“If flying is so safe, why does so much of the training focus on dealing with emergencies?”
CFIs hear this question frequently, often from the parents of a younger learner. The first time it happened to me, the learner was preparing for solo, and we had been practicing landings with a simulated loss of engine power per FAR 61.87. The learner told his father he had ‘practiced landings without the engine,’ and the dad naturally became concerned. The chief CFI explained we were following the FAA-approved syllabus, and we showed the parent FAR 61.87 and stressed the word ‘simulated’ in ‘simulated loss of engine power.’ Dad calmed down after that.
The idea of emergency training is to be able to maintain control of the aircraft, identify the issue, and take prompt and correct action to fix it—or get the airplane on the ground without experiencing what a former coworker of mine called “student pilot freakout mode.” If the CFI has done their job right, the pilot facing the issue will act rather than react. I have heard from a few of my former learners, who years after they trained with me, experienced an inflight emergency—a loss of engine power, electrical failure, etc., and they are pleased to report they fell back on their training and the emergency became a non-event.
Emergency procedures training are part of every certificate and rating you pursue. There is a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on emergency procedures and the complexity of the aircraft you are flying. This is why so much of the multiengine certificate training is spent on single-engine operations. It is important to understand that emergency procedures vary from airframe to airframe. When you transition from a make or even model of aircraft, you should always review the emergency procedures—especially the best glide speed.
Identify the Issue
The first step in emergency procedures training is identifying the issue. This can be tricky in the aircraft, when you would not intentionally want to fail something during flight. For example, to simulate an uncommanded loss of engine power, usually the CFI reaches over and pulls the throttle lever or knob back, because it would be foolish to turn both magnetos off to create a complete loss of engine power. Unfortunately, some learners think the throttle knob/lever will move back on its own during a loss of engine power—and when they do have an uncommanded loss of engine power, they are confused, as this doesn’t happen.
I have interviewed pilots who performed off-airport landings as a result of a loss of engine power who said they were perplexed when the throttle never moved to the idle position like it did during training, so they weren’t sure if the engine had really lost power.
I understand the confusion, which is why I like to teach loss of engine power in a programmable AATD—you can rig the device so that there is a partial loss of engine power or complete loss a few minutes into the flight. You want the surprise factor here. You want them to notice the altimeter winding down like the backwards clock in Alice in Wonderland. The idea is to identify the issue, maintain control of the aircraft while you aim for a place to land. and troubleshoot on the way down. Sometimes they get the engine back. Other times they don’t, and have to glide to a landing.
Memorize Procedures, Know the Systems
Systems knowledge is imperative in the diagnosis of an emergency situation, and since systems can vary from airframe to airframe, it is important to read that chapter of the pilot’s operating handbook or aircraft flight manual for each airframe you fly—and re-read at least once a year for review. The emergency procedures are written specifically for the airframe and you will find them published in the POH or AFM. Don’t rely on tribal knowledge for information—back it up with the FAA-approved manual.
I mention this because of an encounter with a lapsed private pilot who swore that the first step when encountering an uncommanded loss of engine power was to dive toward the ground. She claimed she learned this in a college ground school from a CFI who was a retired airline pilot. This was absolutely not the correct thing to do—and neither I or any of the other CFIs at the school could convince her of that, despite showing her what was published in the POH. We argued that when there is a loss of engine power in a light training aircraft, you should pitch for best glide because altitude is life—best glide gives you the most time to find a place to land and potentially fix the issue.
A little sleuthing revealed that the diving technique was actually the procedure for a loss of cabin pressure at altitude when flying an airliner. You’re supposed to get to a particular altitude, presumably where supplemental oxygen is not required, then troubleshoot. The instructor had relayed this knowledge during private pilot ground school and somehow, this learner missed the point.
Pilots who do not know the systems of their aircraft can endanger themselves or others in emergencies. Some survive the emergency, but total a perfectly good airplane. For example, the renter pilot of a Cessna 172RG neglected to turn on the alternator side of the master switch and approximately 45 minutes into the flight, had a complete loss of electrical power. The pilot (incorrectly) assumed engine failure was imminent. He used the emergency hand pump to get the landing gear down then made a landing on a private airstrip. Not having a radio, he could not communicate his situation. During the final approach, there was a twin-engine aircraft on the runway heading the opposite direction. Rather than experiencing a head-on collision, the owner of the twin taxied off the runway and into a ditch, severely damaging his aircraft. The RG made it down unscathed. According to the mechanic who inspected the RG, the battery had been run down. That was it. Had the pilot flipped on the alternator side of the master switch, the issue would have been resolved.
Often failure to recognize an issue with aircraft performance can lead to an accident or incident. One of the skills that quickly falls by the wayside for many pilots is performance calculations. Popular excuses are “It’s only me in the airplane” and “I have done this flight dozens of times before.” These are the pilots who go off the end of a runway on a hot day because their ability to calculate density altitude and determine (reduced) aircraft performance has escaped them. Please don’t be this pilot.
Sometimes the hazardous attitude invulnerability comes into play. If an airplane has a mechanical issue on the ground, one could argue the prudent thing to do is not take it into the air unless a mechanic has checked it out—but it still happens.
In April 2015, I witnessed the off-airport landing of a Beech Bonanza that experienced an engine failure on takeoff. The only person on board was the pilot, he was not injured, and there were no injuries to anyone on the ground. The damage was limited to the airplane losing its nosewheel and some skin damage—so in that respect, it was a good day. According to the accident report, the airplane was fresh out of its annual inspection. The pilot owner intended to do a post-maintenance test flight. During the first run-up, the engine lost power. A mechanic recommended that the pilot wait for a more detailed examination of the engine to be done before he attempted to fly it. Instead, according to the NTSB, the pilot downloaded the data from the airplane’s engine data monitor and took it home to study. He returned to the airport later in the day, saying he did not see anything abnormal in the data, so he decided to fly the airplane. The airplane took off, and at approximately 350 feet in the air, the engine lost power. The airplane came down in a relatively open field north of the airport. The pilot was able to bring the airplane to a stop before it collided with fences and homes in a residential area.
I didn’t see the airplane hit, but I did see everyone on the deck of the airport restaurant jump to their feet and look north. I knew what that meant. I was about to do the first of several scenic flights that day. I flew over the accident site three times. Emergency equipment and law enforcement were swarming the area. The cause of the accident, per the NTSB, was a loose nut on the fuel pump inlet. Had the mechanic had a chance to examine the engine, that might have been detected. The NTSB added, “contributing to the accident was the pilot’s decision to take off despite indications that the engine was not operating normally.”
One of the passengers noticed the commotion on the ground and asked about it.
“It’s a training event,” I replied, as I was pretty sure everyone involved was going to learn something that day.
In your entire flying career, you may never experience an uncommanded loss of engine power, or lose the electrical system or have vacuum failure, etc., but if any of those things happen, you will be glad you have had the training. A learner who is an EMT compares it to knowing how to perform CPR or a tracheotomy—you hope you never need those skills, but you’re glad you know what to do as they are life-saving procedures.