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When Student Pilots Freeze at the Controls

By Lucian Bartosik

Lucian Bartosik
Lucian Bartosik

Looking over the posts in a nice little website called Trikepilot Social, I stumbled across a thread about students freezing up on the controls. For all you instructors out there, old and new, heed a few words of warning if you’ve never had a student freeze up on you in flight. After talking to many ultralight (both trike and three-axis) and general aviation (GA) instructors on my travels, many, if not most, had never experienced a student freezing up on the controls.

Oh, they had heard of it, but some thought this to be an urban legend of some sort. Take it from me, it’s a real phenomenon and has happened to me on numerous occasions. Dealing with a student frozen on the controls is completely different from wrestling to take control from a student who is lucid and communicates with you. Someone who is in this world with you but doing it wrong can prove strong, but you can often reason with that student and get control from him.

When a student freezes on the controls, he’s zoned out. There’s no communicating with him, and he seems to have extraordinary strength in a locked position, making it terribly difficult to get back control of that bar or stick. This can happen when he’s in the back seat or the front seat. When seated side by side, you can at least get a good shot at a fist to the head to regain his attention.

The only incident that I ever had which caused the student and me to impact the ground was with a GA pilot who was at the end of his first ever hour of trike flying. The only other incident that caused damage to the aircraft was when a rather new student (5 hours total) whose only flight time was in a trike (no GA experience) froze on takeoff after putting the aircraft into a gentle left turn and coming off the throttle completely. On the way down, which wasn’t far, maybe 60 feet, as I was trying to get his hands off the bar, we flew through the top of a thin tree. More on that in a moment.

Airborne Edge X
Airborne Edge X trike set up for training

This first-hour guy was a GA pilot and came up from Texas with his brother-in-law, who was my actual student. After his lesson he asked if I would give an hour to his (GA) brother-in-law, who was interested in trikes. The weather was ideal, a still, cool, calm morning. So off we went for an hour’s lesson before we were to break for lunch. One further tip for all instructors out there: Always, always, always insist that your student acknowledges anything that you say to him, no matter what it is. Being in the front or back of him, you can’t see his face, and therefore you can’t see what’s going on with him.

I used to have a large mirror on my compression strut which allowed me to see the face of my student when he was in the back or front seat. I always insisted that I hear something from him in the way of an acknowledgement when we talked, that way I would be aware of a number of things. I knew he could hear me; remember, your intercom system could fail in flight, on the side of either the mic or headset speaker. Or both parts of one headset could fail, so you wouldn’t be able to hear him or he wouldn’t be able to hear you via headset. Have you ever thought about that?

I’ve experienced such equipment failures on more than one occasion on varying brands, and I have a procedure for that, which I discuss on the ground with the student prior to a flight. We go over basic hand signals and what they’ll mean in flight. He may not remember it all, but he’ll recall that I was trying to tell him something, should a failure occur during training, and he may then just recall what we discussed. But at least he knows that something has happened and that I’m trying to communicate. How many of you have ever given thought to that scenario, hmmm? Be honest. I’ve also taught two deaf people to fly by using such hand signals, so I know such a system can work.

So, you know the intercom is working, you will also know that they are paying attention to you and you can better understand their demeanor during the lesson. You should be able to tell if they are getting tired, or scared, or beginning to feel unwell. It also helps you to understand where their mind is. There have been times when I know it is not fully on the lesson, they may be having a hard time at home or work or whatever. I don’t care if it is just a grunt, as long as they acknowledge that I’ve said something out loud into the mic and they’ve heard me.

First student is too quiet
But I digress, so back to the GA first lesson pilot. He would often say nothing during the lesson, and I would therefore repeat what I said, sometimes two or three times, until I got a response from him, each time I repeated it, I said, “I want you to respond back to me so that I know you’ve heard me.” All seemed well as we cruised around for an hour at 3,000 feet above ground level (AGL), and I should mention that he was in the back seat, I never let anyone ride in the front seat for a first flight, nor should you. We flew straight and level, gentle turns left and right, 90 degree and 180 turns with shallow bank angles in both directions. Despite a few incorrect inputs, followed by even greater incorrect inputs, until either I said something or he figured out he was doing it the opposite (wrong) way and then corrected it (this is quite normal with GA or three-axis pilots moving to trike flight), all seemed well.

