stoppage. That sounds like “substantial damage” to anybody, but it
would not be an official accident qualifying for NTSB investigation
During the warm months when general aviation flying is at its
peak, it is common for people to report 30, 40, and even more than
50 of what they believed to be accidents over a weekend to the FAA.
While each of those mishaps usually results in some kind of damage—and probably an insurance claim—only a handful will meet the
NTSB definition of an accident, be investigated, and be entered into
the official tally.
THE BIG PICTURE
At first, the NTSB’s nonchalance about events we all consider to be
accidents makes no sense. But if you think for a moment about the
objective of the NTSB and its investigations, which is to learn the
cause of an accident to help prevent future crashes, the board’s strict
definition of an accident is logical. The NTSB has finite resources
that it must reserve to investigate the most serious crashes, and ones
with no immediately apparent cause. Spending time and money to
determine why an airplane landed gear-up, for example, is downright silly. And the prevention of gear-up landings is also obvious.
The same is true for ground loops or the hundreds of other fender-bender accidents that happen in GA flying every year but don’t meet
the NTSB definition of an accident.
It is the minor accident that doesn’t make the NTSB statistics
that could most easily be avoided with improved flying skills. Most
of these wrecks involve running off the runway during landing or
takeoff, or touching down short of the threshold, or running off the
far end. Except for extreme weather conditions—or the occasional
mechanical failure—the cause of these accidents is less than optimum control inputs by the pilot. Improving your skills in
maintaining directional control on the runway, touching down at
the proper point and at the proper airspeed, and knowing how to
handle a crosswind is an almost total cure for loss of control that
causes most minor accidents.
The causes, however, for the more serious loss of control accidents go beyond
simply pilot errors in control manipulation.
Yes, it is the pilot who pulls too hard on the
stick and pitches the airplane into a stall that
is the final element of the crash, but if you
move back in the accident chain, you usually
find it was a poor decision by the pilot that
led to the improper control inputs.
For example, a typical serious, usually
fatal, loss of control accident happens during
takeoff, often with a heavily loaded airplane
departing from a confined runway. The tragic
end is usually a stall and plunge into the
ground, and the NTSB will accurately determine that the probable cause was the pilot’s
failure to maintain sufficient airspeed.
But I think the actual cause of the accident was a decision the pilot made before
even starting the engine, much less than
when he kept pulling back on the stick.
The decision to attempt the takeoff without
enough runway or clearway available was
the pilot error, pulling the airplane up into
a stall was merely the result of the original
mistake in judgment. The pilot left himself
with the choice of hitting the trees ahead or
pulling back in the desperate hope he could
climb above them. In other words, he left
himself no options at all once the decision
was made to take off.
Another common loss of control situa-
tion occurs when a pilot tries to turn too
tightly and stalls the airplane. For example,
if the engine fails or runs rough shortly after
Because so many
serious loss of control
accidents are really
failures in pilot judgment,
there has not been much
progress in solving the
problem through changes
in airplane design.