Emergencies: Deciding Which Ones to Practice

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A surgeon suggests a method for deciding which emergencies a pilot should practice.

A while ago I had a long, interesting discussion on the topic of preparing for inflight emergencies with a pilot whose day job was as a surgeon who trained surgeons. He had an interesting perspective on the subject based on how he taught aspiring cutters: He had them sit down and write down everything that could go wrong during an upcoming operation and then set out what should be done to deal with each anomaly. He asked whether flight instructors engaged in such a practice.

My answer was equivocal; some flight instructors do the "list-everything-that-can-possibly-go-wrong-and-what-shall-we-do-about-it" exercise, but most do not carry it out in a formal manner. From early on, student pilots are taught to deal with emergencies in flight. They are introduced gently to the aeronautical bogeymen, with an understanding that the concept of floating around above the planet does generate a certain level of trepidation among most mortals. A balance is usually struck between reassuring the fledgling pilot that this endeavor has an adequate level of safety, forecasting gloom and doom, and teaching her or him how to parry the thrusts of ill fortune.

It's A Start

By the time someone is sent for the private pilot checkride the applicant is expected to know the emergency procedures in the appropriate POH, most of which are recited at some time or other and parroted during the oral portion of the exam. Once in the air, some form of engine-out emergency and forced landing will be wrestled with, and maybe dealing with a simulated fire in flight will be assigned. If a multi-engine airplane is involved, the "many-motor" student will spend a great deal of time flying around with one engine developing little, if any, power. He or she may even get to pump the gear down once and will probably talk about fires. Beyond that, not a lot else is usually explored.

Once the desired rating is obtained, what do most of us do? We begrudgingly take a flight review every 24 months and try to keep it as short as possible, because it costs money and we want to get that check entered in the box so we can keep flying. We probably look forward to it about as enthusiastically as we do our flight physical.

The comments raised by my surgeon friend kept nagging at me; are we practicing the right things? What can we do to increase our chances of becoming an old, garrulous bore in a nursing home rather than looking stupid in an NSTB accident report when it is published about 18 months after we die in an airplane?

Practice the Wrong Thing

We practice engine failures in twins for the purpose of a checkride, but the accident data indicate we are far more likely to hurt ourselves in a twin due to pressing on into deteriorating weather and flying into the ground. When it comes to non-fatal accidents, we are most likely to do damage to a twin during a landing-gear event—malfunction of equipment or pilot—than we are to have an engine pack up. Even though engine failures are not at the top of the list of real-life problems on twins, we go through intensive, initial training for them, and talk endlessly about what we'd do if one ceased operating; but, when it happens, as a group, we don't handle it very well. Far too many pilots go west a fairly short time after an engine goes south.

The aftermath of rising terrain and low clouds - photographed after the sun came out.

What about singles? The big killer is controlled flight into terrain (I don't care how often I hear that phrase, it still just plain sounds weird); we push on into crummy weather and crash or hit something. We lose control when landing in crosswinds because we fly way too fast on final; we don't have a lot of engine failures, but if it does happen shortly after takeoff we have an alarming propensity to try to turn back for the airport, which kills a huge percentage of those who make that attempt. I'm willing to bet large sums of money that every single pilot who killed himself by trying to turn back had been counseled not to do so during training and had practiced landing straight ahead at least once before getting certified.

So, when we have to face the real world—and the "real world" is where we spend large sums of money to engage in our passion, flying—how should we identify and practice emergencies in a way that gives us the best chance of dealing successfully with the risks we face, but without spending so much money in the process that we can't fly?

Start With A List

I like my surgeon friend’s approach, to sit down and make a list of everything that can go wrong; create a parade of horribles, as a law-school professor used to suggest. As you are reading this on your computer, why not open up your word processing program and start your own list? Does your list include being aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. (I think that risk is far higher than we realize: After getting a good CO detector from Aeromedix, I've observed that far more airplanes than I realized have CO in the cabin. It's not from the heater; it's from engine exhaust being pulled into the tailcone and then flowing forward with the general airflow.) I suggest you think of things that will shake up a pilot who hasn't seen them before, such as getting cut off in the pattern when at fairly low altitude, a circuit breaker popping audibly, a controller speaking too fast to be understood and such a thing as a passenger suddenly becoming airsick during a time of heavy workload on the pilot.

Because it doesn't cost us anything to think about flying when we are home with a fire in the fireplace—or at least somewhere that a Hobbs meter isn't running or there's no instructor sitting across the table keeping track of time -- it's a very good time to think about emergencies and how we'd handle each one. An amazing number of the things that can go wrong or just fluster us as pilots can be rendered "ho-hum" rather than "omigawdimgonnadie" by just sitting in a comfortable chair and thinking them through before they happen. Visualizing such things as being cut off in the pattern, having an alternator fail, a fast-talking controller or a circuit breaker popping loudly, lets you come up with a solution and store it in the memory banks. It's not a bad idea to look at the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Nall Report of General Aviation accidents to see the most common ways that pilots find to hurt themselves. If we consider those problems and outline solutions for ourselves, we are that much further along toward a happy ending when something does go wrong. It helps to have a copy of the POH or Owner's Manual for the airplane we normally fly handy, as it may just have the best way for dealing with the emergencies we are considering, so it's a good reference for the exercise. The reality is that how we handle an emergency depends upon whether we've ever thought about it before it happens. If we've considered it, we're halfway home, because we know what we want to do and then it's just a matter of doing it.

Intellect vs. Skills

The POH - a great source to help a pilot decide which emergencies to practice.

