Today’s topic was originally going to be instructional accidents in IMC, but it turned out there wasn’t much to say. In 10 years only two dozen fixed-wing accidents have occurred during dual instruction in instrument conditions, so it’s not exactly a rampant public safety problem. Whether this is because CFIs consistently make sure their students obtain instrument clearances and execute procedures correctly or because there’s just not much flight training carried out in actual IMC is something you’ll have to gauge for yourself.
Problems with fuel management are almost as rare, causing just 42 accidents in a 10-year period. (Though it seems fair to suggest that any CFI who’s training a student should be expected to know how much fuel is on board and how to get it to the engines. Whether it’s due to starvation or complete exhaustion, allowing the fuel situation to get far enough out of hand to cause an accident warrants raised eyebrows, at the very least.)
Instead, trouble tends to show up where you’d probably expect it. Far and away the largest share of accidents in fixed-wing dual—almost 35 percent—are pranged landings. That kind of makes sense: Sooner or later the student has to be allowed to try to land the airplane. Giving him or her some room to make mistakes while preserving a reasonable margin of safety requires walking a pretty fine line, so it’s not surprising things sometimes get out of hand. What is surprising is that landings actually account for a larger share of accidents during dual instruction than on noninstructional flights, where they make up “only” 30 percent. Nationwide, an average of about three accidents a month arise from the efforts of a student and an instructor to put an airplane back onto the pavement—not so bad when you consider the number of landings made more or less successfully during the same period.
Just as in the larger world, takeoffs are another problem area, averaging one accident a month. Nearly 20 percent of those are fatal. Still, that’s only enough to rank a distant second on the list of fatal-accident causes. The situation that’s most likely to result in death during dual is a mistake during low-altitude maneuvering. That was the explanation for more than 30 percent of all fatal accidents, more than double the share in the next largest category. Indeed, accidents caused by mechanical failures (11 percent) and crashes during takeoff attempts (15 percent) were the only other categories that accounted for even 10 percent of fatalities.
“Low-altitude maneuvering” is a catch-all term covering a multitude of sins that include wire and tower strikes, ill-fated canyon runs, and aerobatics that don’t go quite as planned. During dual instruction, though, the great majority of maneuvering accidents—almost three-quarters—involve unintended stalls. This is in sharp contrast to other noncommercial flying, where collisions with hillsides, power lines, and other stationary objects is a larger problem, and only a third of maneuvering accidents are blamed on stalls. On noninstructional flights, too, stalls are most often the result of either badly executed buzz jobs or sloppy airmanship in the traffic pattern. That’s not the case in dual, where more than half of the accidents blamed on inadvertent stalls took place while training for engine failures.
The risk of allowing a simulated emergency to turn into the real thing is a subject that just won’t go away. In multiengine airplanes, the great threat is a loss of control while operating on a single engine. (In that light, it’s worth noting that the FAA’s newly revised practical test standards now prohibit failing one engine of a twin below 500 feet agl.) In a single, two concerns share equal importance. Since there’s always the chance that the engine won’t come back to life when the throttle’s opened again, it’s a serious (and avoidable) mistake to pull it back to idle any time there’s not a suitable landing site within reasonable gliding distance. And the emphasis there is on “reasonable” given that moment’s balance between altitude and airspeed. If it becomes clear that balance isn’t sufficient—there’s not enough of the other to trade for the one you need—there’s no point in waiting to find out whether the engine really will come back to life. Low altitude is also an unforgiving place to demonstrate that you really can’t stretch a glide. Engine-outs end in stalls when students—or instructors—try to make it back to the runway, or a landing spot they’ve overflown, without enough potential or kinetic energy to pull it off. Crank in a harder bank, pull back the yoke to try to hold altitude, and … Bingo. Game over.
The perils of ignoring both hazards at once were illustrated in Alaska a few years back. Climbing out over a saltwater bay, the instructor pulled the throttle somewhere below 500 feet. With only water ahead, the student began to bank back toward the runway, but given the low altitude didn’t feel comfortable turning any faster than standard rate. The instructor told him that wasn’t enough, took the controls, and “dramatically increased the angle of bank”—enough to stall it into the trees. Well, at least they made it back to shore, and both men did survive. Unfortunately, the student’s injuries were worse than the instructor’s.