Lessons from the lighter side
Let me begin with a mea culpa: I admit, I only started watching the clip below for a bit of a laugh.
Don’t get me wrong – I have profound respect for the skill, patience and resilience of the people who build and fly model planes. Especially the resilience: Hundreds of hours on the workbench; tens of seconds on the wind…
But if you do have a chuckle (I did), just remind yourself that this video wasn’t posted for purely documentary purposes. (I did that, too.)
The clip has garnered over 3 million views since it first went up in 2015, so it’s not the usual thing I pick out for sharing. However I doubt many of those millions lie outside the Venn Diagram for “people who fly model planes” and “people who laugh at others’ misfortunes”.
And there’s definitely another level of value here for real world aviators.
The ‘Oh Shirt!’ moment
The very first incident is the nightmare scenario (in small planes, anyway) of an engine failure after takeoff – at the precise moment the pilot was occupied with raising the gear too. It’s not beautifully handled, but it is successfully handled and the passengers could well have walked away.
I hasten to add that it’s a superb model.
The way the event plays out is (I suspect, anyway) a pretty accurate analogue for how it would happen in real life. Look for the initial “Oh shirt!” moment while the pilot gathers their thoughts, then quick actions to keep the plane flying, keep flying the plane, and get it down in one piece. A great lesson and all without anyone getting hurt.
The next EFATO isn’t quite as pretty, but it shows the other benefit of small scale – relative strength.
And what follows is an instructive collection of text-book aircraft accidents, covering the usual mixed bag of handling errors, loss of directional control, airframe failures and more, that pepper every National Safety Board’s annual report. There’s even a wire strike (almost certainly fatal) and an extraordinary flutter encounter (from 05:38) that would strike fear into any pilot’s heart.
It’s all a valuable warning to stay vigilant whenever you’re around aircraft. Delta Foxtrot Uniform.
A recipe for disaster
More revealing, though, is the huge proportion of accidents that occur in the landing phase… A 2:1 ratio by my count.
While the importance of speed and directional control on landing is well known, and getting too slow will start veins popping in any instructor’s neck, the importance of not being too fast is often overlooked. This clip reinforces (time and again) the value of not being in a hurry to get on the ground.
Coming in too fast, then trying to force a still-flying airplane to behave like a ground vehicle is a recipe for disaster. The impact (pun intended) is emphasised by these small scale demonstrations. But that’s not the only way to mess up a landing, and hardly the only lesson to be had.
At 2:00 a Corsair pilot demonstrates some superb decision-making by abandoning his botched approach and living to fly another day. The aircraft doesn’t appear again, so we have to assume the next landing was unremarkable for all the right reasons. The F-86 that follows underscores the point perfectly, as pilot-induced oscillations bunny-hop down the runway to their inevitable conclusion.
At 3:00 a Piper cub loses its wheel after contacting the runway. Stand-by for a trail of yellow confetti -– then be delightfully disappointed as the pilot handles his in-flight emergency with well-deserved satisfaction.
Want to see why you should never try to force a final turn that is late, rushed and badly set up? The inevitable stall/spin disaster is at 03:55. In real life this wouldn’t be a mildly entertaining YouTube moment either. It would be the nightly news.
The last laugh
Watch out, too, for the P-40 that skids and flick rolls on short final at 06:23. With apologies to the builder of this beautiful aircraft, thank goodness this was only a model. Still, it’s not a mistake you’d want to repeat at any scale.
And that’s the lesson you can get from all these crashes if you choose to. Just take a moment to remember the very real forces that act on every aircraft, regardless of size.
So, once again, I don’t want to disparage the pilots of these model aircraft. I want to thank them for the lessons they’ve shared through the loss of their not-inconsiderable artworks… It’s obviously a lot easier to monitor an aircraft’s speed, attitude and aim point from inside than from some distance away.
On the other hand, none of these aircraft were landed with their gear up. So maybe the modellers have the last laugh after all.
Anyway – watch and learn. You won’t live long enough to make all these mistakes yourself. You’ll find the video here.
(Warning: Here comes the aerodynamics bit…)
In theory, it doesn’t matter whether you’re flying a 20kg model or a 200 tonne airliner – a 20 knot wind is a 20 know wind is a 20 knot wind. It doesn’t care what size your aircraft is. Then again, it absolutely matters how much your aircraft weighs. As every glider pilot knows, weight is the key to penetration, which basically equates to not letting the air push you around.
Light Sport accidents
Thanks to inertia, a 20 knot wind can’t push a massive aircraft around as easily as a light one, and a heavier craft’s extra momentum will carry it through gusts from in front, below and the sides with less disturbance. That’s partly why maximum control deflection speed (Va) is less for an aircraft that’s lightly loaded than for the same aircraft at max weight.
There’s also the wind an aircraft ‘makes’ by moving through the air. Again, 20 knots (or whatever combination of forward speed and actual wind) is 20 knots.
But if a model’s stalling speed is, say, 5 knots (and I’m working on the basis that a landing is a stall executed with the wheels a millimetre above the ground) then approaching at 10 knots is going to have some alarming side effects – especially compared to a Boeing 777 landing 5 knots above its correct speed. One is double, the other is negligible. It explains why models seem so skittish in the air.
In this excellent video on Light Sport Airplane accident rates, avweb.com’s Paul Bertorelli points out that almost half of LSA accidents involve a nearby runway. There’s that 2:1 ratio again. And the types of accidents he lists will be equally familiar now you’ve watched the RCScaleAircraft video. “Losing it on the runway in a crosswind, hard landings, overshoots, undershoots, you name it…”
He points out that experience seems to have no effect on the numbers – and asks whether lighter wing loadings and sensitive controls are more dangerous than we thought. After studying those scale accidents, it makes a lot of sense.