Accident Prevention Facts from the Master, Part II


February 2016

In Part I of this two- part Avemco PIREP, Master Flight Instructor and author, Thomas P. Turner shared the most important facts he has learned in his years of examining aircraft accident data. Catch up on Part I Here.

This month, he concludes the lesson.

Throughout 17 years of writing FLYING LESSONS Weekly and its predecessor the Beech Weekly Accident Update, I have compiled an exhaustive collection of facts and data about what causes accidents and how to avoid them. Here are some more suggestions: 

  • Don’t push it with fuel. It seems to be in vogue to talk about flying maximum range, requiring running all but your last tank dry and the last tank down to minimum fuel. Far too many people have died trying to make it home because that’s where the cheaper fuel was, or stretched the airplane’s range to its limits to avoid the inconvenience of a stop or simply to have a story to tell or chat about online. When one tank is down to 1/8 full and the other is at ¼, it’s time to be inbound on the approach or entering the traffic pattern. History shows that a great many fuel exhaustion mishaps happen within five miles of the intended destination—the pilot thought he could make it, and was almost right. 
  • Consider weighty matters. Calculating aircraft weight and balance isn’t a training exercise that only applies to checkrides and flight reviews. You need to know your airplane is loaded within its control and performance flight envelope at all times. An overweight airplane or one loaded at or beyond its design capability will be harder to control under abnormal situations, and perform less well when other conditions (density altitude, wind, etc.) adversely affect the aircraft. Except in fuel as needed for endurance, fly at the lowest weight that meets the trip requirements-the lighter the airplane the better it will perform, and the more options you’ll have in an emergency.
  • Stay within limitations. This means the airplane’s limitations (there’s no such thing as “a little overweight” or “a little over redline”). It means the weather limitations (no flying through “a little thunderstorm” or “a trace of ice,” or flying “a little lower” to find the runway on approach to your home airport). It means your limitations (certificates, ratings, and currency). If you allow yourself to “fudge” the limitations, human nature says it’s likely you’ll soon be accepting more and more risk as “creeping normalcy” (or as Tony Kern of Convergent Performance says, “normalization of risk”) sets in, and what was once unacceptable has gradually become your norm. It means the mechanical limitations. Follow the FARs about required equipment and inoperative equipment. Get familiar with the airplane’s Kinds of Operation and Equipment Limitations (KOEL chart) if one exists for the aircraft. 
    The regulations are a minimum standard…the very edge of appropriately managed risk. Where limitations are concerned, “no means no.”
  • Employ SOPs. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are the normal way you do things. Strive to take off and climb, fly an approach, and make your landings as close to the same way every time. This eliminates the need for many in-flight decisions (actually not eliminated, just decided ahead of time), and permits you to more easily detect and act upon variables like wind, traffic, equipment issues and other factors-you’re not so busy with the basics of flying that you have no mental bandwidth for external variables.
    Knowing and using SOPs has one other advantage as well-in the very unusual case you need to do something different from your SOP, you’ll know what “good” is, and be better able to judge how what you’re actually doing compared to your expectations and needs.
  • Fly stabilized approaches. Unstablized approaches, those where the airspeed, power and airplane configuration do not conform to an established and nearly uniform SOPs for the final approach segment until the flare, commonly correlate to airport environment crashes. Further, know and use the same power, attitude and configuration cues for approach every time, and on final approach ask yourself three things: 
    Is the airplane on speed (Vref +5 knots -0 knots) at the proper rate of descent (usually 500 to 750 feet per minute, except in an obstacle landing)?
    Is the airplane on target (proceeding at the proper attitude and glide path to touch down at 1000 feet from the runway threshold or in the first third of the runway, whichever is shorter)?
    Is the airplane in configuration (flaps and gear set correctly, power and attitude as expected
    If the answer to any of these is “no” when you’re within, say, 500 feet of the ground, go around, set up properly and try again.
  • Get real about fatigue.Pilot fatigue is one of the great unknowns of general aviation air crash investigation. Yet even more so than in highly regimented airline operations, with maximum duty days and mandated sleep periods and time off, nothing stands between the pilot and command and his or her own judgment of their fatigue state. If you’re a morning person, don’t fly after work. If you dance or work the night away, don’t plan on an 0600 departure. A Friday evening trip after a long work week, or a Sunday afternoon flight home after a whirlwind vacation or active vacation trip, is setting you up for bad decision-making…which may be a factor in as much as 80% of all general aviation crashes.
    Even more challenging: evaluate not only how you feel for departure, but predict how you’re likely to perform three hours later after bouncing around in turbulence or solid in IMC or at high altitude at reduced cabin pressure or on supplemental oxygen—and then are faced with a missed approach or an abnormal or emergency condition.
  • Involve your family and passengers.Teach your family (whether they’re riding with you, or just expecting you to be somewhere at some specific time) and your passengers what it is you’re looking for when you gather information and make informed decisions about appropriately managed risks. Ask them to concur with your go/no-go decision, and give them the power to recommending you cancel or delay a flight, or divert it while en route. Often it’s pressure from family or the passengers that leads a pilot to accept an unacceptable level of risk, usually because nonpilots have no idea what conditions you require to safely complete a flight. If those around you have some basic understanding of what is acceptable, and what is not, you may find you’re under far less pressure to “go” into conditions that would normally cause you to decide against it.
  • Maintain your airplane. Normally it’s decision-making that results in a crash. Sometimes things do break, however. The failure may not be complete, but the status and reduced capability will demand more of the pilot’s attention, making it harder to appropriately manage risk in other areas. Pilots and airplane owners tend to interchange the words “maintenance” and “repair,” but there is a vital distinction. One is to keep things from breaking; the other is to fix it once it’s broken. Think about what “maintenance” means: It is what you do routinely, before something breaks or fails, to maintain the current level of system fidelity and functionality. It may be “safe” (appropriately managed risk) to defer some maintenance tasks for a time, assuming that you step up the intensity and frequency of inspections to confirm the item has not yet shown signs of imminent failure.
    Going beyond recommended Time Before Overhaul of an engine or a landing gear motor, for example, may be safe (if it’s legal for your operation under the rules of its governing authority), but you’ll have more down time and spend more money on inspections to properly confirm it remains safe until the time comes you indeed do overhaul or replace. Continuing to defer the maintenance task will soon reach a point of diminishing returns, when the cost of more frequent and intrusive inspections could have been folded into the cost of the overhaul or replacement you know you’ll eventually need.

There are more LESSONS from the past 17 years. But if we all followed just the tenets and recommendations listed in this series; imagine how positively we’d change the record of fatal general aviation crashes.

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Holder of an ATP certificate with instructor, CFII and MEI ratings and a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year, 2015 Inductee into the NAFI Hall of Fame, and 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year, three-time Master CFI Thomas P. Turner has been Lead Instructor for Bonanza pilot training program at the Beechcraft factory; production test pilot for engine modifications; aviation insurance underwriter; corporate pilot and safety expert; Captain in the United States Air Force; and contract course developer for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now directs the education and safety arm of a 9000-member pilots’ organization. With over 4000 hours logged, including more than 2500 as an instructor, Tom writes, lectures and instructs extensively from his home at THE AIR CAPITAL--Wichita, Kansas. Subscribe to Tom’s free FLYING LESSONS Weekly e-newsletter at

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