THE GREAT AMERICAN radio and television comedian George Burnsemerged in America during the vaudeville era and became known as a king of the one-liners delivered in his uniquely subtle deadpan style—and always with an El Producto cigar between the fingers of his left hand. Before his death in 1996 at the age of 100, Burns was asked for the secret of his long life. His response was simple and to the point: “Keep breathing.”
The strategy needed to stem the tide of loss-of-control accidents is almost as simple as Burns’ secret to long life. To avoid a loss of control, don’t exceed the wing’s critical angle of attack and avoid flying into weather that’s certain to cause spatial disorientation and an upset. A pilot should also maintain a keen sense of their situational awareness from before engine start until shutdown, as well as constantly strive to improve their risk-management skills.
While LOC-I is a popular acronym to assign as a cause, loss of control in flight is never the actual culprit behind an accident. It’s merely the inevitable, usually fatal result of some action that preceded it. LOC-I means the pilot and their aircraft find themselves operating outside the normal flight envelope with no idea how to return to straight-and-level flight.
Robert Wright of Wright Aviation Solutions confirms that assessment. “LOC-I is really a useless way to describe the root cause of accidents,” Wright says. “LOC-I is merely the final event in the accident chain that has a myriad of root causes. However, my own analysis shows that poor risk management may account for between two-thirds to three-quarters of GA fatal accidents.”
Randy Brooks, vice president of training and business development at the Mesa, Arizona-based Aviation Performance Solutions, says: “There are three major causal factors [of LOC-I accidents]. They are environmental [factors], systems-related failures, and pilot-related failures. Pilot-related failures are the most common. Environmental factors include factors such as thunderstorms, wind shear, and mountain wave rotor and wake turbulence.” APS is a company specializing in aircraft upset-prevention-and-recovery training to many of the major Part 121 air carriers, Part 91 business- aircraft operators and the US military. APS’ goal is more than simply teaching pilots how to successfully fly their way out of a LOC-I event; it’s also about learning to identify those situations that point to an impending upset.
In previous Flying articles, we’ve looked closely at LOC-I caused specifically by VFR flight in IMC conditions and loss of control just after takeoff. Let’s take a look at what the industry has done to reduce these accidents in general, as well as review some recommendations for the future.
Many industry pundits noticed that, in 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board dropped “loss of control in-flight” from its list of top 10 transportation risks, perhaps leading people to believe the problem had been solved. While LOC-I accidents for US-based Part 121 air carriers have been nearly eliminated, LOC-I remains a significant threat outside our borders. Brooks says, “Worldwide, loss of control in flight is still the leading cause of fatalities.” In the US, between 2019 and 2020, the NTSB recorded no fewer than 59 LOC-I accidents in general aviation aircraft, while Part 121 carriers in the US experienced just a single fatality. That should make us all wonder what air carriers know that we in the GA world don’t.
First, the decline in air-carrier accidents didn’t just happen. The industry worked hard to achieve that reduction. As they did, they left behind a trail of valuable lessons for the industry as a whole, while acknowledging that LOC-I “is one of the most complex accident categories, involving numerous contributing factors that act individually or, more often, in combination,” according to the International Air Transport Association. “Reducing this accident category, thorough an understanding of causes and possible intervention strategies, is an industry priority.”
The Fight To Reduce Accidents
Most pilots today have heard of loss of control, but the concept is actually rather recent, perhaps just 30 years old. It emerged following a 1997 report from the White House Commission on Aviation Safety chaired by then-vice president Al Gore. One key highlight: “In the area of safety, the Commission believes that the principal focus should be on reducing the rate of accidents by a factor of five within a decade and recommends a reengineering of the FAA’s regulatory and certification programs to achieve that goal.” No small goal.
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