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Loss of Control—Our Greatest Nemesis

Article appeared in Flying Magazine September, 2014 by John King – John_05

It was a setup for loss of control. Martha and I were brand-new VFR-only pilots and, while returning from California to Indiana, had decided to scud–run through Tennessee to hurry our way home. The ceilings had pressed us down below the tops of tall antennas, and we were circling tightly over a small town while studying the map and trying to miss the antennas. The challenge was to figure out which road and railroad combination was the one that would lead us to the airport.

We got the airplane on the ground without harm, and we certainly scared ourselves in the process, but we didn’t understand the full extent of the risks we had taken. Tight circling is a frequent way of losing control. And loss of control is the number one way pilots and their passengers come to grief in general aviation airplanes.

There is a lot of talk about loss of control with the implication that, if we could only solve this particular difficulty, we could dramatically improve the general aviation fatality rate. The problem is that loss of control is a very big and diverse category, and more of an outcome than a cause.

Many flight instructors feel the way to prevent loss of control is to drill learning pilots on their physical skills to ensure they never suffer loss of control. Sometimes, however, pilots get themselves into situations from which no amount of skill could rescue them.

When Martha and I decided we wanted to become multiengine-sea rated, we chose as our instructor the owner of a Grumman Widgeon. He was a current pilot for a major airline and as a sideline did a lot of seaplane training in the Widgeon. Our choice of instructor was great. Our choice of the airport at which to begin training was lousy. We were at Lakeland, Florida, on an afternoon during Sun ’n Fun. The wait in line to get to the runway seemed interminable.

When it was our time to take the runway, the flagman frantically signaled for us to go and make room for the next airplane in line. Our instructor swung smartly onto the runway with a left turn. We had a strong crosswind from the left, which of course served to tighten the left turn. As he brought in power to the dual Ranger engines, the clockwise-turning propellers added to the left-turning force. Then, when he briskly raised the tail, gyroscopic effect even further added to the airplane’s desire to go left. That airplane was going to go to the left. Our instructor had full right rudder in as we rapidly departed the runway to the left. There just was not enough rudder available to counteract all those things making our airplane want to turn to the left. Fortunately, we missed all the campers’ tents and came to a stop in the grass.

Many would characterize the cause of this excursion as a lack of stick and rudder skills. Instead, I see it as a failure in risk management. Our instructor had a high level of skill, but the situation was a setup for failure. Once he was in that situation, no amount of skill could have effected a recovery.

There are innumerable scenarios that could lead to loss of control, and through the years Martha and I have sampled a lot of them. At AirVenture one year Martha avoided falling prey to loss of control in our Falcon 10. We were flying Young Eagles at Oshkosh and were to land on Runway 18R. The tower instructed us to stay south of Runway 27 on our left base to Runway 18R. Then it told us to land behind an airplane that was already on the runway. The news that there was an airplane on the runway meant that Martha had to adjust her approach to get lower and slower a lot sooner. Plus, she thought she might overshoot final. Rather than wrapping this highly wing-loaded, sweptwing jet into a steep bank at slow speed near the ground to continue an approach that wasn’t working out right, Martha elected to add full power and go around. Sadly, just a few years later the pilot of a Premier in nearly identical circumstances stalled his jet and crashed.

Another instance when we were at risk for loss of control occurred back when we had a Cessna 340. We were over Klamath Falls, Oregon, on our way back home to San Diego. We had put a friend in the left front seat and I was acting as his flight instructor. We were on an instrument flight at 11,000 feet when we flew into the top of a developing cumulus cloud. Instantly, the airplane was coated with ice. It was clear we were collecting ice at a rate that even this full-deicing-equipped twin couldn’t handle. I looked down to get a sectional chart to check for a descent path. When I looked up, I saw that we were losing altitude. “Hold your altitude,” I warned our friend. When he pulled back on the wheel to return to altitude, the airplane immediately entered a stall buffet. I took control, called ATC for descent, simultaneously applied full power, and pitched down to best rate of climb speed. This this caused us to enter a thousand-feet-per-minute rate of descent, which continued until we were below the freezing level and shed the ice. When we had a chance to reflect on what happened, we realized that this was yet another scenario that was a setup for loss of control.

Since there are so many and varied ways that we can be exposed to loss of control, and there is no way to anticipate them all, how do we as pilots deal with the issue? One way is to recognize trouble when we see it. Just as when we are driving a car, we need to be able to know when we are entering a dangerous neighborhood. “Dangerous neighborhoods” for loss of control include those situations that put Martha and me at risk — like maneuvering over landmarks, flying with low ceilings and/or visibilities, and unusual maneuvering in the traffic pattern, particularly when turning base to final. Bad neighborhoods for IFR loss of control include flying IFR when not proficient and flying in icing conditions.

