I'm starting my quest to obtain a PPL this weekend. So I guess this question is contextualised around light aircraft like the Piper Tomahawk / Cessna, although it certainly would be interesting to get an answer that covers airliners too.

Baring a catastrophic technical failure, such as the wings falling off, a fire, or the horizontal stabiliser failing - is any [pilot caused] situation truly 'unrecoverable'?

I watched this video of a student accidentally starting a spin. Naturally, he looked terrified, but the instructor took over and recovered quickly and easily. This made me wonder, is there anything a student can do that the instructor will not be able to recover from? (obviously smashing the plane into the tarmac on approach isn't really something that can be helped, so I'm only asking about events at altitude here).

marked as duplicate by Steve V., xxavier, reirab, fooot, Ralph J Oct 24 at 5:17

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    The T-tail on the Traumahawk means it could "deep stall", where the elevator gets blanked by the wing and loses effectiveness, which is unusual in a trainer, however it's not unrecoverable, just more difficult. It's also pretty rare. – GdD Oct 23 at 12:14
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    Think of risk this way Cloud. Imagine the only vehicle you ever learned to operate was an airplane, and you were presented with learning the drive a car the first time. You would probably observe the fact that all it takes to get killed in a car is to drift to the left or right say 6 feet. You'd think, holy crap, I want to go back to my nice safe airplane that lets me wander all over the place without running into things. – John K Oct 23 at 16:19
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    There are a dozen scenarios in driving that will get you killed by inattention. In flying about the only way to kill yourself on a nice day in an airplane with lots of gas aboard is to stall/spin in the circuit. – John K Oct 23 at 16:19
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    @JohnK Never mind the fact that it only takes drifting half a dozen feet to get yourself killed in a car; just look at those accident statistics! – a CVn Oct 23 at 16:54
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    a light plane called the AA-1 Yankee is said to have insufficient rudder authority to recover from a spin without very skilled hands on the controls- and its spin recovery characteristics are strongly asymmetric, meaning that in one direction it's supposed to be almost nonrecoverable from a spin. does anyone here know if this is true? – niels nielsen Oct 23 at 17:48
up vote 29 down vote accepted

One of the more common causes of crash and fatality is a low altitude stall-spin. A spin, in a modern aircraft, isn't of itself deadly -- with many designs, all you have to do it let go of the controls, and the aircraft will unstall and let you simply fly out of the resulting spiral dive (if you don't wait too long and go past Vne, anyway).

If you get into a stall when low and slow, however, and due to control positions or pilot error initiate a spin, you're likely to hit the ground before you can recover. Since ground impact in these cases is usually near vertical, nose down, and partially inverted, pilot survival is hardly assured.

Avoiding this kind of fatal mistake is why you practice stalls (with plenty of altitude under you) during flight training -- so you can recognize the conditions that bring on a stall, the aircraft behavior that announces it, and learn how to manage the airplane after the stall occurs to avoid, or intentionally initiate and recover from a spin.

This is (or ought to be) a part of the check ride before flying an unfamiliar type, as well. Many older designs are less stall friendly than modern (say, post-1960) aircraft -- and if you learned to fly in a Cessna 152, you won't ever have experienced an unintended spin (because the type is difficult to spin even intentionally, and won't do it without large control inputs). Stall a 1930s light plane at 100 feet, however, and you're likely to fail the "walk away" test.

Another situation that, once in, you can't get out of occurs in mountain flying. If flying in a canyon under a ceiling (or near your aircraft's ceiling) you may find yourself without room to turn around, but with ground ahead rising into the overcast or faster than your aircraft can climb. This leads to either "weather" or "Controlled Flight Into Terrain" being the listed cause of the accident, when in both cases it was genuinely pilot error -- this is a situation an aware pilot will avoid.

