors makes the case clear. "Low-level maneuvering was the leading fatal phase of flight again this year as it has been for the last five, holding steady at about 20 percent," wrote ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg. "In the vast majority of cases, the accelerated stall, impact with wires, a building, or an object, should not be considered a surprise." The report studied data for the year 2001.

It is also true that some buzzers are repeat offenders who eventually expend their last life-preserving measure of luck. Does knowing this provide a means for lowering that 20-percent statistic? Is there a pilot who fits that description at your field?

A buzzing backfire

On October 7, 2001, an 85-hp Champion 7AC/BCM owned by a flying club crashed while the pilot was maneuvering low over homes near Woodstock, Alabama. The NTSB accident report states: "According to numerous eyewitnesses, including family members of the pilot, the aircraft executed two or three right-hand 360-degree tight turns at about 60 to 80 feet agl, over the pilot's mother's backyard. Following a noise characterized as a 'pop' as in an engine backfire, the aircraft nosed over and hit the ground in a steep vertical attitude."

The report also noted that the aircraft was prone to backfiring with abrupt throttle movements and included witness comments about previous buzzing by the pilot. "Family members at the wreckage site stated the pilot had been flying low passes over the area since he had become a member of the flying club in December 1997." On his most recent application for a third class medical certificate the pilot had listed his total flight time as 220 hours.

Blind canyons, sightseeing, and crashes

Other less mischievous but still-dangerous forms of low-altitude flight continue to claim victims on a regular basis, but you can help by arming your students with knowledge of the perils. Flying up a blind canyon is a recipe for trouble, absent sufficient training, familiarity with the terrain, and necessary aircraft performance. Another hazard is formation flying. The new ASF "Watch This!" seminar dramatically recounts the details of a fatal accident involving two Beech Bonanzas entering a canyon as a flight of two near Ojai, California.

Sightseeing along a river may have been responsible for three fatalities in Lakeview, Arkansas, on October 8, 2002, when the pilot attempted to maneuver away from power lines. Sometimes, other pilots can't resist joining the fun; an accident on September 24, 2002, involved a pilot who had been "flying literally on the river." The NTSB account of the accident included details from the pilot of a second participating aircraft, who learned what had happened to his friend when he "observed the airplane suspended in a cable over the river."

Knowledge, skill, safety

Low-level maneuvering accidents are all the more tragic because they are so clearly avoidable. As a CFI, you can help in the crusade to bring that 20-percent statistic down by setting a good example for your students, expressing your sincere approval of their good judgment, and arming them with the facts.

Teach your students to regard maneuvering flight with respect and caution, not to deny the exhilaration of a well-flown steep turn, but to make prudent execution part of the satisfaction. Emphasize that the Practical Test Standards include margins of safety which are a critical measure of whether the maneuver has been performed successfully. Successful outcome should not be in doubt! Make sure they can explain to you why a steep turn must be performed at "a safe airspeed not to exceed VA." Drill them on regulations governing minimum safe altitudes. They bear restating here:

FAR 91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General.

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
(b)Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
(c)Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

Emphasize that these are minimums! It is also worth mentioning that legitimate low-altitude flying such as pipeline patrols and wildlife surveys are conducted after a certificate of waiver has been granted by the FAA.

Learning safe maneuvering flight also provides a superb opportunity for your students to correlate their knowledge of individual maneuvers with the concept of angle of attack, stall recognition and avoidance, and the need to avoid distractions. It's a wonderful demonstration of the highest level of learning, synthesizing multiple insights to make decisions and perform piloting tasks.

Nowhere during training will this be more important than in the airport traffic pattern, where proximity to the ground, flight at approach airspeeds, configuration changes, and turns constitute an important form of (legitimate) maneuvering flight. Strive for correlation in this realm too; you will see it when your student recognizes a deteriorating approach and calmly opts for the go-around instead of attempting excessive or cross-controlled maneuvering in a desperate effort to complete a landing gone wrong. ASF's excellent The Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings video can be ordered online, and it can supplement your efforts.

A new tool for CFIs

ASF's new "Watch This!" seminar includes both exciting tales of how maneuvering flight can go wrong, and practical tips from wise old aviator "Buzz" McClanahan and his enthusiastic young pilot friend, Loopy.

In January 2004, "Watch This!" will be presented in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. In February, the schedule includes Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Florida, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Tennessee. And in March, "Watch This!" will play in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, and California.

ASF is funded largely through contributions from individual pilots and companies interested in GA safety, and its safety seminars and online courses are available to all without cost or obligation. See the Web site for a complete list of free ASF resources.

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot for 18 years and an instructor for 12, he enjoys learning to fly "anything new and different."

By Dan Namowitz

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