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Bending Metal - Common Aircraft Incidents

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from PocketLearning, November 2005, Updated, November 2010
CFIDarren Newsletter, November 29, 2011

There is a handful of simple mistakes that cause the most damage to GA aircraft.  These mistakes normally lead to aircraft damage but sometimes such incidents lead to a fatality.  The source of this material is a two year review of NTSB accident/incident reports.  The results were presented in an FAA Safety Meeting briefing on "Common Accident Scenarios" complete with pictures, causes, and antidotes.  In Florida, FAA inspectors believe that pilots do two things when they cross the state line:  forget to buy gas and fail to put the gear down.  After reviewing thousands of accidents & incidents, it couldn't be more true.  Not just for Florida, but in all general aviation activities.  Here are the "big ones" that bend metal:
  1. Gear Up
  2. Loss of control
  3. Fuel exhaustion
For fatal accident information, see the companion article, What's Killing Pilots.  The following is the summary of the non-fatal accident information in general aviation.  I encourage you to print it and share it with your fellow pilots at EAA meetings, Safety Seminars, and Airport Meetings. Please see your favourite CFI and get a refresher on crosswind technique, complex aircraft procedures, flight planning, and fuel management. 

Below is a summary of the antidotes for each of the common accident scenarios.
Metal Bender
Gear Up - #1 non-fatal accident, accounting for 12% of all non-fatal accidents.
Recognize how it happens:
  • Distraction
  • Failure to follow checklists.
Break the accident chain:
  • Be willing to go around if things aren't right.
  • Understand your gear system completely.
  • Proper crosswind technique to prevent side loading of gear. 
  • If your aircraft is susceptible to gear problems, consider more frequent inspections than the annual.
  • Make a good preflight of landing gear on retract aircraft, at minimum looking at leaking fluids, cracks, linkages, tires, worn parts.
  • Make a check of the gear position lights at least on downwind, base, and final.  A quick check just before touching down is also a good safeguard.
  • Make a visual check of gear position if possible by looking out the window or using mirrors.
  • A smooth, stabilized approach will lead to a smooth touchdown.
Loss of Control - doing research on instructional accidents, I found that 25% of all accidents with a flight instructor on board are loss of control accidents.  Of all part 91 accidents, 11% are loss of control. 
Recognize how it happens:
  • Inexperience, in type, or total time
  • Not knowing where the wind is
  • Non-stable approaches.
  • Over braking
Break the accident chain:
  • Log time with a CFI comfortable in the aircraft you're flying.  Practice soft field & short field takeoffs and landings.
  • Use proper aileron controls while taxiing, performing crosswind takeoffs and landings.  Taxi slowly.
  • Know the performance limitations of your aircraft.
  • Be aware of where the wind is coming from... always.
  • Be willing to go around if things aren't right.
  • Less is more:  don't over control the aircraft.
  • Brake smoothly and use aerodynamic braking below 40 knots.
  • Smooth aircraft operation including the use of brakes will not only make your passengers happier, but also allow recovery if something fails.
  • A proper preflight should include leaking fluids, brake lines, pads, rotor surfaces, cracks and tire wear.
  • Follow the visual glideslope information, whether you're VFR or IFR.
  • A smooth, stabilized approach will lead to a smooth touchdown.
Fuel Exhaustion - pilots consistently undertake flights which are longer than the fuel supply.  Many crash within 10 NM of the airport.
Recognize how it happens:
  • Improper or lack of fuel planning.
  • Improper preflight weather briefing.
  • Improper or lack of flight planning.
  • Improper fuel management.
Break the accident chain:
  • Land as soon as possible if there is any doubt about your ability to complete the flight as planned.
  • Know your aircraft performance, fuel burn.
  • Use a simple kitchen timer (magnet removed) to determine how much time is left in the tanks.
  • Lean your mixture above 3000 MSL and at cruise.  Don't forget to set mixture rich (or set for density altitude) as you descent.
  • In multi-tank systems, switch fuel source at regular intervals.
  • Monitor fuel usage during flight, compared to flight & fuel planning.

Companion Article:  What's Killing Pilots: What to do to save your life >>

Other Safety Resources

IFR Risk Management
Things Your Flight Instructor Wish You Knew (Airplane) or Helicopter
15 Things Pilots Must Learn(Airplane) or Helicopter
Making Safe Choices
Flying Discipline
Hazardous Attitudes
Things Your Flight Instructor Worries About
Characteristics of Successful Pilots
Personal Minimums Checklist (Airplane)
Flight Profile Flying - how to improve safety flying the profile
Introduction to Aeronautical Decision Making
    Hazardous Attitudes

“I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.  The reason flyers fly is the aesthetic appeal of flying.
— Amelia Earhart, 1897-1937.

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