Loss of control events are the number 1 cause of fatal accident within recreational and GA operations worldwide. 2 out of 3 fatal accidents within RAAus operations over the past 5 years are believed to have occurred due to loss of control in flight. 

In addition to this, runway loss of control events are the most common cause of damage to aircraft within RAAus operations. This is particularly important to note as pilots return to flying operations following COVID-19 lockdowns with currency often a contributing factor in runway loss of control events. Runway loss of control events occur more commonly in pilots with less than 250 hours total flying experience, however, may occur to anyone at any time, particularly when pilots have low experience on type or in gusty or turbulent conditions.

This week we take a look at loss of control, and what you can do to avoid it! 

Loss of Control In Flight

Loss of control in flight may occur due to a number of different factors. The most common scenario is inadvertent entry into stall / spin.

So let’s take a look at some of the most common phases of flight where loss of control events occur:

1. Loss of control after take-off

Loss of control after take-off may occur due to a number of different reasons. The first of these is due to the failure to conduct appropriate performance calculations based on weight, density altitude or surface conditions. This may result in decreased take-off performance leaving the pilot unable to clear obstacles on departure, or insufficient runway available for the take-off. During this situation pilots may instinctively pull back on the controls in an attempt to clear obstacles, resulting in an unrecoverable stall.

Another cause of loss of control after take-off is when the aircraft encounters an upset due to environmental conditions or when the pilot is distracted, allowing the aircraft to become too slow during the climb out or turn onto cross-wind. Failure to identify and prevent a stall during this phase of flight often leaves insufficient altitude for safe recovery from a stall.

2. Loss of control in the turn

Loss of control events commonly occur in the turn due to the increase in stall speed with an increased angle of bank. One scenario where this may be emphasised is during the base to final turn where a pilot overshoots the centreline. The tendency in this scenario is to increase the angle of bank and apply more rudder to regain centreline, however in doing so, the result may be an uncoordinated, high angle of bank turn at low speed which may lead to a spin.

Loss of control events commonly occur during farm flying operations or any flight where the pilot is circling a point on the ground. With the pilot focusing on a point outside the aircraft it is easy to become distracted, slowly increasing the angle of bank and failing to identify a reduction in airspeed. This may be further exacerbated by an unbalanced turn increasing the likelihood of encountering a spin. 

Pilots conducting farm flying or spotting operations are highly encouraged to talk to your instructor about further training available to develop essential skills for conducting these operations.

3. Loss of control following engine failure

Another common cause of a loss of control is following an engine failure. This is particularly important during an engine failure after take-off, where the aircraft is established in the climb. When an engine fails during this phase of flight, the pilot has little time available to immediately lower the nose in order to establish and maintain best glide speed. Failure to act immediately following an engine failure after take-off may result in a stall with insufficient altitude to recover. Pilots should ensure they carry out a pre-takeoff safety brief to rehearse the actions in the event of an engine failure after take-off and avoid the temptation to turn back towards the runway which increases the likelihood of a loss of control.

    1. Stall recognition and recovery
      Do you know the signs of a stall? What are the characteristics specific to your aircraft? When was the last time you practised stalling? Stall recognition and recovery is the best method of avoiding loss of control events. If you feel like you may be a little rusty, why not contact your local instructor to practise stalls or conduct more advanced training. In addition to this, aircraft owners should consider fitment of a stall warning device as a last line of defence against encountering a stall.
    2. Emergency drills
      Pilots should brief themselves on the actions in the event of an emergency prior to each and every flight. This includes the actions in the event of an engine failure after take-off, during which the first action must be to lower the nose. Pilots should regularly review emergency procedures and practise forced landings to familiarise themselves with the actions to be taken in the event of an emergency.
    3. Performance
      Pilots must consider performance calculations relevant to their aircraft prior to every take-off and landing. It is important that pilots understand and consider the effects of weight, temperature, density altitude, and runway surface prior to each take-off and landing and always use full available runway length, even when you know sufficient length is available.
    4. Distractions
      Pilots must continue to manage distractions during all phases of flight, however, this is particularly relevant at low altitudes. Pilots should ensure distractions are minimised wherever possible below 1000ft AGL, such as managing devices and communicating with passengers. Particular attention should be made to avoid becoming fixated on a point outside of the cockpit. Operations such as farm spotting or flying around a particular landmark are a common cause of loss of control events where the pilot is distracted and fails to identify increasing angle of bank and/or decreasing airspeed, leading to a loss of control.
    5. Environmental Conditions
      Pilots should conduct thorough pre-flight briefings including review of weather forecasts, even if only conducting a local flight. Pilots should ensure conditions are within their personal limitations based on their total experience or hours on aircraft type. In the event that the pilot encounters turbulence or windshear during final approach, a go-around should be conducted to avoid a potential hard landing or loss of control.
    6. Airspeed
      Pilots should be familiar with important airspeeds and limitations contained within the pilot operating handbook for your aircraft and ensure that these speeds are flown accurately at all times. If operating in gusty or thermal conditions, add a buffer to climb-out and approach speeds to offer an additional margin of safety. In the event that a stable approach is not maintained on final, pilots should elect to commence a go-around. Every year a number of loss of control events are reported which may have been avoided by an early decision to commence a go-around.
    7. Technology
      Whilst stall recognition and avoidance must always be prioritised through effective flight training, stall warning and angle of attack devices may offer pilots a final warning in the event that they fail to identify an impending stall. This is even more important for pilots who may regularly conduct inspection/spotting flights in their aircraft, such as farm owners who may use their aircraft for cattle, fence, trough inspections, etc. RAAus has seen a number of serious and fatal accidents occur in this space due to distraction with the pilot focused outside the aircraft and not identifying the impending stall.

