A somewhat controversial question that sometimes arises about aircraft in bad weather is “Can A Plane Flip Over In Turbulence?”
I think it is a question that deserves discussion.
“Can A Plane Flip Over In Turbulence?”
Many will beg to differ, but YES, a plane can potentially be flipped over in flight in severe enough circumstances. This would require an extremely rare situation but it is a “possibility.” Flipping end to end is very unlikely.
1. The Controversy.
There is some controversy about aircraft “flipping” over in flight.
Aircraft don’t actually flip, they roll, and they can roll to an inverted attitude unintentionally in my opinion.
Aircraft are three-axis machines, roll, pitch, and yaw. Pitch and yaw are nose up and down and nose left or right respectively.
One author in “Ask the Pilot”, (askthepilot.com) writes that “for all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped over, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket.”
My experience tells me that anything is possible in an aircraft in flight and that rolling inverted albeit very uncommon can possibly occur if the right condition prevails.
I speak from experience that I have never allowed an aircraft to be out of my control other than momentarily because I never have my hands far from the controls when on autopilot. I normally fly with at least my thumb and finger on the yoke at all times, autopilot or not.
This is because I flew many thousands of hours in aircraft that had autopilot systems removed due to their weight and expense of maintaining them.
You learn to feel an airplane.
If you happen to be a believer that airplanes cannot be rolled completely over fly into a heavy jet wingtip vortices.
Wake turbulence can be deadly and usually if you are a little guy landing behind a heavy 747 the controller will warn you of wake turbulence and attempt to maintain 5 miles separation.
3. Unusual Attitude Flight Training.
All pilots are required to be trained in recovering the aircraft from unusual attitudes.
This type of training teaches several things to a student pilot as it is essential for the pilot to recognize and recover from any attitude that deviates from level flight.
The upset training teaches that pilots cannot trust just the senses when flying. This teaches us to rely on instruments, as well as how to recover an aircraft to straight and level flight from the unusual attitude.
Initial training requires that pilots receive an introduction to instrument flying which consists of flying the aircraft solely by reference to the instruments.
Pilots must receive 3 hours of time flying solely by reference to instruments to qualify for a private pilot license. You can read the FARs here. It’s boring, but a necessity for pilots.
This includes straight and level flight, constant speed climbs and descents, turns to specific headings, and recovery from unusual attitudes.
It also requires radio communications and navigation systems and facilities as well as radar services involved in instrument flight.
This is taught by using a hood or foggles that limit vision to outside reference.
Unusual attitude training requires that you look down, close your eyes as well as wear the sight limitation device while the instructor manipulates the aircraft to their desired attitude and your job is to return the airplane to straight and level.
I am an advocate of teaching the “feel” of an aircraft to prospective pilots. I think it is a good way to familiarize a pilot with an aircraft as each has its subtleties.
Plus if a pilot knows the airplane, it keeps surprises a bit at bay. An emergency or not when a situation arises it may be very opportunistic to be just a little ahead of the game.
People make mistakes with airplanes as we all know. It happens all the time.
I once flew with a Captain when I was an F. O. on a 737 that I fondly referred to as Captain “Crossfeed” because he was always running the fuel crossfeed to keep the airplane balanced.
One night flying from New York to Detroit on his leg to fly I settled in to do paperwork and he found the newspaper.
The crossfeed was left on for a lot longer than it should have and I did not notice and Captain Crossfeed had a newspaper covering his flight controls. I felt something was amiss.
When I looked up at the controls I immediately informed the Captain but it was a bit late for it not to be a problem. The airplane had an immense amount of fuel in the right-wing and none in the left leaving a cross-control situation.
There was time to burn enough fuel to somewhat alleviate the problem but it never needed to occur.
If the problem had continued I am not sure it would have been a pleasant ending.
When things start to go wrong in an airplane in flight it can escalate rapidly.
It is no place to be since you are in it for the ride however it turns out. So it is best to be on top of all that you can.
It is best to know what you can know and be fully situationally aware so when the s***
hits the fan you might just make it all work.
Flying in moderate to severe turbulence isn’t a good place to find yourself, especially at night surrounded by thunderstorms and you have only one option and that is to continue.
I never got used to those moments that seemed like forever but I also know that it was not luck that kept me alive long enough to be writing this.
Be prepared for anything the best you can be. Remember Murphy’s Law.