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The New York Times, Wednesday May 13, 2009 page 1 article Hearing Suggests Inattention by Pilots Before Buffalo Crash. That crash happened five miles short of the runway in Buffalo New York on Feb. 12. The cause is being blamed on pilot inattention because the airplane itself was capable of coping with the modest ice buildup which the airplane apparently was experiencing. The pilots were recorded on the flight recorder and were discovered to be conversing pleasantly about non-flight related materials when the automatic shaking-stick warning occurred. Automatic warnings of that type only occurred when the airplane’s instruments indicate they are moving outside of a safe flying condition. In this case the airplane had slowed down too much and the stall warning sounded and the stick shook to get their attention. The audio warning may have said, “Too slow speed up!” or “Too low, pull up!”. I don’t know because I wasn’t there and there is some variation of these warnings but their instant reaction was to pull back on the flight controls.

When one pulls on the controls it raises the nose of the airplane which usually gains altitude but if the airplane is already going too slow pulling back on the controls slows the airplane and if it slows too much and if the controls aren’t pushed forward soon the airplane will stall. The wings are not moving through the air quickly enough to provide sufficient lift to keep the airplane flying and it spontaneously noses over. Unfortunately, when this happens it tends to nose over quite a lot. If there is plenty of altitude it isn’t a problem because the descending airplane soon speeds up and regains flying speed. But initially before the stall first started to occur , when the stall warning shook the control stick, even changing the angle of attack of wings a little would have alleviated the stall. However, as the airplane was at a low altitude there wasn’t enough time to regain flying control after their first mistake and the airplane collided with the ground.

One problem with current pilots training is that they don’t have much experience with stalling, spinning and recovery from those conditions. Those conditions are easy to recover from if one knows what they need to do and they do it soon enough. However, what needs to be done is counter intuitive and when someone has little experience with these maneuvers they panic they tend to do the wrong thing. There first instinct is to pull back on the controls to gain altitude instead of pushing forward to gain airspeed. That pulling back quickly makes the condition worse and if they are going fast as airliners do are but too slow for the wings to avoid stalling things go out of control very quickly and there is no time to recover.

A very similar thing happened to John John Kennedy but in a strangely different way. He was flying a relatively hot private airplane but had very little instrument flying experience and he was flying visually just below the cloud layer. No problem, he could see city lights on the horizon. He was probably a little distracted and talking to his passengers when he went into a cloud, perhaps just a little. That could happen in a second or two and still not be the slightest problem for an experienced pilot, or even an inexperienced one if he was paying close attention. However, John John wasn’t very experienced and when he lost sight of his visual reference points he instinctively pulled back on the stick to gain a little altitude but then he couldn’t see anything, nothing at all out the window. So instead of looking at the artificial horizon instrument he probably pulled back a little more which would make the artificial horizon even more difficult to read but he probably didn’t know how anyway and certainly not when he was in a steep climb. So the plane soon goes into a stall and a spin just like the airliner above because of pulling back on the stick when an easy push forward would have cured the problem instantly.

Pilots back in the olden days would have quite a lot of experience flying small light planes and doing stalls and spins almost every time they went flying. It was sort of fun and a quick way to lose some altitude and give your passengers a thrill. It is a reasonably safe maneuver in a light plane if you have plenty of altitude and know how to get out of the spin. However, with the two fast airplanes in crashes mentioned above it was necessary to do the right thing and do it immediately. I don’t mean quickly or violently but immediately and smoothly within a few seconds. In both of the examples if the airplanes had been on autopilot those events wouldn’t have occurred. A couple of years ago at the Air Force Academy they were having a similar problem crashing perfectly fine low tech airplanes by having jet pilots flying them but without enough stall and spin training and experience. They need to have the right reflex for this operation and they never spin jets on purpose so when a stall occurs they tend to pull back on the stick. Wrong!

All airplane pilots should have a couple of hours per year of stall and spin training in light planes so the recovery reaction becomes automatic.