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    Flight schools use Tomahawks because it's very difficult to teach spin avoidance and recovery in a trainer that's effectively spin-proof. You need to learn how to enter and recover from a spin, as well as how to manage a stall in an airplane that will spin. Otherwise, regardless of requirements to learn to spin and recover to get your license, you'll be in serious trouble the first time something goes badly in an aircraft that isn't spin-proof. – Zeiss Ikon Oct 23 at 11:25
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    I might suggest that you can learn useful things about stalls, spins, and spin recovery by flying a radio control "advanced trainer" type. These models fly very much like light aircraft -- but if you crash, you just have to repair or replace a model airframe, nobody gets hurt. – Zeiss Ikon Oct 23 at 11:32
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    There's no such thing as spin-proof. Don't worry about it unduly, learn the lessons and you'll be fine. Get in the habit of watching your airspeed and balance like a hawk when climbing or on approach, and taking positive action quickly if airspeed gets low or your balance is out. Don't get fixated on it, just make sure to come back to it every few seconds. – GdD Oct 23 at 12:06
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    Of course you're afraid of stalls & spins, @Cloud, you're supposed to be! But, as stated in the 3rd paragraph, that's why they have you practice it - so you know the signs when one begins to happen and you can take the proper corrective action before you end up dead. I'm pretty sure this won't be in your first lesson, either. – FreeMan Oct 23 at 12:17
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    Do students still need to demonstrate recovering from a spin? I thought the standard had changed to just have it demonstrated to them. – CrossRoads Oct 23 at 12:39

I'm going to make an assumption that solo student flights are in scope here, in which case I would say that flight into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) would quite often be unrecoverable. Instrument flight is a completely different discipline, without training it takes mere moments to become disoriented and lose control. If you do ever get into IMC glue your eyes on your attitude indicator and do a gentle 180 degree turn to exit while maintaining altitude, do not trust your inner ear!

Another potentially unrecoverable situation would be to fly under steadily lowering cloud until it puts you into a situation where landing safely is not possible. Being trapped between overcast and rising terrain with no landing spots will not end well. Scud-running is just stupid with all the high tension lines and cell towers that have sprung out of the ground.

These are preventable situations. Sometimes people succumb to get-there-itis or peer pressure and convince themselves the clouds are thin, or they're bound to raise in a bit, after all the TAF says so. Good flight planning and sticking to your limits will keep you out of that kind of trouble.

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    Lowering ceiling isn't the only way to get caught in a bad situation. I've had a training flight that started out quite okay, but the clouds were ominously closing in on us from the sides. (Forecast was for conditions to go from moderate to better; reality was from moderate to worse.) At one point I just decided that it was starting to cut it a bit too close for my comfort, and simply told the instructor that we're heading back to the airport and getting down on the ground. In that case the ceiling was high enough that we could in principle had flown below the clouds, but with little margin. – a CVn Oct 23 at 14:42
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    Well done recognizing the situation and taking positive action @αCVn. I've had inadvertent entry into IMC myself, 8000 ft over the English Channel on my way to France, realized that the TAFs were a superb work of fiction. I have an instrument rating so it wasn't life threatening. – GdD Oct 23 at 14:48

Generally, an airplane being operated within its published limits won't be able to get into a truly unrecoverable situation. (I'm specifically excluding the case where a recovery is theoretically possible, but you don't have enough altitude to execute the procedure before you hit something -- presumably you're already aware that you have less margin for error when you're operating at low altitude.) However, when you don't operate within approved limits, you can get into truly unfixable trouble.

For example, a flat spin is often unrecoverable. Most airplanes cannot enter a flat spin while properly loaded, but it's possible for it to happen if the plane's center of gravity is aft of the approved limits.

Depending on your definition of "pilot-caused", ice accumulation might also qualify. In addition to simply preventing the wings from generating enough lift, icing can cause a tail plane stall, which may or may not be recoverable.

There are probably others, but the point here is that the plane is designed to behave itself when operated as directed. If you go outside of those limits, you no longer have any guarantee about what to expect.

Let me go out somewhat on a limb here.

student [...] looked terrified

I'd say that any time you, the pilot, loses composure and/or situational awareness, that can very easily turn a normally recoverable situation into an unrecoverable one.

If you, the pilot, panic, then it's going to become a lot more difficult to fly the airplane safely.

That's one major reason why so much time in training is spent on emergency procedures, including the emergency checklist recitement before take-off, along with the pre-takeoff mentally going through what you'll do if something goes wrong at various points during the take-off and climb-out.

