Low and Slow… and Nose to the SKY?

Despite all our precautions, problems can occur in the cockpit — typically when you least expect them, and even more often when you can least afford them. Whether it is an instrument failure in instrument conditions, engine troubles, smoke, or even strange noises, these unpleasant occurrences are also often harbingers of bad news in the cockpit. One in particular is very often completely overlooked by pilots.

Listen up and SIT STILL!
One such harbinger is associated with the seat tracks in your airplane. Depending on the model, the seat tracks and seat locks in your airplane can have a significant impact on that model’s accident statistics. In fact, there is cause for heightened vigilance during every annual inspection if you have ever heard about a single accident caused by seat slippage in your model. Check them closely, a worn seat track can cost you your life!

Example: Seat track problem in some Cessna line aircraft are well documented. One Cessna 185 owner — and the subject of a high-profile court case — managed to get into a wreck in his aircraft when the seat track allegedly failed while he was landing the plane. As a result, the pilot was in the worst configuration — low and slow, and already slightly nose high.

Imagine how the plane would respond if the seat track failed, and the seat went to the full aft position. The CG would slide back, along with the pilot and the yoke. The nose would pull nearly vertical, and the aircraft would climb… briefly… until the limits of engine power and lift from the wings were overcome and the critical angle of attack exceeded. Then, at maybe 40 feet above the runway, the wings would stall. Are you getting the picture? The airplane is so close to the ground that the amount of time available for recovery is insignificant. The 185 from our example above impacted the runway with significant energy, causing damage to the plane and injury to the occupants.

Inside Opinion: THIS SHOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED. The problems with Cessna seat tracks have been well documented for years. There are Mandatory Service Bulletins and even Airworthiness Directives on the subject, all of which require the pilot or his mechanic to take action to inspect the existing seat track locks, and in some cases, install a secondary set of seat locks. Cessna even offers a free modification kit for compliance — free, for the asking.

This problem turned up on the Cessna line because of the plane’s popularity as a trainer, and the original design of the seat tracks. Some 15 years more have gone by since the aircraft were new, and the fleet’s seat tracks have seen their share of wear — and then some. In the end, any aircraft is subject to problems due to everyday wear and tear!


  • CHECK YOUR SEATS AND SEAT RAILS. Even if there is no AD or Mandatory Service Bulletin on your plane, have your mechanic perform a good inspection of the parts — particularly the pilot and co-pilot’s seats. Have any defects repaired and have your mechanic report any problems to the FAA as a Service Difficulty. This will help alert other owners and mechanics to the problem and, if enough reports turn up, could result in the generation of an AD or Special Airworthiness Inspection Bulletin.
  • KEEP THE AIRCRAFT TRIMMED. If your seat slips back in any phase of flight, and you’re hanging on to the yoke, just let go. If the plane is properly trimmed when you slide back and let go, it will automatically seek a slightly nose-high attitude. Why? Because the CG has shifted aft with your body and the seat’s aft motion. If you have someone in the right seat, they may be able to counteract these forces by adding power, and adding gentle forward pressure to the yoke. Of course, this depends on their understanding of flight and your ability to communicate from wherever you end up. From there, all you need to do is recover your seating position, and carefully land the plane so as not to dislodge it from the tracks again.
  • IF THE SEAT WON’T LOCK, you may be better off in the right seat. Caution: switching places without bumping anything is not easy and if you perform it successfully your new perspective may look funky (unless you’re a CFI). For most pilots, climbing into the right seat will mess you up — the throttle quad is in the wrong place, the instruments aren’t where you expect them to be, even the runway will look different. But you’re better off in a seat that’s not moving inside the airplane.

BOTTOM LINE: Have your plane’s seat rails and locks inspected regularly, whether required by AD or not. If problems are found, take actions to have them resolved before the plane is flown again. By taking these actions, you will never experience the adrenaline rush that comes when your seat arbitrarily slips back, and the sky fills the windshield. Your heart will thank you for the break!