Sky Kings: Declaring an Emergency

In an emergency, remember the steps to take: aviate, navigate, and then communicate. Getty Images

The light on the panel read “OIL1.” It was telling us we had low oil pressure in the left engine. We didn’t believe it. In 14 years of flying our old Falcon 10, we had never seen an oil light come on. We looked down at the oil-pressure gauge to reassure ourselves that there was nothing wrong with the engine.

To our shock the gauge confirmed the low oil pressure. It was hard to believe this extraordinarily reliable airplane was letting us down.

Each of us knew what we needed to do. It was Martha’s job as captain and designated pilot flying to fly the airplane. As copilot and pilot monitoring, it was my job to run the checklists and take care of the problem. We both knew the first checklist was going to tell us to shut the engine down. We just wanted to do it right so we didn’t create more problems for ourselves.

Shutting down an engine in this airplane should be no big deal. It can climb at 1,000 feet per minute on one engine. Also, we practice single-engine landings every time we go to FlightSafety International for simulator training. But this was for real. In the simulator you have nothing at risk except for maybe embarrassment. Now we were at risk of, in the worst case, botching a single-engine landing and suffering grievous harm, or, at the minimum, trashing an engine because we didn’t shut it down soon enough. I was nervous.

Like every light on the panel, OIL1 has an easy-to-find checklist. As we anticipated, the checklist associated with low oil pressure said to shut the engine down, which requires the shutdown checklist. Martha had already pulled the power lever back to idle.

The first step on the shutdown checklist, I was sure, would be to pull the power lever past the detent to idle cutoff. I wanted us to go ahead and do that, but Martha asserted her authority as captain to insist I find and refer to the shutdown checklist before we do anything that might be difficult to undo. Within a couple of minutes, which seemed like an eternity, we had followed the checklist to put the engine into idle cutoff and completed the rest of the items on the list.

We hadn’t said anything to ATC yet because there wasn’t anything they could do for us. Moreover, we didn’t want the distraction of explaining our situation to them until we had the engine shut down and secured. However, we now wanted to abandon our Las Vegas destination and reverse course to land near San Diego at Gillespie Field, where our maintenance shop is located. I explained to Los Angeles Center that we had shut one engine down and wanted to head to Gillespie. The controller immediately gave us the clearance I asked for.

“Do you want to declare an emergency?” he asked. I knew that if I did so, it would start a whole new conversation that we weren’t yet ready for. Along with the engine, we had lost a generator and a hydraulic pump. We still needed to minimize our electrical load, consider the hydraulic implications, and deal with the imbalance caused by burning fuel out of only one side. We needed time to deal with the checklists for those issues.

Nevertheless, the controller was concerned. “Do you need any assistance? Is there anything we can do for you?” “No,” I explained, “The airplane flies fine on one engine, and we are in no rush. We just need to take time to run some checklists.”

Controllers are in a real bind when a pilot reports a problem. They know their questions can be a distraction. But every controller is rightfully concerned when you have a problem. The last thing they would want to do is fail to give a pilot with a problem the help or information that could have prevented a catastrophe.

Plus, controllers are accustomed to being in charge of things. After all, they aren’t called “controllers” for nothing. And the hardest thing in the world for a competent, controlling person to do is nothing, even when nothing is the right thing to do. So every time we were handed off to a new controller, we understandably went through the same questions.

Getting the fuel balanced was a priority for us. Having a fuel imbalance on landing would make the landing trickier. The longer we burned fuel out of one side, the bigger the imbalance we needed to correct for and the more time it would take. Correcting for a fuel imbalance in our Falcon 10 is complicated and offers plenty of opportunities to screw up and make things worse. We really needed to concentrate on running the checklists. The questions were truly a distraction.

As we approached the San Diego area on this magnificent, beautiful Southern California day, we realized that everybody and his brother was out flying. Our traffic collision advisory system showed numerous airplanes between the airport and us. We now wanted priority from ATC in the hope of avoiding a diversion or a go-around. With only one engine operating, there is plenty of power for a go-around, but it is all on one side. Every power change requires coordination with a lot of rudder pressure. It is easy to get dangerously destabilized.

Since we had caught up with all the checklists, we decided it was time to declare an emergency. Of course, as we knew would happen, the controller asked us the required questions. “Say souls on board and remaining fuel, and do you need any assistance?”

Declaring an emergency did pay off. We could hear aircraft being vectored away from our path as we made our uninterrupted straight-in approach to the airport. Martha made a beautiful landing right on the centerline of the runway. As we turned onto the taxiway, we noticed a firetruck was accompanying us on the adjacent road.

When we had a chance to investigate, the cause of our problem became obvious. There was oil all over the left side of the airplane. Further exploration revealed that the left oil filler/dipstick cap had developed a gap in 
the O-ring, allowing the engine oil to escape. When the O-ring was replaced and the oil replenished, the engine didn’t leak oil and ran fine. The next day, without any problems, we completed the trip we had started.

A little less than a week later we got a message from an inspector at the local Flight Standards District Office with the  request: “At your convenience, please email me a statement describing the events that led you to declare the emergency.”

At first I was disappointed to have received this message. I like to tell pilots that you don’t get into trouble for declaring an emergency, and you shouldn’t let fear of repercussions from the FAA deter you from doing so. Then Martha countered that if people are having to shut engines down due to something as simple as O-ring failure, the FAA needs to know about it. “How else would the problem get fixed?” she asked.

The experience reaffirmed our belief in the necessity during an emergency to manage your communications with ATC to minimize distractions from flying the airplane. There is no rush to tell someone about a problem unless they can help you somehow. Once you tell ATC about your problem — in their concern to make sure they give you all the assistance and information you need — they will inevitably start asking you questions.

When you decide you do need help, like priority handling or search and rescue, make sure you are ready to answer the questions. The “souls on board” question is pretty easy to answer, but knowing the fuel remaining in hours can take a little figuring. You can lower your stress level if you make the calculation before you declare the emergency.

All in all, we were satisfied with the way things worked out and happy with the decision to declare the emergency. The situation did require a competent performance on our part. But we had much more than that going for us. We had caring and capable air traffic controllers who continuously monitored our progress and were standing by, ready to help in any way possible, including arranging for emergency vehicles to be there when we landed. We were well looked after.

John King
John KingAuthor
John King started King Schools Inc., with his wife, Martha, in a spare bedroom of their home. Today, the school operates out of a dedicated complex in San Diego, California, that includes a video and software production facility. John and Martha have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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