Pilots seem to be finding new ways to kill themselves. In the bad old days, the Christmas holidays always featured a couple of fatal accidents where pilots, usually flying from the Highveld, pushed their luck with the weather over the escarpment and ended up smeared across implacable rocks. These are the so called cumulogranite crashes.

This past festive season has fortunately been without the unfestive nightmare of stupid crashes and long selfless searches by SASAR for pilots who persisted in flying into unforgiving rocks. I suspect the key reason for this dramatic decline in cumulogranite accidents is that fewer pilots are using their planes to go on holiday to the seaside.

Done responsibly, flying need not be particularly dangerous. There is a great little analogy that holds that, when we start flying, we are issued with two metaphorical buckets. One is full of luck. The other is empty, but will over time be filled by experience. The bucket of luck gets used up by all the stupid things we do, so the trick is to fill your bucket of experience before your luck runs out.

Plane and Pilot magazine’s Rod Machado is both a psychiatrist and a CFI. He is thus well qualified to consider what motivates pilots fly stupidly. Machado has devised a list of ten ‘stupid pilot’ mistakes. Hopefully they will save your life:

1 VFR into IMC

Too much of the time, weather related accidents are no more complex than a VFR pilot flying a perfectly functional plane into the ground. It starts off with the pilot sticking his nose into the cloud and sometimes there is a mountain in the cloud. Hence Cumulogranite.

These crashes are called CFIT (controlled flight into terrain). According to Machado, pilots too often become mission-focused. They become determined to complete the flight, even if the weather is beyond their skill. They lose the ability to properly assess conditions that might make a more reasonable pilot turn back. It’s always possible to fly into weather you don’t expect – forecasting isn’t an exact science – but too often, pilots ignore the warning signs and press on – all the way to the pearly gates. This is probably due to the macho bravado people who learn to fly seem to have in over-abundance.

2   Low-level flying

There is a fun poster which advises novice pilots to, amongst other things, not to fly too close to the ‘edge of the sky.’

The likelihood of an accident increases in direct proportion to an aeroplane’s proximity to the ground. For non-display pilots these are usually stall/spin accidents, the most common result of an approach that’s too slow or too tight. Ignoring wind shear (an uncommon hazard), low-level manoeuvring accidents most often occur because a pilot approaches at too low an airspeed or turns too tight, too close to the ground, with no room for recovery. Tight slow turns with poorly coordinated controls can be bad news for light aircraft. Student glider pilots are taught to speed up when they enter the circuit.

3   Beat-ups

Speed is exhilarating. It’s the reason many of us fly. Unfortunately, the perception of speed increases the closer we are to the ground and that’s probably what encourages pilots to do beat-ups.

Low flying is demanding even for experienced crop sprayers. So it’s a trap to try the same trick over your girlfriend’s house and then pull the aircraft up into a steep climbing turn. Myriad YouTube videos show that this is a favourite South American stunt. Many end badly.

4   Takeoffs

One takeoff and one landing are mandatory for every flight, but pilots find novel ways to mess up both of them.

Takeoff accidents can be especially risky since the plane is accelerating away from the airport, whereas landing accidents typically occur during approach, while the plane is decelerating and (most of the time) pointed toward the airport.

Impact loads increase as the square of speed, so for every two knots of acceleration, impact loads quadruple. In some respects, takeoff accidents should be less likely, as it’s not that difficult to merely clean up the plane and maintain climb speed. Unfortunately, these accidents, although technically less difficult, are more likely to be fatal.

5   Landing

Accidents are common in this phase because control and power response is diminishing, rather than increasing.

Modern aeroplanes fly best when they’re in their mid-speed range. They become progressively less responsive and controllable as they fly slower. The key factor that contributes to landing accidents is the great South African killer of a high-density altitude. Add to this: short runways, too-fast approaches and just plain poor depth perception. Landing accidents often devolve to poor low-speed control, ineffective crosswind technique, misjudging the flare height, landing long on a short runway or overcompensating by landing short. The only good news is that the lower speeds generate lower impact loads and fewer fatalities than some other accident modes.

6   Fuel Mismanagement

There are no excuses for running out of fuel – but it still happens with uncanny regularity. Machado says, “Pilots develop the equivalent of civilian target fixation and will overfly a dozen or more possible airports and keep stretching their range, only to land 200 yards short of the runway with nothing but high-octane air in the tanks.” Such an episode led to another high profile C210 accident that killed four and a dog in a bus depot below base leg at Rand Airport some years ago.

I confess to pushing on to Lanseria with a loaded C206 through the Pinedene route with the tank gauges reading all but zero and electing to push on to Lanseria instead of stopping at Grand Central. The “get-there-itis” mentality that encourages overlooking a low-fuel situation is as pervasive as it is illogical. It frequently ignores the fact that an early fuel stop may have little or no effect on total trip time.

7   Preflight-related Mechanical Problems

Too many accidents occur because the pilot fails to perform an adequate preflight. This can be a special problem on rental aeroplanes, where the condition of vital components can change dramatically from one flight to the next. Owner-flown aeroplanes tend to be more meticulously maintained.

Then there are those things that pilots simply forget, which shouldn’t generate an accident, but pilots allow themselves to be psyched into overreacting. One of the most common of these is having a door pop open on takeoff. The usual consequence is little worse than a loud noise and embarrassment, but some pilots hit the panic button and wind up crashing because of the distraction of a seatbelt strap banging against the side of the fusel; age.

Cessna’s fuel gauges can be hard to believe

8   Getting Lost

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could become lost these days with the proliferation of amazingly talented and economical portable GPS units. Even without GPS, navigation is among the easiest tasks in aviation. Back in 1927, Lindbergh proved that a combination of dead reckoning and pilotage can work well, even over a 3,610-mile, 33 1⁄2-hour flight. Yet pilots somehow manage to lose their bearings time and again on 100-mile trips.

9   Pilot-Induced Emergency Landings

Another category of stupid pilot tricks is related to pilot-induced engine failures. Aircraft owners and pilots who rent aeroplanes “dry” may try to duplicate book power settings and fuel flows and wind up running engines too lean, sometimes to the point of failure. A tragic Sling 4 accident in Tanzania comes to mind.

Others misread or fail to check the oil level and run the engine out of lubricant, with the same result.

Some engines use an electric fuel pump for takeoff and landing; others will flood if the pump is left on the High setting. There are a myriad of mistakes possible, and if it’s possible, someone will do it.

10   Miscellaneous Stupidities

Deliberately crashing your plane for YouTube clicks is a bad idea.

This covers a multitude of sins, most of them non-life-threatening, but all too common: forgetting the keys, leaving the master on, failing to untie or unchock the aeroplane, etc. Many of these problems don’t generate accidents, but they come from poor planning and a bad mental attitude.

For the vast majority of us who haven’t burnt out from flying to earn a crust, or had one too many emergencies, flying is fun, but it’s also a demanding mistress.

Treated with respect, aviation is more than worth the minimal risks. We may not always agree with every Civil Aviation Regulation, but it is worth remembering the old aphorism that rules are for the guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools. And we are all likely to do something stupid sooner or later. I know I have.


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