The Pilot's Lounge #81: Emergencies -- What You Don't Practice Can Kill

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Seems like all we do in our training (and flight reviews) is practice for emergencies. Then why do pilots keep screwing up when a real emergency pops up? AVweb's Rick Durden wonders if we're really practicing the right kind of emergencies -- and whether we need to try some more realistic simulations -- this month in The Pilot's Lounge.

The Pilot's Lounge

The lights were on late in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport and the place was packed when I arrived. The big, old recliners had been claimed early by the more senior, or perhaps the lazy; some six-packs of soda and beer were being decimated steadily as the regulars dissected the stunning events of the day. I stood over in the corner and slowly learned what had caused our local pilots to caucus.

It all began hours earlier when the pilot of an inbound twin called on Unicom to announce that the nose gear wouldn't extend. He asked whether there was a mechanic on the field who was familiar with the Cessna 310 landing gear system. Even though it was Saturday, one of our best mechanics happened to be on the field, working on his homebuilt. Michael was chased down, handed the microphone and started exploring possibilities for getting the gear extended with the pilot. The pilot had followed the normal and emergency procedures in the Owner's Manual (it was a pre-1976 airplane so it didn't have a POH) to extend the gear, but couldn't get a down-and-locked indication on the nose gear.

A couple of our more excitable types happened to be listening to the exchange. One remembered a situation where a 310 had a partially extended nose gear and flew low down a runway while someone in the back of a speeding pickup truck grabbed the nose wheel and shoved forward, successfully locking the gear in place. The guys on the ground had been treated as heroes. Therefore, this group of our folks started casting about for a pickup and a sucker, er, hero. About that time, the 310 made a pass down the runway at about 200 feet so Michael could have a look. The nose gear was up and the gear doors were closed. That took the wind out of the sails of our would-be rescuers and they sat down to listen to the drama unfold.

In his conversations with the aircraft, Michael found out that when the pilot got to the airplane that morning the nose gear oleo strut was flat. He elected to go without fixing the problem. Unfortunately, he didn't remember that a flat nose strut on a 310 is a no-go item. Suffice to say, he departed, retracted the gear, and heard a bang -- as is to be expected under those circumstances -- when the nose gear jammed in the well. Michael indicated to the pilot that he'd seen this sort of situation before and he doubted that it would be possible to extend the nose gear. Michael suggested that the pilot make a normal landing with the mains extended and hold the nose up as long as he could. He related that he had seen a 310 do just that at the Ann Arbor, Mich., Airport in the mid '70s and it wasn't a big deal. In fact, as it was a football Saturday, the owner of the 310 got out with his unhurt passengers, arranged for the airplane to be moved to an FBO and went to the game.

It seems that the pilot of the airplane with the problem then asked Michael whether the props would hit the runway. Michael said that, in his experience, they would. There was a pause, then the pilot said he'd shut down the engines at about 500 feet so he'd have time to feather the props and then bump them level to save the props and engines. Michael is normally pretty soft-spoken, but the guy bringing me up to date on what had transpired said that Michael was adamant when he suggested that the pilot not do so, as insurance would cover things and the pilot might have to go-around at the last minute. The pilot said he understood but would do it anyway.

Michael called the fire department and had them send a truck and an ambulance.

I was told that as Michael got off the phone from his 911 call, he looked at the crowd that had gathered and said that, as far as he knew, no one had been hurt in a gear-up landing of a civilian airplane in a very, very long time, but only so long as the pilot didn't attempt to shut down the engine before landing.

The drama unfolded badly. The pilot lined up for the grass runway, saying he wanted to land on the grass because it was softer. Michael suggested the paved runway, explaining that it was longer and the airplane would slide and not risk digging into the grass and flipping over. The pilot lined up for the grass.

By then a couple other witnesses became aware that I was being told the story and they chimed in to explain that they saw airplane all set up on final at what looked to be normal approach altitude, which surprised them if the pilot were planning to shut the powerplants off. They said that the flaps were up and the mains extended. At about 500 feet AGL they saw the props shudder to a stop, feathered. The airplane started descending rapidly. Almost immediately it was obvious that there was no way it was going to make the runway. To the horror of those watching, the nose came up, causing the glide to steepen as the speed bled off. With dreadful inevitability, the airplane stalled at about 100 feet, pitched down sharply and emulated a lawn dart as it dived into the alfalfa field a quarter mile short of the runway. All aboard were killed in the impact.