I've had a few pretty good scares myself. One relevant here was when, early during climbout from an uncontrolled airport, one wing probably entered a bit of a downdraft and all of a sudden the airplane was banked something like 20-30 degrees to the side. I quickly wrestled the plane back to about level, almost without thinking, and flew through it, but I don't doubt that if I had lost my composure, it could very easily have led to a crash because there was very little altitude for recovery.

Get-there-itis has already been mentioned, and can be a major factor. Don't be married to the idea of making a take-off, or for that matter to that approach you're flying. A controlled landing, even an outfield landing, is always better than a crash. Aborting on the ground (below decision speed, which isn't much of an issue in small airplanes) and going around on approach, along with more generally buying yourself some margin (by for example climbing or turning), is always an option, even in controlled airspace.

A stall at low altitude would be one unrecoverable situation, but hopefully the instructor would be alert enough to intervene in time to prevent this occurring. Spins are normally recoverable in light aircraft, but this is not always so in fast jets. The F84F Thunderstreak was one example of an early jet fighter in which a spin was considered unrecoverable.

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    In a Cirrus, spins are also considered "unrecoverable". The Cirrus manual's procedure for "recovering" from a spin is to pull the CAPS lever. – Ron Beyer Oct 23 at 12:25
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    @ZeissIkon I think "spin proof" means the aircraft will essentially fly itself out of a spin if you just let go, not that you can't make it go in circles if you really try. – J... Oct 23 at 12:58
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    @RonBeyer the Cirrus has that ridiculous spin procedure because the FAA allowed them to skip spin testing if the parachute was made the recovery procedure. The Cirrus has more or less "unknown" spin behavior. However, most airplanes with "unrecoverable" spin characteristics require full development of the spin to get to the unrecoverable part; several turns at least. I will bet dollars to donuts that a Cirrus will pop out of a spin if recovery is started within the first turn or two like any other plane. The idea of pulling a parachute at 6000 ft at the beginning of a spin is nuts to me. – John K Oct 23 at 13:17
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    @JohnK Yeah I'm aware that Cirrus petitioned the FAA to avoid spin testing because of the CAPS system. I'm sure that given enough altitude you can pull out even in a Cirrus. It is nuts to me too, however the US does not teach spin recovery training and the Cirrus has a maximum speed (and minimum altitude) at which the CAPS is effective, so if you don't "get it" by the time you exceed CAPS speed, you're screwed. I'm actually disappointed they don't teach spins anymore, and even more disappointed they don't teach full-stall recovery anymore (in the US). – Ron Beyer Oct 23 at 13:30
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    @RonBeyer IN the UK, IIRC the logic for not requiring spin training for a basic pilot's licence was that there were more accidents and incidents involving intentional spins during training, than from unintentional spins after training. As for stalls, arguably you should never get into a full stall except intentionally, but that assumes that pilots are always aware of what is going on, which is demonstrably not true. – alephzero Oct 23 at 14:28

Agree 100% with 'a CVn'. Plus there is the oft missed teaching of Spatial Disorientation, is the one killer in aviation that is often 'unrecoverable'. So many accidents have happened under this cause, and have killed a lot of pilots, passengers, as well as complete families. As mentioned above, 'scud running' is dangerous, especially in mountainous terrain, where you may not have enough room to turn around and get out - and crash into a mountainside trying to. Google 178 seconds to live. There are several ominous videos out there describing this situation that could save your life if one pays attention to the precursors. The AOPA has several very good instructional videos on this subject as well.

The answers above are all very correct, but I do want to emphasize a key philosophical element here. When you ask is any [pilot caused] situation truly 'unrecoverable', it's important to remember that there is always a point of no return.

There are hundreds of accidents where the pilot took the aircraft out of a situation that was otherwise safe, and ended up crashing the aircraft... sometimes recognizing his/her error just in time to understand what went wrong without time to fix. Look at recent mishaps with the Thunderbirds, where they entered an aerobatic maneuver at the wrong altitude. Or look at the Air France flight that went down off Brazil, where they brought the aircraft into a dive that was unrecoverable when recognized.

At any moment, the aircraft could be unrecoverable if your situational awareness is low and you react incorrectly.

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