New course for private pilots to limit crashes

2014-06-16 00:00

FLIGHT experts have responded to a fatal trend in KZN light aircraft crashes, in which pilots become disoriented and simply fly perfectly good aircraft into the ground.

In response to the “graveyard spiral” and other human error trends, the chief flying instructor at a leading Durban flight school, Jon Sargood, has devised an advanced training course for private pilots which, at first glance, seems more like psychology than aviation.

It even addresses the hazards of “macho” and “anti-authority” attitudes, and a dangerous trend of “Get Home-itis” — in which pilots without instrument flying skills ignore weather forecasts in their determination to get to a destination.

In a typical tragedy, the Civil Aviation Authority has found that Midlands pilot Theuns van Rensburg “most probably became spatially disoriented” when he spiralled into the ground near Cato Ridge in September 2012, killing himself and his two KZN passengers.

The report also noted: “The pilot displayed an over-eagerness to get home” and reflected a pattern of accidents that happen on weekends.

The first student pilot on the course at Durban Aviation Centre this week, local marketing professional Ricky Smit, said: “Its amazing to learn how important behaviour and attitude can be, and to think about real scenarios that can happen. A lot of pilots who haven’t flown in a year jump into their planes just to make the deadline for their licence renewals, and too bad if the weather isn’t good. You need to be focused, if you’ve just had an argument with your boyfriend, then jumping into a cockpit is a bad idea. And for recreational pilots like me, there is a real danger that if you get into cloud, you literally don’t know if you’re up or down.”

Sargood said male private pilots flying with a male co-pilot were more prone to flying through weather — without instrument training — than men flying alone, “who tend not to allow their ego to affect their decision making”.

Smit said: “Yes, I’m aware of the dangers, but I am absolutely loving learning to fly, it’s about personal achievement. The first time I went solo, I don’t even have to words to describe the feeling. Amazing.”

While commercial air travel remains much safer than road travel — and “[private] aviation in South Africa is as safe as any other country” — Sargood said avoidable human error accounted for roughly 70% of general aviation accidents.

The chief among them, he said was this: “The pilot enters cloud and loses spatial awareness; he panics and pulls back on the controls if he feels he’s descending; and any slight bank is quickly magnified in a steep bank and a very rapid rate of descent — a graveyard spiral.”

He said KZN’s warm ocean air and rising terrain create cloud and mist conditions that heighten the threat of weather-related disorientation accidents. “But weather doesn’t kill pilots, it’s poor risk assessment and poor understanding of phenomena that causes accidents,” he said.

He said the instinct to gain altitude by raising the nose of the plane often had the opposite effect, and that pilots blinded by clouds tended to get deceptive information from their “inner ear” balance system.

Many inexperienced pilots emerge from clouds to find that they are flying entirely upside down.

“There are no old bold pilots,” he said. “We want pilots to have a humble approach to flying that is considerate of their own limitations.”

The new course also includes “crew resource management” training on communication and decision-making, normally reserved for commercial airline pilots, and which is credited with turning Korean Air from the most accident-prone airline in the 1990s into one of the safest today.

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