After getting the brief, I listened to the discussions that were proceeding apace. One of the regulars here in the Lounge had done some homework after hearing what Michael had said. He said that he had been unable to find any gear-up landing events in the NTSB database in which anyone was injured or killed so long as the pilot simply landed the airplane and didn't try to stop the prop. He allowed as his search wasn't perfect, but he'd spent much of the afternoon and early evening at it. It seemed to be worse in singles than twins because the pilot has to slow the airplane to near stall speed to get the prop to stop, and then dive to get speed for the glide, making landing on a desired spot after those gyrations a high-risk exercise.

That lead one of our more experienced pilots and flight instructors to remark that a gear-up landing is considered an emergency. Sandy commented that a landing without an operative engine is also an emergency. She wondered whether the pilot of the accident aircraft had ever practiced a landing with both engines shut down and the props feathered. She suspected he hadn't. She then wondered why in the world a pilot who was facing an emergency would intentionally create a second one, especially one he had never, ever practiced. It was a good question, one that no one seemed to have an adequate answer for until Old Hack growled, "Hell, you know it as well as I do, the guy was busy being macho. If he pulls it off he gets called a studly pilot. Good grief, you've been around here when the blowhards talk about saving the props and avoiding an engine tear-down if they have to land gear-up. Plus, that chief pilot we had around here in the charter operation until last year kept telling pilots that if they made a gear-up landing they better save the prop. Whaddya expect?"

While that pretty well summarized the discussion, I'm told that it still continued until the beer was gone. I walked out into the night early, thinking about the foolish things we do in airplanes and how we react when we are flying and something goes wrong, little or big, and how we might better prepare for those things.

Getting It Right The First Time

After years of looking at the aftermath of aircraft accidents, I am still constantly reminded that we pilots do pretty darn well, all things considered. Yet, when we are faced with doing something we've never done, or haven't practiced in some time, the chances are we aren't going to get it right the first time. I thought of the flight reviews I've given in twins where the first time I would simulate an engine failure in a climb, when we've discussed that we're going to pretend it was happening 100 feet above the ground, just as the gear hit the wells. The pilot knows it's coming. However, almost invariably the pilot loses a great deal more than 100 feet before he gets things collected and organized and causes the airplane to at least fly level or perhaps climb. In the real world the first try would have been fatal.

Judgment 101: Mildly Embarrassed or Dead?

I was also troubled by material that I'd seen on the proclivity of pilots to be willing to do something that was out of the ordinary when it would radically decrease their level of safety but would look cool if they pulled if off; but, at the same time, were absolutely unwilling to do something out of the ordinary when they were afraid that they might either get in trouble or have their judgment questioned. And I thought of how we often mess up the analysis of the risks we face and worry about the wrong thing altogether. Several years ago, Richard Bach wrote about the number of pilots who continued VFR into weather that was going bad, maybe even recognizing the situation and trying to divert to a nearby airport, but who lost control and crashed or flew into a tower or a hill. He was extremely critical of flight schools not teaching students how to make off-airport landings. He said that most of those dead pilots in weather-related accidents had flown over dozens of perfectly acceptable and safe places to land. They died because they either hadn't been taught to make an off-airport landing, or hadn't even considered it because it was completely outside their envelope of knowledge and experience, or were just plain afraid to do it for fear of getting in trouble or sued for trespassing. (It's not trespassing if you land in an emergency.)