    Occurrence Type: Accident
    Occurrence Classification: Loss of Control
    Injuries: Serious
    Damage: Aircraft Destroyed

    A pilot commenced a flight over their rural property to inspect water holes. During the flight the pilot reported spotting cattle located between trees and descended to 500ft to check they were alive. Whilst the pilot was distracted by cattle on the ground, the aircraft entered a stall/spin from approximately 500ft AGL. The pilot managed to recover from the spin at tree height, however, the left wing impacted trees and the aircraft collided with terrain.

    Outcome and Learning Opportunity:
    The aircraft was destroyed on impact and the pilot sustained serious injuries. The pilot was referred to a local instructor to conduct further training in order to safely conduct similar flight operations in the future.

    Pilots are reminded of the importance of managing distractions during flight and conducting additional specialist training, particularly when conducting operations such as farming inspection flights. Whilst operations of this nature may appear simple, RAAus has had a number of serious and fatal accidents reported in similar occurrences. Aircraft owners should consider fitment of a stall warning device which may assist in preventing similar occurrences.



Runway Loss of Control

Runway loss of control is the most commonly reported cause of damage to aircraft within RAAus operations. 

Runway loss of control refers to occurrences where directional control of the aircraft is lost on take-off or landing, with most occurrences taking place during landing. 

Common scenarios which may lead to a runway loss of control event include:

  • Lack of or incorrect directional control on landing or take-off
  • Incorrect airspeed during landing or take-off
  • Failure to appropriately manage a hard landing
  • Delayed decision to conduct a go-around
  • Environmental conditions such as sink or turbulence on final approach

Top tips for preventing a runway loss of control:

  1. Maintain a stabilised approach
    One of the best ways to prevent a runway loss of control event is to ensure a stabilised approach is maintained on final. A stabilised approach is defined as being setup in landing configuration at the correct height, speed and glidepath and should be configured prior to descent through 500ft AGL, until after touchdown. Failure to setup on a stabilised approach may lead to the pilot falling behind the aircraft on final approach and attempting to fight with the controls in order to achieve a normal landing on the pre-determined touchdown point.
  2. Always prepare to go-around
    Many runway loss of control events may be avoided by an earlier decision to conduct a go-around. Pilots are often caught out by "a gust of wind", sink or turbulence on final approach resulting in an unstable condition or hard landing. Quick decision making in carrying out a go-around may prevent a runway loss of control or hard impact which may result in significant aircraft damage.
  3. Currency and experience
    Runway loss of control events occur more commonly in pilots with less than 250 hours total flight time, or when pilots are uncurrent or unfamiliar with the aircraft type being flown. Pilots should ensure they maintain regular currency prior to solo flight or consider a dual flight with an instructor prior to returning after an extended period of time away from flying. Pilots should also ensure thorough dual type training is conducted when converting to a new aircraft type and to ensure they operate within personal minimums at all times (see below).
  4. Don't try and recover a bad landing
    Many runway loss of control events occur when a pilot tries to recover from a hard landing, high flare or an otherwise non-stabilised condition during touchdown. A hard landing or bounce may result in a loss of directional control which could be avoided by making an early decision to go around. Likewise, a high flare may lead to a hard landing and can be avoided by conducting a go-around.
  5. Personal Minimums
    The most common reported cause of runway loss of control is due to unexpected environmental conditions during landing. Pilots should ensure they check weather forecasts prior to each and every flight and monitor conditions during flight. Pilots should pay particular attention to the windsock for an indication of conditions on the ground prior to landing as well as any local hazards that may create lift/sink on final approach including terrain, trees, and buildings. Pilots should ensure they maintain personal minimums and do not operate in conditions which are not suitable for their experience level, including wind strength and crosswind component.

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