Friday, May 29, 2009

A Superior Aviator...

...uses superior judgment to avoid situations requiring superior skills.


One of my students wanted a little more cross-country practice before setting out on his own. He's done well on his dual cross-countries, but confidence is confidence, so I was happy to help.

I decided to take him out to visit a couple of the strips in the Idaho desert. "Let's go to Midway," I said, "and then the airport closest to Midway." I made it into a scavenger hunt. Predictably, he chose Arco as the nearest airport; the open circle at Big Southern Butte doesn't really look like an airport, does it?

The state Department of Aeronautics' web site shows conditions at back-country strips. "Rough," it said of Midway, but "Good" at Big Southern. So our plan was to do a low pass at Midway, then land on Big Southern, then head home.

It was a beautiful calm evening, and we sped across the desert to Midway. We circled it a couple of times in disbelief, then headed over to Big Southern by pilotage.

"Let me show you how to drag the field," I said. That means to fly just over the runway, off to one side, so you can see if it's in good enough condition to land. If it was, we'd go back and touch down. I was looking forward to the loud sound of wheels on gravel.

I set up downwind, base, and final, nailing the speed for a short field landing. Our aim point was the numbers.

"But there aren't any numbers!" he protested.

"We'll aim for where the numbers would be."

We saw right away that we wouldn't land. There were tire tracks in the gravel, and the surface looked soft. I added a little power and moved off to the right edge.

"Why are you on the right?" he asked.

"So you can look at the runway. But watch out for the wind sock." I distinctly remember looking up at the wind sock.

The stall warning chirped. I looked over at the airspeed, and was surprised to see the needle at 2 o'clock rather than at 3. Gulp.

I gave it full throttle, took off the carburetor heat, lowered the nose, and raised the flaps just this much. We got 5 more knots. We got 8 more knots. I raised the flaps just a little more. We crossed the fence at the far end, where I finally looked ahead. Everything in front of us was higher than we were.

But we had flying speed. I raised the flaps just a little at a time. We started to climb.

"You have the flight controls," I said, "but be gentle." He turned a little toward the mountain, but straightened out and we headed for home.

So where was the accident chain broken?

Nowhere. The accident chain was never broken!

No, we didn't have an accident, but I did have to use serious stick-and-rudder skills to prevent the accident from happening. Too many pilots have stalled in this situation; low-level maneuvering is one of the big accident causes.

This accident sneaks up on pilots. But we can't ask them, since the accident is usually fatal, so we have some guesses.

Here's one: sightseeing in a twin, 1,000 hours in type, it's VFR, what could go wrong? You slow up to tighten the turn, and stall. You have an aft CG, so the elevator is less effective in the (failed) stall recovery. Or you fly through final in a PC-12, pull back to tighten the turn, and stall. Or you're at circling minimums in a King Air, losing sight of the airfield, so you tighten the turn a little, and stall. The Champ isn't climbing in the thin summer air. You raise the nose to clear the trees, and stall. The glider won't make it to the runway, so you try to stretch the glide, and stall.

As an old friend put it, "Stall - Spin - Crash - Burn - Die."


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