I also thought of the information that had been passed out in a flight instructor recertification seminar I'd taken some time ago. It showed that as many as half of the pilots who made a forced landing stalled the airplane some distance above the ground. I'd seen the film of a big single doing a perfect approach to a forced landing (he had managed to get to a runway), but the pilot stalled about 10 feet up and hit hard enough to damage the airplane. He later said he'd never landed a Cessna 210 power off and hadn't experienced a descent at best glide speed, so he blew the flare. I had been involved with a lawsuit in which everyone in a four-place single was killed after the pilot ran the airplane out of gas. He picked out a nearly level cornfield for the landing, but he stalled at about 20 feet, creating an airplane-shaped hole in some tall corn and exhibiting no forward motion after impact. I've seen airplanes of the same general type that had landed in tall corn after an engine failure where the pilot did not stall prior to touchdown. They had the wing leading edges beat in at the intervals representing the spacing of the rows of corn, but no one was seriously injured. I remembered another lawsuit involving a turbocharged twin in which the pilot also ran the tanks dry. He was over absolutely flat pastureland in western Kansas and managed to stall at some distance above the ground, high enough for the airplane to pitch down and dive into the ground, extinguishing the lives of all the occupants. I was also reminded of the hoary axiom of aviation, "Fly the airplane all the way into the crash," and considered that it is so often violated.

Get Introduced To The Options Available

Looking at the stars, I'd been thinking just how lucky I'd been over the years to have instructors who taught me things that kept me alive. Such things as how to land going up a hill (I'd used that when a Cessna 150's engine quit on the student and me not long after takeoff and we made it back onto the steep hill just inside the airport property and I'd remembered to hold extra speed for the exaggerated flare that was needed because it wasn't something completely new). That it was perfectly legal to land on a taxiway and having the instructor show me what it looked like. (I'd used that knowledge in a Maule as a new private pilot on a day the crosswind was more than I thought I could handle on the runway and the taxiway was right there, pointed into the wind). I learned to be patient in a forced landing and not tense up and pull back on the wheel, thus slowing down and increasing the descent rate -- learned that by having an instructor pull the throttle over the grass runway owned by a farmer he knew and telling me to land on that grass down there (I thought it was a pasture). He had me take the power-off landing all the way through touchdown -- when I was so used to making a go-around at about 100 feet that my mindset was on doing anything but a landing. It took some mental shifting of gears when I realized my instructor wasn't telling me to go-around, he was telling me to make the forced landing. And I learned that the airplane glides farther with the prop stopped, shown to me as a student, above a good-sized airport where we glided all the way down and landed.

Yes, I'm fully aware of the risks of intentionally creating an emergency situation. Yet, until we have simulators that can accurately depict many of the situations we might have to deal with in smaller, piston-engine, general-aviation aircraft (as exist for the turbine equipment), in order to train pilots to be as safe as possible, I think we are going to have to have a cadre of instructors who truly know what they are doing and can demonstrate serious situations to pilots in an environment that is as safe as possible. I agree, it's a fine line, calling for mature judgment, but if we shy too far away from realism in our training, we do pilots a disservice. If we cross the line, we risk killing ourselves in the training event. There are no easy answers in this business. In the late '40s and through the '50s and '60s, until we had good simulators, the word is that nearly half of the fatal accidents of transport aircraft, airliners, occurred in training. That was because they had to go out there and shut down two engines on the same side, and too often the instructor let things go too far or things compounded and ...

I couldn't help but think it's the stuff we have never seen or that we have seen but don't practice that kills us. Most of us get a flight review once every 24 months, grumbling as we do so, hoping it will be easy. That's when we practice emergencies, if at all. So, when it happens for real, how well are we going to do? Can we recover from that unusual attitude? Can we actually glide to a landing in the general area of the spot we intended? Are we willing to recognize that a situation is abnormal enough that we are at risk and do something about it, if it is not "conventional"?

How Do I Get More Realistic Experience?

