Loss of Control

by HPA · August 30, 2017

Loss of Control

by Scott Kellam

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines aircraft Loss of Control as: “Loss of aircraft control while in flight.” Loss of Control (LOC) related accidents are the leading cause of all General and Commercial aviation accidents in the United States, which has prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to add Loss of Control accidents to their “Most Wanted” list, four years in a row now. The Safety Board notes that between the years of 2008-2014, 47% of all General Aviation (GA) fixed-wing aircraft accidents were attributed to LOC, claiming a total of 1,210 lives.

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In October of 2015, the NTSB held a special conference addressing the problem of LOC in General Aviation. Per recently released studies, the most common causes for these types of accidents are pilot inattention due to workload, distraction or complacency, as well as a general misunderstanding that a stall is only related to airspeed, when in fact, exceeding a wing’s angle-of-attack (AOA) will also produce an aerodynamic stall and/or unusual attitude. This is especially critical during low-altitude maneuvering (traffic pattern, takeoff and landing) where altitude is at a premium and there may not be enough time and/or altitude to recover from a stall.

The NTSB proposed pilots equip their aircraft with AOA indicators to aid in increasing situational awareness during high-workload environments (high traffic airspace, adverse weather, etc.). This should be combined with increasing pilot training to ensure pilots fully understand aerodynamic stall characteristics and how to react to them, as well as how to recover from unusual attitudes, AOA concepts, and how aspects such as maneuvering loads, weight and balance, and turbulence can all affect the stall characteristics of an aircraft.

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Pilots should:

  • Be prepared to recognize stall characteristics and warning signs, and be able to apply appropriate recovery techniques before stall onset.
  • Be honest with themselves about their personal level of stalls, and their ability to recognize and recover from them.
  • Use effective aeronautical decision-making techniques and flight risk assessment tools during both preflight planning and inflight operations.
  • Manage distractions so they do not interfere with situational awareness.
  • Understand, properly train, and maintain currency in the equipment and airplanes they operate.
  • Take advantage of available commercial trainer, type club, and transition training opportunities.
  • Realize stall characteristics can vary with aircraft loading, and are usually worse with aft Center of Gravity (CG).

(NTSB, 2017)

On November 5, 2013, a private pilot and Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) planned a flight from Centennial Airport (APA) in Denver, CO enroute to a Wisconsin Aviation FBO, filed with the Flight Service Station under Instrument Flight Rules and some actual Instrument Meteorological Conditions. The pilots were operating a Piper PA-32R-301 (N408DM) that was being used as part of the Pilot Mentor Program. The pilots of this aircraft lost control of their aircraft and ended up fatally injuring both occupants.

An investigation into the accident revealed the pilots had left APA at approximately 1500 hours local time direct to Kirksville Regional Airport (IRK) in Kirksville, MO to refuel. While enroute, the pilots were in constant contact with the Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). As the pilots neared IRK, ARTCC cleared to pilots for the RNAV GPS instrument approach for runway 18. ARTCC radioed again to advise the pilots to switch to the common traffic advisory frequency (IRK CTAF), and to advise their intentions to other aircraft operating in the traffic pattern of the airport. Personnel at IRK recalled hearing the pilots’ report they were approximately seven miles from the airport on an RNAV approach for runway 18. After announcing their position five miles from the airport, personnel relayed current wind and altimeter settings. Although the pilots did not read back the wind and altimeter settings, the mic being cued several times to activate the runway lighting was heard. After a while, personnel noted that the aircraft had not arrived, and several attempts were made to contact the pilots for an estimated time of arrival, but did not get a response. The Flight Service Station soon thereafter contacted the airport to inquire about the still-open flight plan, and local authorities were dispatched to perform a search and rescue mission to try and locate the downed aircraft. The search continued for nearly two hours before finally locating the downed aircraft approximately four miles north, northeast of IRK in a densely wooded area. A witness on the ground reported to investigators he had heard an airplane flying over his home at approximately 1900 hours’ local time, before hearing a very loud noise. He states that the engine sounded normal at the time.

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The aircraft wreckage came to rest approximately 0.4nm east of the last radar contact and indicated the pilots had performed a left turn opposite of the inbound course on a very steep descent, most likely due to spatial disorientation. Investigators determined the aircraft initially struck several trees on the side of a hill in a nose-up attitude before continuing over the crest, and finally coming to rest on the other side. Weather conditions at that time were nighttime Instrument Meteorology Conditions (IMC) and most likely contributed to spatial disorientation and the subsequent left turn on an outbound course, as well as the steep descent. The coroner performed autopsies on both pilots and determined the CFI had advanced coronary artery disease which was a result of a heart attack 17 years prior. Dextromethorphan (cough suppressant) as well as Metoprolol (Beta-Blocker) was detected in blood and urine, as well as its metabolite, Dextrorphan, which was also found in both the blood and urine. The private pilot’s autopsy revealed Diphenhydramine in his blood and urine. Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine which causes sedating effects, and is available in over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. It is unclear if the CFI’s coronary artery disease or the private-pilot being under the sedating effects of Diphenhydramine were causal factors in the accident.

The most striking difference between private operators versus commercial operators is the amount of training each pilot receives. This training combined with the fact that they are always current in their type of aircraft leads to these pilots being much more competent in responding to any situation that may arise during flight. As private pilots, many cannot afford to perform flight duties on a regular basis, and therefore, skills deteriorate, and operating an aircraft becomes more of a risk. Investment into additional training as well as additions to aircraft instrumentation, such as an AOA meter, synthetic vision systems, and advanced glass-cockpit layouts will also allow the operators far superior situational awareness, ability, and time to recognize an unusual attitude and to recover from it. For more information on Loss of Control in aviation, please visit: http://www.safepilots.org/resource-center/public-documents/avoiding-loss-of-control/

Scott Kellam is a private pilot with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His interest in human factors has guided his studies in aviation.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/


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