Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2018
General Aviation (GA) flying is so much fun that people will fly hundreds of miles just to have lunch and enjoy the freedom of flight. Breaking the bonds of gravity, to an extent, provides a sense of release and control that can only be found through flight. There, the endless blue sky above and the artists’ palette of constantly changing shapes and colors below, cleanses the mind. It also intrigues the soul and enriches the spirit of the aviator with the feeling of freedom, almost to a point of giddiness.
With all that beauty to absorb, it is still sad that so many GA pilots and passengers will never see it again because of the failure to maintain control of their aircraft at low altitude. And while this also happens to airline and other professional pilots, it happens much more often with GA pilots. Why does that happen? Is it because of a lack of training, overestimating one’s skills, or just complacency?
In a fact sheet published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) titled Prevent Loss of Control (LOC) in flight in General Aviation, it states, “While airline accidents have become relatively rare in the U.S., pilots and passengers involved in general aviation (GA) operations still die at alarming rates every year due to loss of aircraft control by the pilot.”
It goes on to say, “GA pilots typically need to complete a flight review, consisting of 1 hour of ground training and 1 hour of flight training, every 24 months. They almost exclusively maintain and improve skills on their own, and their conduct of safe flight depends more on individual abilities and judgment, potentially leaving them unprepared for situations that can lead to loss of control.”
Many LOC accidents take place while aircraft are maneuvering at low altitude. While at this lower altitude (1,000 feet or lower), the margin for error is significantly reduced. At lower altitudes pilots face many obstacles and hazards like towers, wind generators, trees, powerlines and even flocks of birds. There may also be wind shear or unexpected turbulence caused by buildings and natural objects on the ground.
While statistics show that approach to landing, maneuvering, and climb are the deadliest phases of flight for loss of control-in flight (LOC-I) accidents, many of these accidents happen at low altitude. When maneuvering at low altitudes, pilots naturally have an increased workload. This comes about as a direct result of the hazards mentioned in the previous paragraph and with the aircraft possibly at a high angle of attack and at a slower speed.
With the increased workload, the chance for loss of airspeed awareness is also increased. That, quite simply, is caused by a failure of the pilot to fly the airplane first, instead of succumbing to distractions on the ground. It can also happen when the pilot is distracted by some perceived (or actual) minor malfunction with the aircraft.
Bear in mind that when maneuvering at low altitude, there is much less time and fewer opportunities to recover from aerodynamic stall and loss of control. A quote from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau succinctly states, “Flying at low altitudes is not only risky when things are going right; it becomes downright perilous when things are going wrong.”
Minnesota Department of Transportation Chief Pilot Jeff Flynn, suggests, “Pilots should practice doing go-arounds from the flare, with your favorite CFI aboard and be done at a safe altitude to get a feel for the critical inputs and trim changes associated with such radical power changes.” Flynn adds, “Practicing that maneuver will assist the pilot in building ‘muscle-memory’ while instilling the proper, quick, and well-practiced actions that help keep aviators safe.”
So, the next time you get the urge to fly low and check out something on the ground, ask yourself these questions first: Is there an operational need for me to be flying at or below 1,000 feet AGL? Am I experienced/trained to operate an aircraft at low altitude for more than a transitional period of time?
You should have been trained and qualified by a CFI to fly at low altitude, if low flight is going to be necessary. If you do plan to fly a low altitude profile, you should always complete a thorough aerial inspection of the proposed low flight area from an appropriate and safe altitude before ever attempting low flight.
If you have questions, go to the FAASTeam.GOV website. It is a great resource for pilots to help improve their skills and knowledge. The site not only hosts the FAA WINGS pilot proficiency program, but also contains online pilot training materials. Pilots, flight instructors, and mechanics are encouraged to register online. Check it out today!
Here is one more piece of information for you if you think you are going to do low-altitude flying before being properly trained or retrained to do so. Mr. Les Dorr, spokesperson for the FAA in Washington, D.C., released a fact sheet titled General Aviation Safety, on April 4th, 2018. It is packed with important information and additional guidance. This fact sheet also notes that from 2001 through 2016, three (3) of the top 10 leading causes of fatal GA accidents include (1) Loss of Control in Flight, (2) Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT), and (9) Low-Altitude Operations. All of these elements are causes of fatal accidents in low flight. You can read the Fact Sheet at: https://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=21274