Friday, January 20, 2012


“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”T.S. Eliot

Ever seen a four-year-old do “Rockford’s” in a three-wheeler? It was very instructive. After about his tenth attempt to do a 180-degree spin back where he succeeded in about a 110-degree turn, he pushed the limit. He sped up, braked hard with the handlebars fully deflected on his eleventh try, but this time a loose pebble was in the way. The right rear wheel temporarily arrested allowed the forces of physics to lift the left wheel off the pavement and the result was red conjunctivae, tear-stained reddened cheeks and a heavily bruised ego. What happened? ~ Is a few minutes of mental traffic through the ligatures of his and the rest of our offenses.

Loss of control! Why does it happen and how can we prevent it? Or can it be prevented at all? Given that humans freewheel through life most of the time. We all have moments when driving a distance from A to Z, we forget points E thru M. Why? We are as we say “on autopilot.”

Okay, delving into the psyche of the human mind for a non-psychologist is like a neurosurgeon changing the bicycle tire, but there are issues, we can all agree, are easy to grasp for the rest of us– myself included.

Kahneman and his Systems 1 and 2:

Kahneman, the Nobel laureate of the Kahneman and Tversky fame speaks of two systems, 1 and 2. System 1, per his definition is the autopilot, freewheeling, off the cuff, any-thing-goes, and intuitive, instantaneous response to any quandary. Like for instance, if I ask the question what are 2+2 and your answer would be…? Right, no thought required. And to add one more question what color is the sky? Yup, you got it… right!

So now let us look at System 2. This is the detail-oriented, evaluation driven, intensely-contemplative, goal-oriented, nitpick-ingly, and accurate to the nth degree mode. This system requires hard work. A question posed here would be like multiply 23 and 79 and divide the result by 2 all without a calculator and paper and pencil. Uh huh, makes you stop and pause. It makes you multiply each number separately, carry-overs and all, then keep them resident in the mind then add them up and subject the final number to a division, where more carry-overs are needed and so on. Believe me most would give up the dilated pupils of intense thought and all to ease the mental burden, pick up a smart phone (As Ariel would say. “I got Gadgets and Gizmos aplenty”) and voila!

So now what has that preamble got to do with loss of control? As a matter of fact, everything! It is not to say that risk-taking is all failure-prone. It is in the cautious role of an experimenter, risk-taker that true progress is made, but it is done with the knowledge and risk mitigation of most known hazards. Although it is true, that progress in life is made mostly by the “unreasonable person,” the risk taker, for it is he that boldly goes where no other has ventured before, is well-versed with the “lands” he is setting out to conquer. For the others who propose to follow that path without the necessary precaution, understanding, diligent research and think-through the landscape is a veritable minefield adjudicated by System 1.

Etihad Airlines Boeing 777 (brand new) drives into the hanger ~ total loss (Real Picture)

Did I mention that System 1 is also the premier manager in anger management issues and in people with no filters in place during social conversation? In other words (as if they are needed) if one would spend just a minute more before uttering (words that bite us in the derriere) our lives would not be spent un-complicating the complexity so created.

Flight Scenario employing the two Systems:

Loss of control in an aircraft is an event similar to that of the little boy, I described in the beginning. Imagine yourself in this awe-inspiring flight above a solid under-cast of bubbly clouds and the sun peaking just above the clouds as it reaches for its twilight nap, spreading its golden sprinkles on the top of the cloud-bubbles. Got the image. Now imagine in your joy of this beautiful landscape, you decide to do some heavy maneuvers, because you can and because a little thrill is tapping at your knees, (just like the one Chris Matthews of MSNBC had). So off you go banking into a 45-degree bank that proceeds to a 60 degree and then into an accidental wing over, completely unexpected. The plane noses downwards towards the soft cushion-less clouds below. Your System 1 is operational. You react with the “yank” and then try to undo the bank. The clouds now seem to draw nearer, then the blue sky shows up but doesn’t last long and the windshield once again fills in with the white clouds. System 1 calls in more of its instinctive, intuitive, illogically driven self-protective inputss and a full-dress rehearsal of panic takes over. The expletives escape in between hisses through your teeth. The sweat glands are on full-bore expressing the thrill of sympathetic neural response drenching your back and bottom.

Runway over-run

Now this scenario can continue to its ultimate graveyard spiral adding to the gobs of data for the NTSB (and they will investigate this). In the end the accident would be determined as a “pilot error.” But what would create a restless conundrum in their minds would be why did the radar track show the initial departure from a straight and level flight? Why would someone of previously good discipline and a spotless historical background voluntarily do something sooo stoooopid? Ah but we know don’t we? That human gene of sudden urges and thrill might have played the part.