When we start thinking about emergencies and how to handle them, we can split the potential crises into two general groups. First are the ones that we can visualize and deal with intellectually; they take no particular level of skill to handle. We deal with the fast-talking controller by assertively demanding that a transmission be repeated slowly, and we deal with an alternator failure by following the appropriate procedure to get it back on line or, if that doesn't work, to shed electrical load (deciding on what items to shut down) and then coming up with a suitable airport on which to land. The other type of emergencies require us to attain and—this is the big one—maintain a certain level of skill. Those are the ones we have to practice in the airplane (or simulator), usually with an instructor. Sitting on the couch and visualizing the engine failure on takeoff at 300 feet AGL is a great idea, but it's also necessary to go out and practice it with some frequency, because the intensity with which the nose has to be shoved downward, against all of those urges to pull it up (while resisting the ones that are insisting we turn back toward the comfort of the airport), is something that just plain has to be practiced.

We want to practice this stuff realistically and regularly, because we know in our heart of hearts that our skill level atrophies horribly fast. But, practice is expensive; so how do we find and maintain an acceptable level of competence for ourselves without going broke?

I suggest that whether we are VFR or IFR pilots we schedule a session of dual every six months, and that we set up a standing appointment and keep it. We're going to fly anyway, so budget an extra hundred bucks or so every six months for that session. However, before we go, pull out that list of emergencies and go over it. Alone. Where we won't be interrupted and where we can give ourselves enough time to visualize what is happening and what we would do about it. Then go through the emergency section in the POH and visualize each problem and solution. Where is the circuit breaker we will pull? Where exactly is the fuel selector for that airplane and which way does it turn to the "off" position and do we have to move a tab or push down or do something else to get it to "off"?

Go through the memory items on the you-gotta-do-it-right-now checklists. If the engine quits, make sure we know all of the items that we should do, the ones for just after takeoff as well as the ones at altitude. There are items that we have to commit to memory, because we won't have time to pull out the checklist. For most emergencies, once the memory items are completed there is enough time to pull out the checklist and take care of the other stuff.

The Cessna 400 Corvalis - its engine failure emergency procedures are different at high altitude than when below 15,000 feet MSL.

For those of us who fly more than one type of airplane, we have to find some way to make sure we know the critical differences in emergency procedures between them. There are some things that are pretty generic: For most airplanes in the event of an engine fire, an immediate action item is to shut off the fuel supply to the engine. After that, things may vary; most airplanes call for the cabin air and heater vents to be closed, but not all. In some airplanes the cabin air vents are to be opened in the event of some types of fire. What exactly is the procedure in the airplane you are going to fly today? For example, in the Cessna Corvalis 400, the engine failure checklist is different if it quits above 15,000 feet than for a failure below that altitude. Little differences in emergency procedures can loom very large when we don't know that they exist.

Practice On Your Own

Before we go for the session with an instructor, we can also notice that there are items on the emergency checklists that require some level of skill, but that we could probably practice on our own, such as landing with a flat tire. If it's a main gear tire, we touch down on the other one, as we would in a crosswind, and hold the suspect tire in the air as long as possible. If it's the nose gear, the nose is held up as long as possible. Practicing both of those situations is actually kind of fun. We might even experiment to find the minimum speed at which we can hold the nosewheel off the runway on landing and we may find that it's lower if we land with the flaps up rather than with the flaps down due to the effect of flap deployment on the angle of attack of the tail.

As pilots, we should know ourselves; and if we are willing to be honest with ourselves we can make an informed selection of those emergencies that we should be practicing in the airplane (or in a simulator, if we have that luxury). By and large they are going to be the ones that require skill maintenance, or the ones that frighten us -- a realistic concern. So, to keep the cost of that recurrent training down, it might be a good idea to talk over the syllabus we are going to follow with the CFI before the dual session. We will probably have a list of emergencies that is long enough that we can't do them all in one recurrent session and still remain financially solvent. As a result, if we practice half of them each six months it's a heck of lot better than omitting some completely.

Oh, yeah, another technique for getting ready for that review session is to go out and sit in the airplane when no one else is scheduled to fly it. Use the emergency checklist and walk through each of the emergencies, reaching for and physically moving the controls (don't just point at that prop control—pull it to feather) as we do so to help remind our bodies what they are going to do when it happens.

We can work with our CFI to set up a true learning experience. We can do the flight when the weather is marginal—say, 3 to 4 miles visibility—so that we get a chance to see what it's like when we have a risk of controlled flight into terrain, but we have that safety valve there in the right seat to help us experience the kind of weather that we would get into when we pushed VFR into deteriorating weather. Having experienced something gives us a better chance of getting out of it. We can divert to a small grass field and fly the pattern at 500 feet, close in so we don't lose sight of the runway. While we hope we are smart enough to cancel flights in crummy weather or land before it gets crummy, if we do screw up someday and have to divert when it's for real, we've got a better chance of surviving than if we're doing it all for the first time. Afterwards, the discussion we have with the CFI about decision-making in marginal weather will be more informed.

Can you make a power-off landing starting over the airport, a few thousand feet above pattern altitude?

Go to the nearby airport that isn't busy and practice power-off landings from a couple thousand feet up and see if we can hit a spot that we've selected on the runway. As an instructor, I’m amazed at how many pilots blow that one on the first try. With the instructor we have a chance to prepare for the real-world in a safe environment; we can make that landing on the narrow taxiway (it’s legal, assuming it doesn't interfere with traffic and people on the ground) so we can see what it's like if we have to do it someday because of a strong crosswind on the runway.

After one or two of those six-month sessions, you may just improve your chances of living to enjoy the nursing home. Once you get there, give me a call ... I'm hoping I'm still around so I can come over and we'll see who can tell the more boring story of our flying days.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney, is a CFII and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 and 2.