By JIM AVILA and SERENA MARSHALL
For private plane pilots, their final terrifying, twisting view of earth that leads to a crash is all too common and devastating, but that could be avoided with proper training, the National Transportation Safety Board tells ABC News.
Rich Stowell, a pilot and instructor for 25 years, gave ABC News a firsthand look, some 3,000 feet above the sprawling Santa Paula, Calif., soil, when the small single engine plane we were in stalled and entered a death spiral headed straight down.
“Typically the last thing they will ever see,” Stowell told ABC News.
Sometimes they get lucky, like the Idaho pilot who walked away this past fall when his plane stalled into the treetops.
But too often they don’t.
Just this weekend, there were nine fatalities in 11 small plane crashes nationwide. A twin-engine jet crashed into a house in South Bend, Ind., killing two on Sunday. While a twin-engine turbo prop in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., killed three when it crashed into an auto pound.
NTSB chief Deborah Hersman told ABC News that 97 percent of aviation fatalities occur in general aviation, not commercial flights.
“The NTSB is so concerned with general aviation safety that we have placed this on our ‘most wanted’ list of transportation safety improvements,” Hersman said.
In fact, while domestic commercial airplanes are on a safety streak of no fatalities in more than three years, small planes average five accidents per day, accounting for nearly 500 American deaths in small planes each year.
More private pilots are in the air now than ever, and the leading cause of death is pilot loss of control.
“Frankly, almost all of these accidents are preventable,” Hersman said.
Stowell, who is known nationally as The Spin Doctor, has recovered from spin dives more than 33,000 times.
He says private pilots don’t get the training they need to recover from emergencies, which is why he now teaches private pilots to overcome panic and human instincts to help them survive straight stalls, barrel rolls caused by high wind or turbulence, and that deadly spin toward the ground.
“(The first time) it would be such an overload the pilot’s typically freeze on the controls, and again, they’re typically occurring close enough to the ground when they’re entering the spin it’s already too late,” Stowell said. “I usually tell pilots, the first thousand spins are the hardest.”
Lesson No. 1, Stowell said, is to resist the temptation to pull up when going down. Because when an airplane stalls, it doesn’t have enough speed to fly, so contrary to the natural impulse the pilot must push the controls towards the ground to pick up enough speed to recover.
“We have to replace survival instinct with the brain telling the body, ‘no you have to do this and do that,'” he said.
Few of the pilots controlling America’s 220,000 private aircraft today have the needed experience to avoid a tragedy, but a skill the NTSB is hoping to change through their newly issued “Safety Alerts” and related videos to be released this spring.
1. Is Your Aircraft Talking to You? Listen! — don’t let shortness of time or financial incentives lead you to skipping or ignoring signs of a problem.
2. Reduced Visual References Require Vigilance — about 2/3 of accidents occur during inclement weather so be aware that spatial disorientation could be a problem.
3. Avoid Aerodynamic Stalls at Low Altitude — be aware of conditions your conditions and avoid distractions.
4. Mechanics: Manage Risks to Ensure Safety — system or component failures are among most common reasons for fatality, so make sure maintenance and inspections follow protocol.
5. Pilots: Manage Risks to Ensure Safety — understand that several small risks equal a big one.