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178 Seconds Dissected

by Paul McGhee

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Note from Darren: In the spirit of debunking myths and getting to the truth, a reader of this website wrote to me about 178 Seconds to LiveWhile not disputing the results, he uncovered and cleared up a few inaccuracies in the story which appears all over the internet, including this website. Paul is one of the rare breeds of pilot who is rated Fixed wing and Helicopter.  I very much enjoy these kind of thoughtful and intelligent emails, thanks Paul. 

I have long suspected that this story--widely quoted--is false or misleading, sort of an aviation urban legend. At 45 hours of instrument training and preparing for my checkride, I've never come close to losing control of an airplane. When I have controlled the airplane poorly it was because I let a distraction --fishing for a plate, tuning a radio--get the best of me. I'm just an average pilot, but I think that flying an airplane by reference to instruments is easy, IF you have all of them, and you don't have to copy a re-route to Cleveland while you're doing it.

A little research turned up the following...

1. The study was done in 1954, not 1991.
2. The AI, DG and VSI were *covered*.
3. The subjects had received NO prior instrument training whatsoever, typical for private pilots of that time period.
4. The study was performed in a real airplane, a Bonanza. None of the students had ever flown a complex high-performance aircraft prior to the study.

After receiving a 2-3 hours of training, all of the subjects repeated  the test without losing control. That was the point of the study, to show that a little instrument training went a long way in terms of safety.

The paper itself, entitled "180 Degree Turn Experiment" is not posted in its entirety anywhere on the internet, but the University of Illinois at Urbana put up the first couple of pages here and promises to get all of it up there someday.


Here is a posting archived from the old rec.aviation.student USENET board, written by someone who claims to have received a copy of the report from UIUC. The author points out, even while debunking the myths associated with the report, that the actual average time to an unsafe flight condition was really 178 seconds.


Here's another article--from aopa.org--where the author refers to the study. It seems that AOPA sort of sponsored the research.


More from the AOPA about how the study's results turned up as a task in our modern Private Pilot PTS:


The question still begs, why do these kind of accidents happen? I certainly don't know the answer. Maybe there's a natural aptitude (and conversely, inaptitude) for attitude instrument flying. Certainly fear compounds the problem. I suspect that in practice it (VFR into IMC) happens often, and it goes unreported because the pilot is able to fly back to VFR conditions.

What you said...

Name = Michael H     Date = Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 2:19 PM
Comments = My thought on why these accidents happen is attitude - not of the aircraft, but between the pilot's ears.  Sadly we continue to encourage or at least allow this attitude that getting lucky now and then is OK.  The video posted by AOPA on 178 seconds to live is a fine example.  To be clear, I stongly support AOPA's and other's efforts to improve safety, but just watch and listen to the video.  After every kind of warning and opportunity to avoid the obvious weather, after operating just a few hundred feet above obstacles that are obscured by weather, and long after becoming uncomfortable with the situation the pilot continues.  Then, and here's my issue with the attitude, the pilot "suddenly" and "without warning" is in the "soup".  Nothing happened that was sudden, there were certainly many repeated warnings, and even if he was competent of flight on instruments, our pilot had no legitimate reason to fly into the "soup" in this scenario.  My point is the myth we c
ontinue to teach is that somehow despite our best efforts to act responsibly the weather can change so suddenly as to swallow us up without warning.  I don't buy it.  There is always at least some clue, and I believe that we do a generally poor job of teaching what the more subtle warnings look like.  To paraphrase one of the truly great instructors I had long ago: "If a thing doesn't look right or feel right, it probably isn't right."

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