The hour was close to ending, so we began a gentle descent down to 1,000 feet and leveled out to fly back to my flight park. As we joined downwind, we began our descent down to 500 feet, and he was to turn base and go down to 300 feet AGL, then turn final and line up on the runway. I do this because at 1,000 feet or 2,000 or 5,000, they all think they’re right over the runway or road or railway track you might be following. At 300 feet, things are a lot different and they now realize if they’re on track or way off. We were to continue to descend, keeping a heading straight down the runway, and at 150 feet he was to apply some gentle back pressure to the bar for a slightly speedier flight which facilitates a little quicker response to the small bar inputs which in turn help to keep us lined up down the runway.

We were at idle and 300 feet, and I recall not hearing anything more from him as we turned final. He pulled in the bar slightly at about 150 feet but still no word from him. At about 90 feet I told him to release the back bar pressure – I heard and felt nothing. I immediately raised my voice to say release the pressure now and positioned my hands to take over control. Now at 50 feet, I shout, “I have control!” Remember, folks, I was in the front seat. Still no response, but now when I attempted to push out on the bar, it was as if the bar was locked into position and I couldn’t move it. I was in the Raven, and that wing will go down when you pull the bar in and will continue to go down even as you pick up speed (unlike many other wings that reach a point, then begin to climb on their own as the speed builds up, even with back bar pressure held).

I immediately gave full power and our angle of descent reduced as I was able to move the bar forward slightly, but it wasn’t enough. And trust me, the ground will rise up and smite thee! We impacted dead center on the hard surface runway and wiped out the landing gear and the prop. The pod cracked badly and wore through as we slid scraping just over 300 feet down the center of the runway.

We bent the base tube and the pylon/mast of the trike as well as the seat frame and seat mounting tube supports and compression strut. That compression strut (and that is what it is supposed to be called, not a stall limiter bar or other such stupid names I’ve heard it called, because it’s supposed to reduce compression of the pylon or mast where the wing is attached in such an impact situation) stopped the wing from folding over on top of us.

The wing stayed perfectly level the whole way down the runway, and as we came to a stop, the trike just yawed about 30 degrees to port, the whole thing very gently tipped to starboard, and the wingtip lightly touched the ground. There was a deafening silence. I turned and asked if he was okay, and he responded that he was fine.

I asked him what had happened, well maybe not quite in those words, and he said he could not remember a thing after turning final. I later found out that he worked for Continental in the parts department, and sometimes later at night, he and his coworkers got to fly in the training simulators of their big heavy jets. I was also told that he sometimes froze up on those controls, too, during flight. Had I known this, he would never have been up there flying with me.

He left for home, promising to pay for all the damage. He never paid for his lesson nor a penny’s worth of the parts or repairs, despite his constant promises. Another tip for you newbies out there, get the money first! My wife always tells me I’m just too darned nice. I have another tip for all instructors out there, regarding the student. I’ve always thought of anybody who turned up to learn to fly with me as someone who had arrived that day to try and kill me, and it was my job to make sure that wouldn’t be happening.

I would tell people that I didn’t care what happened to them up there in the sky if they happened to do something stupid. I was only going to think about saving myself; however, since a student would be up there with me, he was also most likely to be saved, too, as long as he just sat there. All of you who give instruction should also think the same way about anyone who comes to take a lesson with you. It might just save the both of you.

Second student fails on takeoff
Now, the other guy I mentioned earlier, who had 5 hours of dual, had a little time on the front seat and was doing quite well. He was a strong stocky guy, and he purchased his own aircraft, though we were training in mine. This fellow brought it out for me to see how he had polished the entire engine, thereby removing all the protective coating applied to the nuts and bolts they were manufactured with. It was another perfectly calm autumn evening with severe clear as far as the eye could see. He asked if we could take one quick flight in his aircraft before we broke it down to put away. He had no training bars fitted to his wing, and he asked if he might also go in the front seat on this short flight. I thought, “What could possibly go wrong on such a perfect evening?” and agreed.

He had done several good takeoffs in previous lessons, so I had no reason to fear that anything untoward would happen. We went over everything for the takeoff as we sat at the end of the runway. I reiterated that if I say, “I have control,” or “My bar,” with a hint of urgency, because sometimes there isn’t enough time to get three words out, that he’s to release his grip and put his hands in his lap.

We also went over the fact that he was not to come off the power once the aircraft left the ground, which many students seem to do for some unknown reason. He was to maintain a shallow climb-out angle and keep centered down the runway as we flew. I sat back and had my hands gently touching the rear lower flying cables of the wing, just to be on the safe side, and I’m always ready in a heartbeat to hit the hand throttle, too.

