Nine Lives

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Nine Lives

Aviation accident investigators have suggested over the years that in many cases a string of events occurred well before an accident.  Some have said pilots might in fact use their proverbial nine lives prior to catastrophic events.  The National Safety and Transportation Board statistics indicate something like 83% of all accidents are caused by pilot error. Investigators are able to sort through the crash scene, but most times turn to all the significant details and decisions leading up to the crash.  The same could be true for radio control pilots who crash their beloved aircraft but don’t understand why.  Here are the possible nine lives that might be considered in determining pilot negligence:

Lack of maintenance


Weight and Balance

Use of defective parts

Pressured by time constraints

Fuel management

Exceeding aircraft capabilities

Failure to control the aircraft

Lack of understanding of equipment

Let’s take a look at these factors and see if we can use them to explain incidents we have experienced or observed.

To begin let’s look at all the possibilities that are present before we even leave the ground.  We have all flown something that was either getting old or in the last several flights we have not removed the wing to make sure all the linkages are tight, servo leads are connected or that nothing has shifted inside the fuselage.  Add to that, a nicked prop or a leaky fuel tank or tubing, weak wing bolts and we have out first possible causation.  Weather plays a role too.  We are not going to go to instruments while on the ground, but maybe the crosswind exceeds the planes capabilities or the heat and density altitude are impossible to overcome no matter how much power we have. Another scenario is too much of a headwind down the runway and on final you stall.  Next, think through the weight and balance. Has anything changed, and if yes, did you check your center of gravity?  Also, after a repair from a previous accident, did you make sure your CG was correct?  A nose heavy plane is difficult, but a tail heavy plane is an accident waiting to happen.  Finally, among the ground faults committed prior to lift off did you cut any corners with any parts?  Maybe you took a servo from an older plane that you forgot was problematic the last time you flew?  How about a bad or improper glow plug or fuel?  So all of these are possibilities and before you ever leave the ground you have used four of your nine lives.  Whether you played the odds or just did not know, the deck is becoming stacked against you.

As a transition we should factor in your use of time.  Did you rush to get to the flying field?  Did you get pressure from others to fly your plane when you really knew better?  Was there ever a moment you thought perhaps that flight was a bad idea?  For pilots this is the go/no go scenario that gets us into trouble.  If were are truly to accept the blame for pilot error, were we also at all time the pilot in command?

So off we go.  Straight down the runway, rotate and lift off.  We are now past the point of no return.  Just as we round the pattern the engine sputters and we realize a dead-stick landing is going to happen.  Did you set your flight timer?  Did you have a full fuel tank when you took off?  Were your needle valve settings so rich that a tank did not last as long as you thought it would?  Really, with the exception of not being in the plane we are now struggling with the same questions a pilot would have to address in a flight emergency.  No restart possibilities here.

The strikes against us are continuing to add up.  We now have only three lives left.  Our flying is going without incident but now we try a few loops and don’t back off the throttle on the descent.  We have stressed the airframe beyond manufacturer’s recommendations and turned our plane into a guided missile.  Perhaps we flew inverted and the fuel clunk never dropped or we exceeded the engines RPM recommendations.  At one end of the spectrum the cause seems obvious, but at the other it is more obscure.

When it all boils down safety investigators find failure to control the aircraft is causation especially when trying to remedy a variety of other emergencies simultaneously.  For a first time flyer the spin scenario complimented by increased elevator and ground contact is imminent.  A stall on approach, becoming disoriented with the plane as it comes toward you, or in inverted flight, and perhaps failure to control the rudder on take off with a tail dragger.  How about trying to set the trims and forgetting how close to the ground you have flown?  A worse causation is just plain flying to close to the ground.  We again see the outcomes, but may become confused by all the other factors present.  With one life left and a crying towel sitting nearby we have to consider ones understanding of the equipment as we use up our last life.

Modern equipment has limitations.  Batteries become weak over time, transmitters and receivers become victims of interference, and how we setup our planes and equipment affects our flight performance and outcomes. Did we take the time to thoroughly check the control throws, servos binding, antennae run too close to other electronics, ground check, set the expo’s correctly, preset the trims, and most importantly are we comfortable with the input functions?  Becoming confused at the point of the emergency is the worst possible time.

Our last life initiates emotions and conundrums that when compounded by our remorse for the lost plane is even further confounded by who or what was at fault.  Next time you see, or experience a crash, take the time to think through every possible scenario.  Even better, start right now with a check list and avoid becoming a statistic.  A little planning and understanding of the possibilities will make you a better pilot.  Just by reading this you are now much more informed, but more important much more aware of the limitations placed on flight and the wonderful possibilities that exist when you overcome each and everyone of them.  Good flying!

Updated: September 7, 2011 — 8:36 PM
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