Low-Level Maneuvering

You would think that our goal-oriented, law-abiding, type-A personalities would more often lose a battle with weather rather than lose face (and worse) from attempting some dumb stunt, but as Spiderman says, if somebody told you that, they lied. Actually, according to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s (ASF) latest interpretation of general aviation accidents, otherwise known as the Nall Report (Adobe Acrobat Required), pilots who engage in low-level maneuvers and flight into worsening weather are still getting themselves killed with remarkable regularity.

For the simpler aircraft like a single-engine fixed gear trainer, maneuvering flight accounts for almost twice the percentage of fatal accidents as weather encounters. When you consider single-engine retractable gear airplanes though, flown typically by more experienced pilots (read: usually flying IFR) that ratio reverses, and weather is the more fearsome adversary. Still, for the pilot population as a whole, maneuvering flight (mostly buzzing and similar stunts) still takes about a quarter share of all fatalities.

The two most dangerous words in aviation are:Watch this!

As the ASF Report itself implies, when any low-level maneuvering flight comes to a bad end, using the word ‘accident‘ is really only a charitable euphemism. That sort of thing usually confers a violation of 14 CFR Part 91.13 regarding careless or reckless operation and/or Part 91.119(a) concerning minimum safe altitude and ‘undue hazards‘ to persons or property on the surface.

For new pilots just tasting the freedom of flight, typically in a single-engine fixed gear trainer, that freedom often proves intoxicating. We all have a desire that leads us to try things like what Tom Turner calls the Airshow Pass. As pilots, we’re almost self-selected for it. As Paul Craig points out in his book ‘The Killing Zone,the typical pilot personality feels a need for independence, excitement, prestige, and control. If this isn’t a potential recipe for exhibitionism, thrill seeking, and acts of indiscretion, well, I don’t know what is. The harder part is how to keep the malicious Mr. Hyde at bay while we take some of the rough edges off Dr. Jekyll’s ego and soak up enough wisdom to keep him out of trouble. As Tony Kern discusses in his book ‘Darker Shades of Blue,‘ just one momentary lapse of judgment is all it takes for a potential ‘one act rogue‘ to cross over to the ‘dark side‘.

Some maneuvering flight accidents are mission-related, such as aerial application, but most of the time, it happens on a personal flight, where there isn’t really any critical agenda. As Barry Schiff mentions in his third ‘Proficient Pilot‘ book, you just won’t see a wire until you’re 150 feet from it, and by that point, even two seconds isn’t enough time to react and avoid it. Breaking down the statistics, more than a third of these low-level accidents involved loss of control, a small number (about 2%) involved a power loss, and about one in nine were outright low-level aerobatics. In any given maneuvering flight accident, about half involve fatalities. In most serious accidents, judgment is usually involved, whereas it’s more a matter of skill in less serious ‘fender bender‘ accidents.

As aviators, we start out knowing enough to be dangerous. We’re like the child in the second line of the old semi-scriptural poem attributed to various sources, from ancient Persia to Bruce Lee:

While inexperience is the bane of the novice pilot, complacency becomes an equally serious issue for the more experienced. And during these times, when the spotlight is turned on all of aviation, it would be a real good idea if we eased up on the stupid pilot tricks. First, another commercial for straightening up and flying right: We should all learn to fly professionally. Part of that means playing by the rules. Aerobatics can be an absolute hoot, and will definitely improve your airmanship. But seek proper aerobatic instruction, find an airplane you can legally use upside down, understand aerodynamic forces and gain the proper appreciation for what you would be asking that airplane to do. Then, obey the rules:

No person may operate an aircraft in aerobatic flight —
(a) Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement;
(b) Over an open air assembly of persons;
(c) Within the lateral boundaries of the surface areas of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport; (d) Within 4 nautical miles of the center line of any Federal airway;
(e) Below an altitude of 1,500 feet above the surface; or
(f) When flight visibility is less than 3 statute miles.
For the purposes of this section, aerobatic flight means an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.

Some of the reasons are obvious. If you have to punch out, better to have the afflicted airplane bore a hole in a soybean field than the bleachers in center field at a ballpark, someone’s house, or a schoolyard; not to mention reducing the likelihood of a midair. By the way, 1500 feet doesn’t give your chute (and therefore you) a heck of a lot of air time. And three miles isn’t going to be much help to anyone either — when you fly aerobatics, looking where you are going is not often the most effective way of doing things.

Several aspects of our normal training experience actually help stack the deck against us and contribute to low-level maneuvering accidents. For one, we generally are taught to practice stalls nose-high and at slow airspeeds — but an accelerated stall often happens when we’re faster, and descending (e.g. the well-known cross-controlled base-to-final turn). Recoveries are taught fairly casually, with little effort to mimic the frantic urgency that would likely accompany an impromptu air show gone awry. And equally bad, we practice them often enough that something called ‘fear extinction’ displaces our healthy dread of falling. Last and definitely not least, flying down low at high speed is not something most of us are at all familiar with. As objects pass behind our wings at radically increased and unfamiliar angular rates, the accompanying adrenaline rush generally serves to amplify our control inputs and erode finesse. Unfortunately, that also comes with a decrease in attention paid to coordinated flight, airspeed control, energy management, and the critical lift that we lose as our bank angle and load factor increase.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s not just your life you’re messing with; often times it’s lives on the ground, too — and the stereotype your actions contribute to may well lead to regulation for the rest of us. There are ways to have fun without breaking the law, but take extra care — ten months after aircraft destroyed the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon, you’ll be hard pressed to find any die-hard general aviation fans among the ground bound. For many, all aircraft are suspicious and frightening. Acknowledge that perception and understand that another person’s peace of mind is no less important than your fun. Fly sensibly and we’ll preserve both.