The reason why we study aviation knowledge and risk management is so we will learn when we are entering these dangerous neighborhoods. We need to be able to “smell” trouble. It is part of our situational awareness.

Martha and I are proof that pilots don’t always stay out of dangerous neighborhoods. Sometimes avoiding loss of control requires good stick and rudder skills. When we talk about stick and rudder skills, we are often thinking mostly about the physical manipulation of the controls. But knowing what to do with the controls and when is key. That requires a sensitive “seat of the pants” — a feel for what the airplane is doing. There are many “sensitivities” that help us avoid loss of control, but two in particular are essential.

First is a sensitivity as to whether the longitudinal axis is yawed directly into the relative wind without looking at the slip/skid indicator. When the airplane is neither slipping nor skidding, the wings are equally exposed to the relative wind. So if the aircraft stalls, it won’t tend to spin, and recovery is much easier. Keeping the nose yawed directly into the wind has the bonus of making the fight much more comfortable for the aircraft’s occupants.

Second is load factor sensitivity — an awareness of when there is more than one G on the seat of the pants. High load factor causes the airplane to stall at much higher speeds with much less warning. Load factor can come from turbulence and changing our pitch attitude, but the most common source of load factor that leads to surprise loss of control is steep banks with back pressure.

Pilots who have these two sensitivities are far more likely to keep their airplane under control even if they stray inadvertently into a “dangerous neighborhood.” Martha’s first instructor put special effort into seeing that she had learned these sensitivities. It is easy for pilots who do most of their flying in jets to lose the habit of keeping the nose yawed directly into the wind. It is not a problem for me, though, because thanks to her primary instructor, Martha is very sensitive to it and helpfully points out to me whenever I need more rudder.


  1. Bill Blackburn

    Great article again as usual! I agree with the gentleman 100%, that we should bring back spin training for student pilots. I always offer the training to all my customers and about 60% will accept. I think this would reduce fatalities and increase respect for operations in dangerous neighborhoods.

    • "Triller" Trhlin

      I always demo’ed full two-turn spins in both directions (C-150 for that purpose) to my primary students with a thorough pre-brief. They were then aware of what to expect and why I was doing so. Both a healthy respect was developed for coordinated flight and the experience of a fully-developed spin also made the unknown, known.

      The demonstration earned their respect for what could happen and, importantly, taught them awareness of a eminent accelerated stall / spin situations. They were able to recognize both instrument indications and kinesthetic cues as the aircraft was loaded in an uncoordinated steep turn. If ever an airplane they were flying did depart and spin entry was inadvertently entered, my students would be able to recognize and promptly input accelerated stall recovery and spin-avoidance.

  2. Mr. Nitpick

    LEFT crosswind at Sun N Fun made you go left? I think you meant crosswind from the RIGHT added to the left-turning prop tendency, etc. A left crosswind is from the left, I thought. I could be wrong.

      • Ron Frames

        John was right. The left crosswind made the aircraft yaw or windmill to the left into the wind, the twin engine clockwise turning props created p-factor which caused the airplane to turn left because of the additional thrust created by the descending blades as opposed to the ascending prop blades and the gyroscopic precession was created by rotating the airplane on takeoff into a pitch up attitude which because of the higher angle of attack, high rpm of the engine and low airspeed caused the airplane to turn left.

    • Pilot One

      While the aircraft was turning left, a left crosswind could indeed exacerbate the turn by applying force the the vertical stab. I believe this is what happened here.

  3. LOU

    Hi John

    You article on Loss of Control, was very enlightening. I will take what I’ve learned and apply it to my teachings with my students, hopefully inspiring them to keep out of the “Bad Neighborhoods”

    Lou DiVentura CFI

  4. charlie

    Very enlightening, as a low time student (at 56 yaers of age) I intend to stay out of bad neighborhoods!
    Greeting from sunny South Africa.

  5. Michael H. Albritton

    I have taken your sport pilots course and finished it, but I have not taken the FAA test yet. I have heard that there is a test question pool out there that gives you only the correct answer to all of the questions. Is this true?

    I have had real problems with the wind and navigation part of your course. It is especially hard these days because most of the pilots I talk to have the GPS systems that figures everything out for them, so they are very rusty on this part, even the charts and Lat. Long. lines.

