Low and Slow and Low Time

There is a saying about old pilots and bold pilots, which ends with the statement that there are “few old, bold pilots.” In fact, we see accident statistics every year that seem to reinforce this adage — as we see several new pilots try to boldly do stupid things in flight that typically end badly!

Lets look at case from the NTSB. In this case, we see a pilot who recently received his Private Pilot’s certificate. Flush with his new success, as well as a total of 60 hours of total time in flight (including his training), he decided to make a low pass over his home … perhaps to show off his skills to his parents and siblings.

Looking at the situation, you can see that all the stars have lined up to spell disaster here. We have a low time pilot, with the ink on his certificate still wet, who is about to make a LOW pass over his home. He is about to do something that violates the FARs (maintain 500 feet AGL above all populated areas), which could result in a revocation of his certificate if discovered. I hope he doesn’t hit anybody.

HE MADE HIS FIRST LOW PASS, and wanted to do something really cool to show off to his family, which had gathered outside to watch. While he was fairly low (witnesses said he was only a few hundred feet above the rooftops) … and slow … he turned the plane into a steep bank.

THIS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! Consider the setup for the plane:

  • Normal flight configuration — no additional lift from the retracted flaps, and
  • Low speed, which means the plane was closer to stall, and
  • Low altitude, which means any stall will be darn hard to recover from before a hard “landing” could occur, and
  • Steep bank, which increases stall speed dramatically for a level altitude turn — more so for a climbing turn.
  • A Low Time Pilot who lacked the skills to deal with these events in aggregate, much less individually!

(For more convincing, see Jeff Pardo’s article Steep Turns: More Than Meets The Eye.)

Our pilot had stacked the deck against himself. The reports from the ground were predictable and sad. The people on the ground said they saw the plane enter a steep turn, but the angle suddenly increased and as the aircraft started to turn “towards the ground.” They heard the engine speed increase just before they heard a loud impact, and saw the fireball.

Looking at this in terms of the aerodynamic forces at work, quick speculation points to a stall / spin incident. Our low time pilot had not received spin training, and with only a few hundred feet (good for around one-half spin revolution in the type of plane he was flying), he and the aircraft met the ground with impressive force.

THE AIRPLANE WAS DESTROYED in the crash and ensuing fire, and unfortunately, our low time pilot was killed.

BOTTOM LINE: Low and Slow is no place to be for ANY pilot, other than in the short final leg of a traffic pattern. REMEMBER that when you are LOW or SLOW, your chances for recovery are significantly deminished. REMEMBER that when you are BOTH LOW and SLOW, your chances of recovery are close to ZERO. Heed these warnings well. If you want to show off the airplane, bring folks to the airport to look at it on the ground. Grow to be an old pilot. Learn from the mistakes of others and tell the stories of those less fortunate, don’t be one.