Potential for Survival?

Could you have survived this? Well of course you would have. There were multiple levels of disconnect with this scenario. Stop at number 1 would have been not to fool around in a VFR on top flight under IFR rules with the urge to do 360s. So now not responding to that plea, had you done that and gone wing over anyway, because you are the greatest living “bold(but stupid)pilot” in your walnut-sized universe, you could have employed System 2 to bail you out. It is that startle of insight, the press and push for information, the dogged determination that rides past the wispy entrails of intuition and settles on the firmness of objectivity. That System 2 would have saved your can!

System 1 Failure:

How you ask? Elementary! My dear, elementary! What happened? As you are all too familiar by now is that you placed the aircraft past its aerodynamic limit and it stalled. (Unless you have a different definition of the word “limit” it still means intransigent and inviolable boundary.~ You get the message) Having experienced such appalling failure of reference and resorting to the demands of self-preservation through the dictates of the lowly System 1, leads to pulling on the yoke, further exaggerating the stall, progressing it to a spin and the rest shall we say, is, well permanent “rest.”

System 2 dictates:

Break the stall.
Push the yoke forward! (Be counterintuitive!)
Level the wings,
Stop the Yaw with the opposite rudder (press on the ball) and
Reduce power to prevent over speed through Vne (Never exceed velocity). 
The aircraft would have recovered and with all the expressed sweat and other material soiling your garments, you would have apologized for the deviation to the Air traffic Controller and gone on your merry way, promising yourself never to do it again and would live to tell the hanger “Mother of all Tales.”

Pilot Error:

Loss of control manifests as a result of pilot induced reasons mostly about 70% to be exact. This can happen at any altitude, attitude or speed. Exceeding aircraft aerodynamic limits is a “No…no.” Exceeding your own, sorry to say is a human trait. Psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky proposed in an issue of Science "when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually." And since we know that perception is reality, you have just made one such reality right out of the frontal cortex of your brain and created an aerodynamic conundrum.

Attitude Correction needed

Illusions, Delusions and the Weather Conditions:

Most common circumstances related to loss of control are weather-related; a VFR pilot ventures into IFR realm, Of course a thunderstorm can toss you and your cookies up too and put you into a real unusual attitude (Remember in turbulent weather slow down to maneuvering speed, maintain the attitude and forget the altitude, since updrafts and downdrafts in storms can lift and hurl at a ferocity of 6000 feet per minute) and thirdly at night time on moonless nights when different visual illusions can create many different ghosts, goblins and not to mention gremlins to appear in your mind’s eye leading to spatial disorientation and a temporary disconnect with reality ~ What images may come staggers the mind and dislodges the context with reality. All these ghostly images and more conspire to make you temporarily perspire.

Flight Control Surface Issues:
Jimmy Leeward's modified P-51 (Note loss of aileron right wing)

Other reasons, not in pilot control include flight control surface related events. For instance, rapid maneuvers at high speeds can cause aero-elastic flutter in the elevators or ailerons, which can through weakness of linkages depart, leading to uncontrolled and unrecoverable departures from creating lift and continuation of flight. Case in point: Jimmy Leeward's P-51 Reno Air Race accident of 2011.

Jimmy Leeward's Loss of Control

Where then can these clashes of uncertainty reveal their ugly heads? Based on the NTSB data ~ anytime. Of all the stall-spin accidents that happen, majorities occur between 1000 feet and terra firma. Now why would that be? Maybe the long urge of the human spirit incapable of flight on its own wishes to be on the ground quickly. But I digress, so save me.

Approach to Landing Stall:

These approach to landing stalls usually happen due to low-speeds on base-to-final tight turns, maneuvering to impress the opposite sex looking up with her/his happy face and outstretched waving arms, stretching a glide with fuel exhaustion or starvation (Oh, we pilots can do some real dumb things), Distractions on the airport (a deer, cattle or rickshaw crossing) or within the aircraft (Are we there yet?) can lead to wrong inputs at the absolute wrong time ~ Keep a sterile cockpit on departures and arrivals!

Departure Stall:

Loss of control can happen at takeoff also, called euphemistically as “departure stall” and can be as a result of insufficient speed, a yank on the yoke, brakes remaining deployed, cross-control in cross-wind environment with wind shear and premature liftoff via the instinctive System 1, leading the NTSB to the scene of the accident.