We ran down the runway at full power, all was well, we lifted off, and after a few seconds just as we passed treetop level, he went into a gentle to medium left turn and then came off the power completely, all in a second. I had already begun to give all the pressure I could to try and level the wing through moving the lower, rear flying wires in my hands. But when the power came off, I had to reach and give it full hard throttle power and again wrestle to try and get the wing not only level but nose up, since we were descending from his chopped throttle. He also froze up, and it was terribly difficult to get back control, more so because all I had was the lower rear flying wires to use for control. Another tip: Don’t ever go flying that way.

Training bars
Curved training bars attached to the control frame for the instructor in the rear seat

I got the wing level and nose up with full power going, but it was just too late to avoid the top of the last tree along the portside of our runway. We flew right through the top (lucky it was autumn with no leaves), though we were into it low enough to cause brown marks on the leading edge. Of course there was that horrible sound as part of a prop blade began to separate, but we were through the tree and actually flying again, though heading for the ground. I recall feeling the trike swing backwards from the drag of going through the treetop as it was pulled over and downward toward the ground.

I was thinking that had this been a three-axis we would have nosed over and crashed. But a trike pendulatesunder the wing, and as the trike unit went through the treetop and luckily a tall one at that, the wing just hit the top thin parts of the tree and kept flying. As I mentioned, it nosed over a little as we were dragged through but just enough to get us heading to the ground at about 15 to 20 degrees. I managed to just miss the ground as we rotated back skywards. Despite the prop damage, we climbed enough to limp around and land from the other direction. The trike was fine – just the prop was damaged, two new blades of a four-bladed prop.

Again, on the ground the student couldn’t recall what happened. He said he just blacked out and remembered things after we went through the tree. There were other occasions I could recount, both while teaching three-axis and trikes, but too much to fit this article. Instructors out there, remember, any student can suddenly freeze on the controls at any time, but they usually pick takeoffs and landings to do it.

You need to have lightning reflexes and know exactly what must be done to gain control and level or climbing flight again. You will not have time to think when it happens, so be prepared by always being ready and always expecting it to happen at those critical moments of flight I just mentioned.

“All I ever wanted was for my flock to come home safely every night after flying. They never had to like me.”

It won’t be just the experienced three-axis student (though this type usually screws up on landing, so be ready). It can be a first-hour student or a 5-hour student or maybe a higher-time student. You never know, but students can and do freeze up. Next time you go out for a lesson, think about what you will do when that happens, and expect it every second of the first and last minutes of flight. Again those are the really critical times.

Some final hard-won advice
Do not be afraid to become physically aggressive with your students if they are locked on the controls. I would sometimes tell students that if we were very close to the ground and they were doing something wrong and not speaking to me, I would be doing what I have to do to get them to physically release the controls. I can tell you that if some of these things had happened to me in my first few hundred hours of teaching flying, rather than having a few thousand under my belt, I may not have been here today to pass this along. There’s nothing like time and experience in the saddle to keep you alive.

In general, the longer you’ve been teaching, the more likely you’ll have the expertise to get yourself out of trouble when a student throws you in it. Like an engine-out, it’s not if, but when! Safe teaching to all you brave instructors, don’t do stupid things, and keep a tight ship. You aren’t paid to be nice.

ou’re paid to be safe, thorough, and good. Nice and safe/good teaching don’t always go hand in hand. My students may sometimes, well okay, often, have hated me during their training, but I knew eventually they’d be so thankful that they would want to have my baby!

It would only be later in their flying life that they would come to understand and appreciate how all that hard work I made them do during training was really paying itself back. I have so often heard past students say, “There I was doing this stupid thing, or there I was suddenly caught out in horrible winds and frighteningly gusty conditions as I was trying to land, and that little Lucian voice would pop back into my head, telling me what to do. And I’d get it all sorted out and land safely.” All I ever wanted was for my flock to come home safely every night after flying. They never had to like me.

Lucian has hung up his instructor’s jacket and now concentrates full time on photography from his home in Lakewood, Ohio. So if you’re ever in the greater Cleveland area with your aircraft and would like a great air-to-air shot taken, contact him to arrange a meeting. His training book Trikes: The Flex-Wing Flyers is in its fourth printing and available just in time for that late Christmas gift. You can contact him via e-mail at lucianbphotography@hotmail.com.

Lucian's book


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