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A failure of sense and skillA failure of sense and skill

When dual lessons end in accidents, the most common finding is that the instructor waited a little too long to intervene after things started getting out of hand. Given the need to let students make their own mistakes and—ideally—learn to correct them again, that’s a risk that goes with the territory. So it seems inevitable people occasionally get caught. These most often result in bent metal (or fractured composite) but relatively few injuries, whatever mischief they do to the student’s self-confidence, the instructor’s reputation, or the operator’s insurance premiums.

At the opposite extreme you’ll find the handful of cases in which CFIs deliberately chose to misbehave, like the guy who pulled a Piper Arrow apart 10,000 feet over central Texas with two students on board. Those accidents, if you can call them that, are typically catastrophic, so it’s a good thing they’re so rare.

Somewhere in between are accidents instigated by instructors who unintentionally set bad examples—by hurrying, taking things for granted, or discouraging their students from exercising the degree of caution appropriate for their experience level. The students on those flights can be counted among the lucky if they survived to learn from the experience. Those who got through the program without incident, having watched their instructors use convenient assumptions to excuse cutting corners, have been trained to court catastrophe without even knowing it.

A sterling example arose in late 2012. The flight was a long dual cross-country in a piston helicopter owned by the student. The first three legs were uneventful, but after the third the student suggested they were getting low on fuel. By his account, the instructor replied that the fuel gauges were “often faulty” and that they had enough gas for the return leg. The CFI elaborated in his written report to the NTSB:

“I noted the fuel gauge and made the decision to continue…. The fuel gauge read 3/8 full. Out of 40 gallons total fuel, we passed over [the third airport] with 15 gallons. With fuel burn at 13.5 gallons per hour and 30 to 35 minutes to [the destination], we should land with the required 20 minute reserve.”

Those with suspicious minds might already see signs of trouble. The CFI dissuaded a student who was anxious about their fuel supply from making absolutely sure they had enough to get home—justifying that decision on the basis of the same gauges he’d just said were “often faulty” and the assumption that his fuel consumption estimates “should” provide „the required 20-minute reserve.” That student could have come away with the impression that minimum reserve fuel is something it’s nice to have left after you land—not the threshold that planning requires landing before you cross it. Neither actually looked in the tanks after any of their three landings.

About two miles from home, with the instructor watching for traffic, the helicopter suddenly yawed left. As he switched his attention to the engine gauges, then tried to see what the student was doing with the controls, it yawed left again and the main rotor rpm “began to decay.” The instructor took over the controls, lowered the collective, and “levelled the helicopter for a 70-knot attitude … [which] made the main rotor rpm decay even further,” dropping below the minimum required for a stable autorotation. Subsequent attempts to regain rotor speed were unsuccessful and the ship landed level but very hard, with negligible forward airspeed. The main rotor severed the tail boom, but both men walked away unhurt.

No usable fuel was found on board the aircraft. There was also no evidence of mechanical failure. After fuel was added to the tanks, the engine ran normally. The CFI asserted that they’d lost rotor rpm because the sprag clutch—a device that balances centrifugal force against spring tension to prevent an engine failure from slowing the rotor system—had failed to disengage. Perhaps it did, but examination after the accident found nothing wrong with the mechanism, and the NTSB reached a different conclusion. The board attributed the accident to “The flight instructor’s failure to conduct an autorotation following the loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.”

Pilots faulted in NTSB reports have been known to complain that the investigators got the wrong end of the stick, and occasionally they’ve been proven right. Whether you believe this CFI’s explanation or think he mismanaged the emergency, there’s not much doubt the emergency was one of his own creation. That’s hard to read as anything less than an abdication of every instructor’s responsibility to teach to the highest standards, set an example, and train students in the habits of mind that underpin a safe and successful career. If you think he also destroyed a client’s aircraft because he was slow to recognize and respond to a genuine power loss in flight, it would be hard to find a better example of what not to teach a student.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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