A word of caution here seems a must: Stalling the aircraft close to the ground is usually unrecoverable and impacting the ground at any velocity is usually fatal (as in, dead as a doornail)
Icing related accident


Now before you get your mind and all those aeronautical charts in a bunch, let me brief you on another possibility, Icing. An aircraft certified in icing condition flying on autopilot in icing conditions can lead to a runaway trim to maintain the altitude as lift degrades due to ice accretion on the wing surfaces, until it stalls the aircraft. Given the “Time Critical Scenario” if the pilot’s response is predicated on System 1 commands then all will be lost. Even flying manually with the autopilot disengaged arriving at an airport it is important (System 2 is commanding) not to put flaps down since doing so will increase drag and the ice covered wings and empennage (airfoils) will be further deprived of lift through air-separation from the wing surface and will not be able to hold the aircraft in the air. Hence crunch ~ QED. As System 2 would say, “Get out of the Icing condition,” “Never get into icing condition if possible and if you do, make sure the deicing system is fully functional.” “Remembering that the quickest way out of icing is 2000 feet above or below the altitude you are flying and of course out of visible moisture (clouds)”. And “if you are carrying ice into the approach, keep going, (aka If you are going through hell, keep going) keep the speed up (power as needed), no flaps and plan to land long”.

Colgan Air Flight 3047
Instrument Flight Rule Approach Plate (Red mark denotes site of accident)

During the flight and continuing through the plane's landing approach, the crew had been flying on autopilot The de-icing system was turned on, minutes into the flight by the crew, who had discussed significant ice buildup on the aircraft's wings and windscreen shortly before the crash. Following this, the pilots extended the aircraft's flaps and landing gear for landing. According to the NTSB's official report, after the landing gear and flaps had been extended, the flight data recorder (FDR) indicated that the airspeed had decayed to 145 knots (269 km/h). The captain, who was the pilot flying, then called for the flaps to be set at the 15-degree position. As the flaps transitioned past the 10-degree mark, the FDR indicated that the airspeed had further slowed to 135 knots (250 km/h). Six seconds later, the aircraft's stick shaker a device intended to provide aural and tactile awareness of a low speed condition, sounded. At this time the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the autopilot disengaging. The FDR now indicated that the aircraft's speed was a dangerously slow 131 knots (243 km/h). Unfortunately, instead of following the established stall recovery procedure of adding full power and lowering the nose to prevent the stall, the captain only added about 75% power and continued applying nose-up inputs. As the aircraft came even closer to stalling the stick pusher activated ("The Q400 stick pusher applies an airplane-nose-down control column input to decrease the wing angle-of-attack [AOA] after an aerodynamic stall"). The captain overrode the pusher and continued pulling on the control yoke resulting in the upset and subsequent loss of control.  The plane pitched up at an angle of 31 degrees in its final moments, before pitching down at 45 degrees. It then rolled to the left at 46 degrees and snapped back to the right at 105 degrees. Occupants aboard experienced forces estimated at nearly twice that of gravity. Witnesses on the ground claimed to have heard the engines sputter just before the crash.(NTSB data)

Don’t you landlubbers think that you are above all this aviation accident fray? Think again! It is statistically safer to fly from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast then to drive to the airport. Be careful out there!

O’ the stories we have to weave
To lure you away from the creep
The faith towards which you must leap
And find rewards that you can reap!

Loss of Control Reasons:
1.    Stall
2.    Flight Control Surfaces
3.    Spatial Disorientation
4.    Icing
5.    Weather related
6.    Maneuvering flights
7.    Night Illusions and distractions

Need I say more. My mentor

Loss of Control Prevention:
1.    Stall recognition training
2.    Spin recovery Training
3.    Upset Recovery
4.    Simulator training Scenarios
5.    Didactic education
6.    Non-Reliance on System 1
7.    Beefing up System 2

In October 1996, the NTSB issued a formal Safety Recommendation (A-96-120), which requested the FAA to require all airlines to provide simulator training for flight crews, which would enable them to recognize and recover from "unusual attitudes and upset maneuvers, including upsets that occur while the aircraft is being controlled by automatic flight control systems, and unusual attitudes that result from flight control malfunctions and uncommanded flight control surface movements.

And, not forgetting that cherub on the three-wheeler, remember the one at the beginning of this post, well, he made his 180-degree spin on the very next try after making sure there were no other debris on the pavement. Instead of the frown and tears there was ear-to-ear smile and fist pumping. Yay! System 2 had operated as predicted.

PDara MD, FACP, 
Airline Transport Pilot, 
Master Certified Flight Instructor, 
Advanced Ground Instructor
FAA Safety Team Representative (PHL)

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