    I am 68 yeas old and the Sport Pilot thing was something I wanted to accomplish. I did not care about a private pilots license because of the extra expense and the night flying, none of which I desired. The problem is that if I ever finish this course I will have as many hours as a private pilot and nothing to fly. I am training in an Ercoupe 415C ( with rudder pedals but no flaps and we never trim it) that is only 4 months older than I am. I have seen only one of the new high wing LSA and it was privately owned, ( It cost over $150,000.00, looked horrible and moved around like a leaf in a slight wind. I do like the looks of the low wings like the Breezer but no one has one). Hardly any of the schools in my area ( Addison Airport in the Dallas Metro Area being an exception but who wants to train in that congestion and Denton Texas that is too far away) have any of the newer planes. The planes I will be left to fly are the Ercoupe 415c and a lot of “tail draggers” that I will have to put in a lot of extra time and money to master. If the FAA would ever lift the weight requirements so some of the Cessna’s would qualify then it would be a lot better.

    I am finding out that I am really struggling with straight and level flight and especially landings. I have had about 18 lessons, so far, and a little discouraged at my progress.

    I am amazed at the stories I hear, such as the one you just told, about so many accidents or near accidents from “pilot error.” My instructor is very keen on check lists, and collision avoidance, but the stories abound where good pilots with many hours make fatal decisions.

    I would like your opinions on the Sport Pilot Issue. Is it really worth it to spend all of that money and training time and then not be able to fly anything other than what you trained in?……….Michael H., Rockwall Texas……….I train out of Lancaster Airport in Lancaster Texas (KLNC) and my instructor is John Clark. I could not ask for a better facility or better instructor and I have no adverse issues to complain about, this is just a response to your thought provoking story.

    Thank you for your time , good aviation courses and common sense……………..Michael H.

  6. Tom Cordell

    Excellent article. Learning not to put your hand into a hot oven would seem to be more effective than learning better techniques to pull it out. Thank you.

  7. Bob Crow

    This is the kind of information that I try to keep with me in while in the cockpit each and every-time I leave the ground…their are no routine flights, each is unique and presents its own set of challenges, obstacles and hazards. I truly appreciate you documenting your personal experiences and reactions to those experiences. I will heed your call to action and keep your words in mind during my flight operations!
    Bob C.
    Fort Lauderdale FL.

  8. Peter Georgio

    Thanks for the article. My son is an MD and has taken enough lessons to allow him to fly cross country solo. He is self confident and cautious but the simple fact that he only flies on an intermittent basis is worrisome to me. It is impossible to get good at something unless you put the appropriate time in to do so. Would a home simulator be of any help? any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks, PG

  9. Leo. Smith.

    Even as a student pilot I almost experienced loss of control on a downwind pattern at the Flying W airport in Medford New Jersey while fulfilling part of my solo requirements. I didn’t collective down enough for manifold pressure while descending which could have led to a stall or a coning which is very hard or almost impossible to recover. So I felt the problem approaching at the seat of my pants and made the necessary changes just before I turned left base for Runway 1…. Yours Truly. Leo. Smith..

  10. Fletcher Pool

    Very good information, in all ways. We need to practice slow flight stalls at a high altitude with the stall warning horn disconnected to learn the feeling by the seat of our pants that we are entering a stall situation. But that is not enough to control stalls in very tight turns. We need a lot of practice of very tight turns around a point at a high altitude with increased rudder use and enough power to get the feel of approaching stalls, to the point that it becomes automatic to us to correct the condition. Should not just concentrate on the point. Flying the plane always comes first over everything else.

    The FAA should again require spin training before a student is allowed to solo. My first two instructors were ex WWII fighter pilots with a lot of combat hours. They were required to have me skilled in spin recovery, and they believed it to be very important. Many many years later during a check ride my instructor kept telling me to hold the yoke back until the faulty stall warning horn sounded off. It didn’t, and we flipped into into a tight left hand spin as I already knew it would. He panicked and tried to take over. I calmly told him that I had it, stopped the spin, and pulled the plane safely out of the resulting steep dive. The first planes I flew many many years ago had no stall warning horns. Should we have them? Certainly!

  11. "Peegee"

    Hello, Martha & John…
    I think Lindberg, Mermoz and some others pilots, in the past, haven’t these problems… “Le cap, la montre” that is the secret : Also, in my car with GPS, my wife look at the chart and count the roads… No problem. Don’t forget “Le cap, la montre”, then G.P.S. wasn’t problem.
    Merry Christmas… Yours truly

  12. Patrick Kavanagh

    John, have you written a book? I could never tire of your wit, your words and your adventures. Martha, continue to let Jon know when he needs more rudder. Love that one. Stay safe both of you.

  13. Cpt. Phillip Mckie

    Well John you are so right I recently had a case where I was leaving a short field in a BE G58 and by just adjusting my heading bug in a fairly steep turn on departure a gust picked up my left wing and I had to roll out of the turn immediately. We were fairly close to the ground still. I am very sure that King Schools will come up with a new course to help all fellow aviators in this matter. Go for it!

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