It’s possible that those who haven’t tried it sometimes overestimate the glamor of primary flight instruction. They may know about the long hours and low pay; the unpredictable schedules and old training aircraft; the students who are unprepared or late or both; and the endless time in cockpits that are too hot in summer and too cold all winter; but they never realize that it also has its down side.
Nonpilots and new pilots alike might find it hard to believe that even teaching stall recoveries and crosswind landings can eventually become humdrum. Those who want to stay in the business, or at least last long enough to move on to bigger and better things, must find ways of dealing with the tedium. Some ways work better than others.
On November 15, 2007, a Piper PA-28R-200 Arrow broke up in flight more than 10,000 feet above central Texas. The airplane had left Arlington Municipal Airport (GKY) a little before 1400 local time on a 132-nautical-mile cross-country to Abilene Regional Airport (ABI). On board were a 600-hour CFI, one student who held a foreign private pilot certificate, and a primary student riding as the backseat passenger. The purpose of the flight was to build time for the foreign pilot, and give the backseat student (who was not a native English speaker) more experience with radio communications. Six major sections of wreckage were eventually found scattered across half a square mile of cactus and scrub oak.
The airplane was 34 years old, with more than 7,250 hours on the airframe. Examination of the fracture surfaces suggested overload, the left wing twisting and bending until the prop gouged the skin and the right wing failing in the opposite direction. Radar data showed it flying a series of maneuvers that might not have been expected during a routine cross-country. Five times it climbed to altitudes between 11,000 and 12,300 feet msl, and then suddenly pitched down and accelerated to 120 KCAS or more before climbing rapidly for 300 or 400 feet, slowing, and levelling off. The fifth time, its airspeed passed 134 KCAS, decreasing briefly just before radar contact was lost.
Maneuvering speed for this model is 116 KCAS.
After the accident, the instructor’s colleagues and students spoke highly of his skills. One CFI called him the best pilot he’d ever flown with. He’d come a long way in a hurry. There is no record of his having flown at all for more than three years after his private pilot checkride. Then, in the space of five months, he’d earned multiengine and instrument ratings and a flight instructor certificate, then completed new CFI training at the flight school. He was 29 years old, and more than half his total flight time had been logged in the previous 90 days.
In interviews, two other instructors and one of his students acknowledged that he’d been known to do aerobatics in training aircraft with students on board. The backseat passenger’s principal instructor knew that he sometimes demonstrated spins to primary students, and she had also heard accounts of his doing “barrel rolls” in the school’s airplanes. At lunch that day, she’d asked him “not to do any funny stuff” with her student on board. The Arrow, of course, is not certified for any kind of aerobatics, including spins.
Another instructor recalled having taken the accident instructor to task for doing “snap rolls” in the trainers. He described the maneuver as pitching the airplane down until it reached 140 knots, then pitching up 10 to 15 degrees and applying left rudder and aileron. A primary student gave a similar description of the “barrel roll” the accident instructor had performed in a Cessna 172SP after demonstrating spins. He added that the roll was “smooth…not violent” and that he considered this CFI a very good pilot. An email the backseat passenger had sent to friends the week before described a “megalomaniac instructor” who’d taken the controls and done spins without warning, almost throwing the student out of his seat because his belt wasn’t secure. This instructor was never conclusively identified, but the student had flown with the accident CFI the day that email was sent.
Given this background, it’s hard to argue with the NTSB’s attribution of the accident to “The pilot's intentional performance of aerobatic maneuvers that exceeded the design limits of the airplane structure.” It’s harder to see why attempting aerobatics in an uncertified airplane seemed like a good idea, but the pilot’s history might provide some hints. He’d worked as a CFI for a little less than four months—maybe long enough for boredom to begin setting in, but not a lot of time in which to absorb a sense of the safety culture if it didn’t come naturally. He’d been flying a lot and was probably starting to feel very much at home. Perhaps the exhilaration of a growing sense of freedom and mastery of the airplane led him to begin exploring the farther corners of the flight envelope—and the compliments of students and fellow instructors alike probably didn’t discourage him.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine what went through his mind the first time he decided to try rolling one of the flight school’s trainers. “I don’t think the wings will come off.” Oh, really? What if you’re wrong? Or suppose they don’t come off the first time, but begin accumulating invisible fatigue from repeatedly bearing loads they were never designed to withstand?
CFIs can scarcely be blamed for all the mistakes of their former students, but the instructor’s attitude during training sets the standard for the student’s outlook thereafter. A flippant approach to safety risks producing pilots who just don’t believe that what they’re doing is real, and that bad things can happen—until bitter experience intervenes.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.