If you answered “a runway,” you’re uncomfortably close to the mark. While the vast majority of airport operations are completed without excitement, landing accidents remain the single largest category of fixed-wing misadventures that qualify for the NTSB database (meaning “substantial” aircraft damage, serious injuries, or both). More than half are “excursions,” going off the side or far end. Airplanes don’t always lock onto the centerline during takeoff attempts, either, which could lead a reasonable observer to wonder: Why do the most basic skills we all supposedly grasped before flying our first solos so often prove deficient?
True, sometimes airplanes fail their pilots rather than vice versa. Some excursions can be traced to brakes that failed or locked; tires that blew out on touchdown; or retractable gear downlocks that didn’t. But these are far more the exception than the rule, typically accounting for less than 15 percent of all unplanned departures from the pavement. Usually the problem is that the airplane did exactly what the pilot commanded, faithfully following control inputs that were inadequate or incorrect.
Usually the problem is that the airplane did exactly what the pilot commanded, faithfully following control inputs that were inadequate or incorrect.Pilots like to blame crosswinds for lateral deviations, whether or not any crosswind’s actually present. The fact that most of us were required to show mastery of at least a five-knot crosswind component prior to first solo might make this excuse seem less attractive, but apparently some find it more embarrassing to admit to inattention than a lack of basic stick-and-rudder skills. Attempts to evade culpability have inspired stories that strain credibility: A South Texas student taking dual instruction in a Jabiru light sport aircraft blamed “a gust” for the airplane’s veering left across the intersecting runway and into the weeds. Both his instructor and the airport’s weather records cited a steady five-knot breeze just 30 degrees off the runway heading, a crosswind component of 2.5 knots. In Wisconsin, the pilot of a Cessna 172 “established a crab angle to compensate for the wind”—which was straight down the runway. He also ran off the left side.
Of course, some piloting deficiencies reside less in the feet than in the head. The owner of a Piper Arrow who tried to touch down in a direct crosswind gusting to 30 knots—twice that airplane’s demonstrated crosswind component—shouldn’t have been surprised at his subsequent inability to keep it on the asphalt, or the gear collapse that followed. Likewise, fast, slippery airplanes tend to be very sensitive to airspeed control on final. Any excess knots translate into float that quickly devours short runways. The Lancair or Mooney pilot who wants to put down on a 2,200-foot-long strip had better have sound reason to be confident of his or her technique.
Although of course that should be a prerequisite for any attempt to commit aviation. If you can’t put the airplane where you want it, it’s liable to give the illusion of having a mind of its own.