Master of My Fate Maintaining Aircraft Control

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing

When it comes to rounding up the usual suspects for GA accident causes, none may be higher on the “wanted” list than loss of control — especially loss of control in flight (LOC-I). LOC-I persists as the leading cause of fatal general aviation accidents in the United States and commercial aviation worldwide. Preventing LOC-I in GA has therefore been one of the perennial “perps” on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements — most recently making the list in 2017, and even more recently starring as the sole subject of an April 2018 NTSB Safety Forum.

The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook defines LOC-I as “a significant deviation of an aircraft from the intended flightpath [that] often results from an airplane upset.” It goes on to observe that maneuvering is the most common phase of flight for general aviation LOC-I accidents to occur, while cautioning that LOC-I accidents can — and do — occur in all phases of flight. The handbook appears to state the obvious when it notes that preventing loss of control is the pilot’s most fundamental responsibility; after all, what could be more important? With all the authority that the regulations (i.e., 14 CFR section 91.3) confer to the pilot in command (PIC), the expectation is that as PIC, you are indeed the master of your fate — and, of course, the fate of anyone who happens to be in the airplane you’re flying.

The unfortunate reality is rather different. Far too often, performing maneuvers that should be well within the capabilities of a certificated pilot melts the “master-of-my-fate” mettle, and that happens even faster than in the Casablanca scene where Major Strasser’s arrival blows Captain Louis Renault’s blustery bravado to smithereens.

So what to do?

Opinions Differ …

When it comes to ideas on how to corral this particular cause, pretty much everyone agrees that appropriate training is a critical piece of the answer. Pretty much everyone also agrees that, as the FAA states in the Airplane Flying Handbook:

To prevent LOC-I accidents, it is important for pilots to recognize and maintain a heightened awareness of situations that increase the risk of loss of control. Those situations include: uncoordinated flight, equipment malfunctions, pilot complacency, distraction, turbulence, and poor risk management — like attempting to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) when the pilot is not qualified or proficient. […] To maintain aircraft control when faced with these or other contributing factors, the pilot must be aware of situations where LOC-I can occur, recognize when an airplane is approaching a stall, has stalled, or is in an upset condition, and understand and execute the correct procedures to recover the aircraft.

There is rather less agreement, however, when it comes to the question of how to ensure that pilots actually get the appropriate training as defined above.

The FAA has always maintained that there is a difference between the larger universe of what is required for training, and the subset that constitutes what is appropriate for “checking” — more colloquially known as testing. Until June 2016, the testing standard (formerly the Practical Test Standards, or PTS; now the Airman Certification Standards, or ACS) for the slow flight and stalls area of operation framed the slow flight task to require flight at an airspeed at which any further increase in angle of attack would result in a stall. This construction required an applicant to perform the “slow flight” maneuver with the stall warning activated.

With the release of the Private Pilot – Airplane ACS in June 2016, the FAA revised the slow flight evaluation standard to reflect maneuvering without a stall warning (e.g., aircraft buffet, stall horn, etc.). The agency explained this change in SAFO 16010 as one approach to addressing loss of control in flight accidents in general aviation, noting that the previous inclusion of a maneuver that required intentional disregard of the stall warning activated is neither desirable nor intended. Rather, the point of the slow flight task is to assess the applicant’s ability to operate safely at the low airspeeds and at high angles of attack used during the takeoff/departure and approach/landing phases of normal flight. As revised, the slow flight task verifies that the applicant has learned airplane cues in that flight condition, how to smoothly manage coordinated flight control inputs, and the progressive signals that a stall may be imminent if there is further deviation from this condition.

Opinions Differ — Part Deux

The FAA received what you might call “spirited” feedback from the general aviation community on this change. One of the primary concerns was that removing the requirement to test an applicant at what pilots like me learned as “minimum controllable airspeed,” or MCA, meant that instructors would not bother to ensure that pilots are still trained and proficient at maneuvering near the critical angle of attack (AOA) — or, just as important, understand what happens beyond the stall warning.

Although the FAA asserted in SAFO 16010 (since replaced by SAFO 17009) that a pilot is still expected to “know and understand the aerodynamics behind how the airplane performs from the time the stall warning is activated to reaching a full stall,” we did review the entire slow flight and stalls area of operation to ensure the knowledge, risk management, and skill elements adequately capture what a pilot should know, consider, and do relative to each task. As a result, the agency revised the evaluation standards for these tasks in the June 2017 editions of the ACS for the private pilot-airplane and the commercial pilot-airplane certificates.

With the primary focus on understanding aerodynamics associated with flying slow in different phases of flight, there is now only one knowledge element for slow flight available for evaluators to select for the practical test. The FAA refined and consolidated the risk management elements. In the skill task section of the slow flight task, we modified the phrasing to require an applicant to “establish and maintain an airspeed at which any further increase in angle of attack, increase in load factor, or reduction in power, would result in a stall warning (e.g., aircraft buffet, stall horn, etc.).”

Everything In Its Proper Place

Contrary to what you might have read or heard, the “MCA” task element never disappeared from the practical test requirements — after all, it is not possible to perform a full stall task required on the private pilot-airplane practical test without first passing through that flight condition. That said, to more clearly convey the expectation for evaluation of an applicant’s ability to recognize airplane cues for an impending stall and a full stall, the FAA added a requirement for the applicant to “acknowledge cues of the impending stall and then recover promptly after a full stall has occurred.”

Here’s another way to think about the rationale for this approach to the slow flight and stall tasks:

  • Slow flight — that is, flight at the airspeeds and configurations used in the takeoff/departure and approach/landing phases of flight — is a normal operation that should not be performed with continuous activation of the stall warning.
  • Except in the case of a thoroughly briefed full stall maneuver, a pilot should always treat the stall warning as an “abnormal” situation, and promptly perform the stall recovery procedure.
  • A pilot should always treat an unbriefed/unintentional full stall as an emergency situation, and execute a prompt and correct stall recovery.

You have probably heard the cliché that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while (somehow) expecting different results. We weren’t making headway against LOC-I by testing pilots in a way that encouraged, indeed required, intentional disregard of the stall warning. So it only makes sense to try a new approach to putting this pesky perpetrator out of business.

Learn More

Susan Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Team


Screenshots of “Casablanca” by Warner Bros.

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