Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ken Steiner prior to his retirement from the United States Aircraft Insurance Group as a Vice-President and Claims Manager. During his career, Ken investigated thousands of aircraft accidents involving small planes, crop dusters, helicopters, corporate aircraft, and airliners. He has been on-site at over 100 fatal aircraft accident investigations. He is currently an Aviation Investigative Consultant and is also a Pilot and Tactical Flight Officer for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit. He owns a Cessna 182 based at San Carlos and holds ATP and CFI certificates with over 5000 flying hours.
All summer long it seemed that no matter which direction I headed, there was a permanent headwind attached to the front of the plane. If this kept up I was going to trade my airspeed indicator in for a calendar. Finally, the winds agreed to partner up with me on a flight to Truckee giving me an extra 20 knots on the tail. A “smiley face” icon lit up on the GPS ground speed display. As I entered the pattern for runway 28, that helpful southwesterly was starting to show another personality as it became a brisk low-level crosswind. While my focus was on contending with a crosswind landing, I was not particularly mindful of the “push” I was getting from the tailwind on base leg. Sure enough it blew me well to the right of the runway 28 centerline as I was rolling out on final. This is a pivotal and sometimes fatal moment for pilots. I knew instantly what not to do. About 4 years earlier at this very runway I had investigated the crash of a corporate Learjet that overshot the extended runway centerline while turning final from a circling instrument approach. As in my situation, the crew found themselves off to the right side on the final approach. In an attempt to get lined up, the crew made a steeply banked turn to the left. Witnesses reported the bank to be well in excess of 45 degrees. The jet stalled in the turn and slammed into the ground killing both the pilot and co-pilot. Fortunately no one else was on board and no one on the ground was injured. Typically a plane turning base to final is already low, slow, and close to the runway. If wind or bad planning causes you to overshoot the final approach turn, there is a natural urge to want to get realigned in a hurry often by cranking in excess aileron and rudder. The increased load factor in a steep bank significantly raises the stall speed. Further, a pilot may try to arrest the increased rate of descent in a steep turn by increasing pitch attitude. The increased angle of attack causes the already shrinking stall safety margins to further erode. All of this is leading to an accelerated stall that can leave one planted firmly short of the runway. Add poor rudder control and you may even be able to perform a spin on your way down. Ideally, proper pattern planning is the first step in avoiding this scenario. If you do find yourself off the final centerline, limit bank angles to 30 degrees and don’t use excess rudder to get realigned. Use proper elevator inputs (pitch attitude) to maintain airspeed and use power to control the rate of descent. If you can’t get back to the centerline in an orderly and stabilized manner then prepare to go-around. Don’t let the turn to final become your final turn.