Unusual Attitudes: Handling the Unthinkable

It’s smart to prepare for emergency off-airport landings. Courtesy Martha Lunken

We all know that unannounced, catastrophic, mechanically caused engine failures — loss of power with no previous warning — are so unlikely you’re better off worrying about meteor strikes or an outbreak of bubonic plague. But engines continue to quit because, as Yogi Berra put it, “We make too many wrong mistakes.” A commitment to periodic assessments and training (not just token flight reviews) would remedy stuff like poor preflight planning, carelessness, bad decisions, lack of knowledge and substandard proficiency. Still, the dreary statistics say this just ain’t gonna happen. So learning how to survive an emergency — whatever the cause and whomever’s to blame — is an important part of every practical test.

I love telling stories about interesting people and some of my off-the-wall experiences. But I’m also passionate about a serious, even sacred commitment to being the best pilot you can be. So when I’m testing an applicant to see if he meets at least minimum standards on practical tests, I use various scenarios: maybe a total loss of power at altitude caused by something that could be cured by use of an emergency checklist; or an unresolvable event that would involve an off-airport landing, like fire, fuel exhaustion or an engine that’s shaking itself apart; or that worst-case scenario of a total power failure shortly after takeoff at low altitude with no usable runway left.

In the “nonfixable power failures at altitude” category, I’ll sometimes maneuver the unsuspecting applicant over one of several private, paved runways I’m familiar with. Maybe he’s emerging from under the hood when I say, “See that runway right below us? If the engine quit with no hope of a restart (so forget an elaborate checklist) could you land there?”

“Well, sure, it’s right underneath us.”

“OK, do it.”

While we don’t actually land, we do take it far enough to know if it would be successful. For years I would offer to knock $50 off the test fee if the applicant could land in the first third of the runway. I never lost my 50 bucks. Accuracy landings are still a ­Commercial Pilot requirement, but I think removing them from Sport and Private practical tests was wrong. This maneuver involves closing the throttle at the end of the downwind leg and using whatever’s in your bag of tricks — flaps, slips, S-turns — to land on or 200 feet beyond a predetermined spot. It’s a splendid way to sharpen your skills for normal approaches and key to making a successful emergency landing from altitude.

The entire Midwest is about 1,000 feet msl with abundant corn and soybean fields, and the only way I know to make this maneuver work is to spiral down over the selected field — but don’t aim to get on final approach to the runway (or cornfield). You want to maneuver yourself abeam the landing spot, on a right or left downwind leg, about 1,000 feet agl (or 2,000 feet msl in this case). Practice those “spot landings” — 180-degree power-off approaches — at the airport and get familiar with that key position where you roll wings level on base leg. You’ll develop proficiency at gauging your descent “chute” while maintaining best airspeed, altering your approach path, and using flaps and slips to flare out and touch down on that “spot.” I’m here to tell you it works in a true emergency.

Few instructors teach this, so most applicants simply dive for the runway and end up on a half-mile final, still 1,500 feet above the ground and going like a bat out of hell. They either badly overshoot the runway or try a 360-degree turn and end up too low to make the field.

The simulated “engine failure shortly after takeoff” is another interesting event. I strongly believe that prior to every takeoff the pilot needs to prime himself for the possibility: “If something happens before (pick an altitude about 700 feet agl), I’ll lower the nose, pick the best spot ahead, cinch the shoulder harness, pop the doors, get the flaps out and stall the airplane just before impact.”

Having seen more than my share of crunched airplanes, I know that the structural integrity of even small airplane cockpits is amazing if they’re “flown through the crash” (thank you, Bob Hoover).

But instead I see applicants reacting with frozen disbelief (the airplane in climb attitude and the airspeed rapidly decaying) or frantically searching for a “loss of power after takeoff” checklist (the airplane in climb attitude and the airspeed rapidly decaying) or making deadly attempts to turn around back to the runway (the airplane — you guessed it — in climb attitude, airspeed decaying and a stall-spin imminent).

It’s probably less than professional and certainly unladylike, but if the nose isn’t immediately lowered to a glide attitude when I retard the throttle, I literally yell, “Lower the nose … now!” When power has been restored and we’ve climbed to a safe altitude, I ask if he remembers that unholy shriek, and the answer is usually a resounding, “God, yes.”

“Good,” I say, “don’t ever, ever ­forget it.”

Later in that (or another) check ride, we try it again.

Fuel starvation is a major cause of power failures — selecting an empty tank or being totally out of fuel because of over-optimistic calculations, mismanagement or just plain ignorance. As a fledgling out joyriding with my pilot friends, it was de rigueur for the engine to quit sometime during nearly every flight. I got so used to my buddies cleverly and stealthily (they thought) messing with the fuel selector that when the engine quit I’d simply look bored and reach down to turn it back on. These kinds of shenanigans, with good reason, are strongly discouraged by the FAA, but it sure developed in me an innate reflex to first go for the fuel selector.

Some years ago at a large biplane fly-in at Hamilton, Ohio, a guy with a knock-your-socks-off beautiful ­Stearman made a forced landing in a pasture just east of the airport. You know how hard it can be to commandeer a fuel truck at big fly-ins; he’d hung a “Fuel Me” sign on the propeller and, assured they’d been topped off, he did what many of us have and many others will do: He took it on faith and didn’t stick the tanks.

When the engine quit he did all the right stuff and put the airplane down without a scratch. The FAA (me) arrived a couple of hours later to meet a county cop, the farmer and the pilot. Somebody had hauled cans of fuel from the airport, which made proving fuel exhaustion impossible. The Stearman driver was getting ready to take off from the field and was neither impressed nor intimidated by a lady inspector who quizzed him about fuel, an insufficient preflight or the possibility of a mechanical failure. She told him that if he took off it would be “careless and reckless” and he told her she was crazy. He was right. The landowner had OK’d the takeoff, the field was long enough with no obvious hazards, and the pilot was satisfied there was nothing wrong with the engine. The cop, who was about 18 years old, kept calling his supervisor and thumbing through the Ohio Revised Code while I kept acting like a jerk and spouting regulations. The Stearman driver took off into the blue and landed back at Hogan Field. A subsequent and cursory investigation closed it out with that old standby, “carburetor ice.”

You may remember that a few years later, yours truly landed her Cessna 180 on the Pennsylvania ­Turnpike when a loose fuel cap (which I hadn’t tightened) and every ounce of 100LL in both tanks siphoned out over the top of the wing … in IMC. In the spirit of the Stearman driver, I convinced a ­Pennsylvania Highway Patrol corporal to let me pour in a couple of cans of gas and take off while they briefly closed that section of the turnpike. The ­Harrisburg FAA office investigated and blessedly called it a “precautionary landing.”

Proving inadequate preflight planning in fuel exhaustion accidents is surprisingly difficult. I remember a Cessna 150 crash where the fuel tanks and lines were bone dry after a three-plus-hour flight. There was no violation because the POH advertised a 480 nm range at 7,500 feet and 75 percent power. Mileage, of course, is a useless figure; it’s endurance — time — that’s important. While cruise performance charts and wind forecasts can make a flight look doable and legal, there are other factors. Be sure the tanks are really topped off and the caps are tight, and know how to properly lean the mixture. Add a fudge factor, since performance charts are generated by professional test pilots flying brand-new airplanes with finely tuned engines. Remember that tachometers can be inaccurate, so your 2,400 rpm is possibly something higher with a greater fuel burn.

Plan conservatively, know your airplane’s fuel consumption and — for heaven’s sake — learn how to maximize your chances if you’re ever faced with a forced landing.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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