By Mike Folkerts
Loss of control in flight—when a pilot fails to maintain or regain control of an aircraft—is the leading cause of general aviation fatalities. From 2011 to 2015, nearly half of all fatal fixed-wing accidents in the United States involved pilots losing control of their aircraft, resulting in 819 fatalities. Far too many NTSB investigations have shown how a loss of aircraft attitude control is often preceded by the loss of a pilot’s mental attitude control.
In the fatal accidents that I have investigated, this loss of mental control seems to be a conscious decision by the pilot to “press the envelope”—a term made famous in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best‑selling book about the military test pilots who became Project Mercury astronauts. As the United States sought to achieve supersonic flight and put a human on the moon, these test pilots pressed the envelope, pushing the boundaries of both aircraft and human performance. Their efforts were based on national objectives and security, and many of these aviators paid the ultimate price in that pursuit.
Unfortunately, in far too many general aviation accidents, pilots choose to press the envelope for relatively minor (and often selfish) reasons, like “pressing the weather” to get home for dinner, flying at low altitude or maneuvering aggressively for an extra boost of adrenaline, or “pressing a known aircraft issue” to get a job done. Although a “git-r-done” attitude is certainly commendable, pilots too often forget to trust the little voice inside that warns them to steer clear of unwarranted risks, or they fail to guard against the temptation to make extreme efforts to please or impress others. General aviation flying very rarely requires the need to press the envelope, and pressing far too often ends in a tragic loss of control.
The NTSB is so concerned with this phenomenon that, for the last 3 years, we have placed “Prevent Loss of Control in Flight in General Aviation” on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements to help bring attention to the issue. Last week, NTSB Board Member Earl Weener even attended the Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In—one of the world’s largest general aviation enthusiasts’ training events—to talk to pilots about the dangers of losing control.
Whatever a pilot’s motivation may be for wanting to press the envelope, in general aviation, it’s not worth risking loss of control. Never underestimate the connection between mental attitude and aircraft attitude.
Mike Folkerts is an aviation safety investigator in the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety.