When news broke that a Learjet on a Part 135 cargo flight had crashed on approach near Chicago, the senior flight instructor became uncharacteristically quiet. The discussion of weather, fuel requirements, and radar tracks that follows most high-profile accidents largely went on without him. Eventually he said, “I think I taught that guy.”
It turned out that the accident pilot was not one of his former students, but another pilot flying for the same company was. It reminded everyone that learning that someone you taught to fly has been killed in an aircraft accident just might be the worst thing that can happen to a CFI—outside the cockpit, anyway.
When it does happen, it’s natural to wonder whether the accident could be traced back to something your school didn’t teach correctly—or failed to teach at all. Did you miss the chance to give that pilot the judgment to avoid the emergency or the skills to escape it? Even when the answer’s pretty clearly “no” (there’s no way you left him under any illusion that trying to follow a road through a mountain valley beneath an overcast was a good idea), the unease is likely to persist. Every student who’s signed off for the checkride is presumed able to safely and competently act as pilot in command, but later some fail to do so. How many years and flight hours have to pass before that no longer reflects on the training they received?
In accident analysis, it’s become conventional to distinguish wrecks due mainly to lack of skill—the runway excursion in a crosswind, say—from those arising from lapses in judgment, like the aforementioned scud-running. Certainly there’s some overlap. The pilot who interprets a 17-knot demonstrated crosswind component to mean that he’ll be fine in 15 knots even though he’s never tried to handle more than five knots can expect criticism on both counts if he gets blown into the weeds. And while it’s also conventional to suggest that it’s lack of judgment that most often leads to catastrophe, aspects of the actual record are more ambiguous.
Stalls are a good example. Quite a lot of private-pilot training is spent teaching students to recognize the signs of an impending stall in time to keep it from developing, and recover “with minimum loss of altitude appropriate to the airplane” if one occurs. A properly trained private pilot should understand stalls without fearing them, know about how much altitude the recovery will require, and be able to demonstrate them or avoid them, as desired. Commercial candidates are required to recognize and respond to the onset of stalls before the actual break.
That’s how it works in theory. In practice, unintended stalls cause about three accidents a week in the United States—727 over the past five years. More than 40 percent were misjudged flares that lead to hard landings, damaged gear, and bent firewalls, but few injuries beyond bruised pride: only five of 298 caused fatalities. Any place other than over the runway, though, an unexpected stall can spell real trouble. After excluding hard landings, the proportion that were fatal also happens to run a little over 40 percent—not what you’d call good odds.
And for some particular varieties, they’re even worse. The details span the supposed judgment-skill divide. For example, there were fatalities in two-thirds of the accidents caused by stalls after low-altitude passes with high-speed pull-ups (42 out of 63). This is a maneuver that’s not part of the curriculum for either the private or commercial certificate, and it’s a safe bet that most of the pilots who died trying it had never practiced it at altitude and had no idea of when the wing would reach the critical angle of attack, how it would feel when it did, or how much altitude would be consumed before it started flying again. A good thing to try for the first time close to the ground? Probably not.
Stalls during steep turns at low altitude, whether in the pattern or out, were just about as dangerous, with fatalities in 60 percent of all accidents that resulted (43 of 72). Here, lack of skill (and maybe lack of knowledge) would seem to be the principal problem. You can point directly to the commercial practical test standards, which requires candidates to be able to recognize and prevent accelerated stalls in a 45-degree bank. Aspiring private pilots aren’t required to demonstrate this, but their instructors certainly were, and it’s not a bad idea for them to show it to every student before giving the endorsement to solo. It just might drive home the fact that the airspeed indicator’s green arc provides no guarantees.
The required power-on stall practice doesn’t always seem to do the job, either. Another 165 pilots managed to stall in while trying to get off the runway and up to cruising altitude. Again, the consequences depended on how far they made it. Premature rotations with the resultant settling back to the runway proved survivable more than 80 percent of the time, but almost half of those (55 of 115) in which the airplane initially managed to climb some distance killed at least one of the people on board. The message that “airspeed is life,” especially in climb, isn’t always getting through. If a pilot who didn’t get it was one of your recent graduates, you may want to take a fresh look at your curriculum.