If you’re fortunate, you haven’t had to deal with the consequences yourself, but you’re probably aware that for student pilots, the greatest risk of bending an airplane comes while trying to land. This isn’t a big surprise. Most fixed-wing pilots find landing the hardest skill to master; they must try to maintain ever-more precise control in all three axes while falling airspeed reduces control effectiveness, the nose blocks visibility down the runway, and the margin for error rapidly diminishes. Instructors do their best to mitigate the risks during dual lessons, but knowing how far you can let a student go before you have to take the controls remains more art than science. About 22 percent of all landing accidents over the past 10 years were on instructional flights. That’s more than double flight instruction’s share of all other kinds of accidents combined.
Breaking that number down reveals some interesting details. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 830 landing accidents on flights that the NTSB classified as “instructional.” Of those, 373 were on dual lessons or during solo practice by a private or higher pilot working toward a new rating. The other 457 occurred on student solos. There were another 104 involving solo students on flights the NTSB labeled “personal,” although at first glance most of those appeared to have been authorized training flights, too.
That means student pilots flying solo had more than 20 percent more landing accidents than all dual instruction combined, including instrument, commercial, multiengine, and transition training—and the increase might be as great as 50 percent. True, students spend a lot of their solo time in the traffic pattern. But they spend a lot more time in the pattern with their CFIs. If 10 percent of the landings a typical student makes before the checkride are done flying solo, it follows that the risk one of them will get out of hand is at least a dozen times higher.
Again, that’s not surprising. You wouldn’t expect someone who’s just learned a difficult skill to exhibit the same degree of mastery as someone who’s practiced it hundreds of additional times. But it does underline the importance of basing that coveted solo endorsement on a really thorough evaluation. Could that recent string of good landings have been just a lucky streak? Is the student consistently in control of the airplane, with enough attention to spare to handle something unexpected?
It turns out that students’ landing accidents aren’t just more of the same. They almost never touch down short of the runway—just twice in the past 10 years—and are almost as successful at stopping before they go off the other end, with just eight overruns during the same period. By comparison, 16 of the landing accidents on dual flights resulted from touching down too early or too late, as were 13 percent of those on flights that weren’t considered instructional. No doubt this is due in part to the airports chosen; few instructors will send their students into short, obstructed fields. But the students themselves also seem to have a well-developed sense of how much runway they need and where to aim the nose. They may also be a little quicker to go around when things don’t look quite right.
Directional control through touchdown and rollout is certainly a problem, but that’s true for everyone. Failure to keep the aircraft in line with the runway causes about half of all landing accidents during dual instruction, student solos, and noninstructional flights alike. Of course, since students have more landing accidents in the first place, it follows that they’re at greater risk of running off the sides—but that excess is proportionate to their excess risk overall.
That’s not true of low-altitude stalls and other hard landings. Fully half of the student accidents—228 of 457—were the result of either dropping the airplane onto the runway after flaring too high, or flying it into the pavement without lifting the nose. Some of them followed bounces, some did not. By comparison, stalls and hard landings accounted for just over 20 percent of landing accidents on both dual and noninstructional flights. Naturally, concentration on directional control can interfere with timing the flare, while fixation on altitude gets in the way of detecting and correcting drift. Your instructors know this, and work hard at fostering the ability to attend to both dimensions at once. But the record suggests that of the two, a little more attention to altitude and attitude might provide the bigger payoff.