What does it mean for those of us who are flying on a budget and want to be ready for as much as we can should things go south? It means we have to practice the stuff we might have to do. It means that no matter what we are flying, we should have done at least one power-off glide from cruising altitude to a forced landing. Yes, the books say to make a go around when you can determine whether the landing is going to be successful. They're right if we are talking about an off-airport spot where we don't know the field conditions and don't have permission to land. If we do a simulated forced landing at an airport, take it through touchdown, if traffic allows. If you are one of those who handicaps yourself by carrying power in the flare, you may be at risk for stalling the airplane if you have a forced landing. Ergo, practice closing the throttle prior to the flare to see how the airplane behaves so you aren't surprised when it's for real. Next time you are with an instructor and the pattern is empty and no one is taxiing nearby, land on a taxiway so you get to see what it looks like and you aren't distracted by feeling weird ("But I've never done this before!") when you have to do it for real. Try taking off and landing on an angle across a runway. It may help a bit if you have a stiff crosswind. Recognize that the centerline of a runway isn't magic, that there may be times when you have to use some other reference for a landing. A friend of mine nursed an ailing Apache that had fired two cylinders out through the cowling to a small Georgia airport in the middle of the night. Once there, he found he was 90 degrees to the single runway and too low to make a turn to line up. He put it in the grass, just inside the fence, and slid it across the runway to the other fence. He was alive because he'd had an instructor who had instilled within him the quality of being willing to do what was necessary to land the airplane safely.

Resolve to remember that pilots are mortal. It's amazingly tough. We've grown up getting into trouble when we've done something wrong. It's an experience with which we are well acquainted. Accordingly, we can easily imagine getting into trouble if we consider doing something unconventional in an airplane. ("I didn't land on the taxiway because the airport manager would probably get mad at me, so I lost control in a crosswind when I used the runway.") Unless we have been badly injured in an accident, most of us just can't really conceive of getting hurt or dead. So, especially if we are young, we are more likely to avoid doing things that we fear will get us into trouble than those that would kill us.

I am not going to go so far as to advocate landing in farm fields for training, but I will recommend practicing forced landings through touchdowns on grass runways, especially ones that are not well marked. However, because you may someday have to select a field for a precautionary or emergency landing, if you cannot identify the types of crops on farmland over which you fly regularly, perhaps it would be wise to have someone go fly with you and explain them to you. Then drive out into the area and see what they look like from the ground. Make an informed decision as to the hierarchy of crops you would use if you have a choice. In the Midwest, pasture is best, followed by alfalfa, wheat, soybeans and finally corn. Orchards are not good and I'm not terribly optimistic about a landing in a vineyard. Recognize that the time of year makes a difference as to the height of the crop and even whether it's there. Do you know the planting and harvest season(s) in your area? Also, landing with the rows -- even in a crosswind -- is usually better than landing across a row crop, as the furrows can bring you to a stop in a big hurry.

Have you simulated what happens if the ailerons or elevators or rudder locks up? What control do you have? Will the trim tab work backwards? Write down emergencies to simulate on the to-do list for the next time you take dual. If a control cable breaks, can you fly it with the trim tab? OK, give it a shot. As they say, practice makes better. When the emergency happens, it's too late to decide what to do. You've already either thought about it and have some plan in mind or you are going to flap around and potentially buy it in a situation where you could have brought off a successful landing had you simply practiced it ahead of time. Smoke in the cockpit? What will you do? How will you see? Breathe? Are there flames? Do you sideslip to keep them away from yourself? If so, does that put them on your right seat passenger? It's worth a thought or two ahead of time and at least a bit of visualization so that reality is a little less of a shock.

When is the last time you manually extended the landing gear? Why so long? Have you considered what would happen if the weather came down rapidly on one of the VFR flights you take regularly? Where would you go? Can you scud-run safely in the area? Where are the hills? The towers? Are you sure? OK, the GPS packs up when you are flying under a 2,000 foot ceiling: When is the last time you did VOR position finding or simple finger-on-the map pilotage to sort things out when you are -- OK, we'll use the word -- lost?

As I walked back to my car, considering the loss of a planeload of people because a pilot tried something he'd probably never practiced before, I pulled out a slip of paper and started writing down the things I'm going to ask the instructor to have me practice when we get together for our regular, recurrent training session. I think it's coming up in the next few weeks. Hope you do the same.

See you next month.

(By the way, before anyone writes in: The accident I described is a composite of two events with which I'm, unfortunately, quite familiar. So, to protect the guilty, I've mixed them together. Both were fatal, and both involved gear-up landings in which the pilot elected to shut down the engines to "save" the props. One undershot, one overshot.)


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.