“Good judgment comes from experience … which mostly comes from bad judgment.”
Flight instruction isn’t just a matter of teaching maneuvers and procedures. Students will have flying careers that extend far beyond their checkrides, and the most valuable thing they can take in with them isn’t stall awareness or crosswind landing technique. It isn’t even good judgment per se as much as the skill of distilling it from growing experience, and the sense of how to compensate when that experience is lacking in order to reach sound decisions.
This is hard enough to convey from the Olympian vantage of the grizzled senior flight instructor with decades in the cockpit and thousands of hours in the logbook. It’s a real challenge for a new instructor who’s just learning that same skill. Throw in career aspirations and the corresponding hope of impressing the boss, and a new instructor may be particularly vulnerable to allowing the desire to please to overwhelm that uneasy feeling in the gut—particularly a young CFI who hasn’t built the life experience to make up for a lack of flight time.
Early in the morning of May 13, 2004, a Piper Seminole corkscrewed into the desert floor near Wittmann, Ariz., killing the CFI, the private pilot receiving instruction, and a back-seat passenger. No one saw the impact, but one witness did see the airplane coming down in a spin, nose-low. Radar data showed a VFR target that appeared just north of Deer Valley, the Seminole’s home base, at 6:45 a.m.; it turned west and climbed to 6,000 feet. After a series of 500-foot climbs and descents, it began a figure-eight maneuver before dropping into a descending 360-degree turn. The last two radar returns were recorded just short of the accident site and 18 seconds apart. In that time, it lost 1,300 feet of altitude, a descent rate of more than 4,300 fpm. The flight barely lasted 20 minutes.
The ground scars and condition of the wreckage suggested that the airplane hit nose-first. The gear were down and locked; flaps appeared to have been up, and all flight controls were functional. Both engines seemed to have been in good working order prior to impact, and fuel was found in the float bowls of both carburetors. One blade of the right propeller had gouges in its leading edge, suggesting that it was turning when it struck the ground. The left propeller had one undamaged blade; the other showed damage along both edges and at its tip.
The NTSB attributed the accident to “The flight instructor’s failure to maintain sufficient airspeed to avoid a stall/spin while maneuvering the aircraft with a dual student.” Fair enough, as far as it goes. But inadvertent stalls are rare in multiengine training, and great care is taken to avoid uncoordinated stalls. The Seminole has counterrotating engines, making an uncoordinated stall unlikely as long as thrust remains symmetric.
The vulnerability of twins during slow flight and single-engine work has been understood for decades, and most multi-engine training programs impose strict airspeed and altitude limits on those exercises to minimize the risk of any loss of control. Stalls are typically prohibited during single-engine flight. VMC demonstrations are approached with considerable caution, and most other engine-out work is done at blue line, or at least no slower than the manufacturer’s published safe single-engine airspeed. But based on the radar track, the Seminole appears to have entered its spin around 4,500 agl and hit the ground about a minute later. What went wrong?
The investigators chose not to speculate. After ruling out a physical problem with the airplane, however, their report includes one remarkable observation: According to both students and other instructors at the flight school, “… the CFI had done multiple check rides with a DPE who would simulate loss of engine power during stall recovery and slow flight at airspeeds about 60 mph. They indicated that if CFIs knew that a maneuver might be tested, then CFIs would teach the maneuver.”
Sixty mph is 52 knots. VMC for the Seminole is 56. Even assuming “60 mph” was meant to be “60 knots,” that’s perilously close to the point at which the most perfect technique can no longer maintain directional control. It’s far below the 82 knots that Piper recommends as the minimum safe airspeed for single-engine operations, the slowest they believe provides an acceptable margin for technique that’s less than perfect. Losing an engine at 60 knots would be a real emergency for an expert multiengine pilot. The idea of pulling an engine on a student at such low airspeed left experienced multiengine instructors shaking their heads.
But the MEI giving this lesson wasn’t that experienced. He was 20 years old; his 480 hours of total flight time included 173 hours of dual given. All of his 76 multiengine hours were in the same model. How much was logged as a student and how much as instructor was not reported. Nor do we know how long it had been since he’d practiced spin recoveries, though it’s a good bet he’d never done them in the Seminole, in which intentional spins are prohibited. That makes it nearly certain that he’d never seen a spin in a twin. Whether his 230-hour student was slow to lower the nose or late to step on the rudder or misidentified the dead engine, once it happened things got bad in a hurry, leaving a new instructor with precious seconds to regain control as the ground rushed up toward his windshield.
The comic-book character Spiderman has a sixth sense that warns him of unseen danger. New CFIs need to develop something similar, with or without the help of radioactive spiders. Especially early in their careers, they should be encouraged to listen to their guts, since when something doesn’t feel right, there are basically just two possibilities. Maybe a reality check from someone more experienced will show that it’s actually okay and they just need some help getting past the discomfort. On the other hand, maybe it’s something they just shouldn’t do.