Handling an Aircraft Emergency

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Twin Beech emergency landing Photo by Kemon01Handling an Aircraft Emergency
Few of us really know how we’ll react in a true emergency. Thankfully, they are extremely rare in our modern GA airplanes.

But will you be prepared when that day comes? The day that something goes terribly wrong and it’s completely up to you to save yourself and your passengers.

Having been tested a couple of times I can tell you that even if you have a lot of experience your reactions can vary. Human factors plays a significant role in every accident or incident.

Proficiency as it Relates to Handling an Emergency
A curious thing about proficiency, in most normal pilots it has a direct relationship to how confident you feel, which in turn can determine how you handle yourself during an emergency.

A person who is barely flying is probably already keyed up, couple that with a real emergency and you have a recipe for disaster. Panic can quickly set in and now things really get out of hand.

What are some coping mechanism that can help us handle emergencies even if we aren’t flying as much as we’d like?


Coping Strategies

  • Read your flight manual. I like to have a copy lying around the house so I can review it on occasion.
  • “Dry Fly.” Head out to the airport with the sole intention of spending time with your airplane, even if you aren’t actually going to fly. Sit in the cockpit and review your normal and abnormal procedures. You should be able to touch key items in the cockpit without even looking.
  • Read your checklist. Again I like to have an extra copy at home so I can study it outside the cockpit.
  • Review critical emergency procedures often. Especially ones that are time compressed like a fire or engine failure on takeoff.
  • Spend some time contemplating “what-if” scenarios (What would I do, if xxx or yyy occurred?). Most emergency checklists can’t anticipate every situation. Spending some time thinking through hypothetical emergencies at various stages of flight will help identify risks, and opportunities to mitigate those risks, from the comfort of your home.
  • Supplement your flying by riding with friends. There are lots of empty seats on GA airplanes and you can use your network to fly more often and watching others is a great way to learn and at least keep your mind in the game a little.
  • It makes a lot of sense, especially for instrument proficiency, to use a PC-based flight simulator. As long as you aren’t reinforcing bad habits or creating issues between your actual airplane configuration and the virtual one, you are bound to benefit.
  • Go flying as much as possible. In those instances where life gets in the way and you have been out of the cockpit too long, get an instructor to go up with you. Don’t try to ‘wing it'; do yourself, all of us, and the general public a favor and make the right choice. Spending the money and time to do this right is critical.

This pilot dealt with this perfectly and didn’t get distracted. The outcome was a safe landing.    Photo courtesy of Marc Matteo.

An Emergency Occurs, Now What?

  • Aviate: Fly the airplane. So many people have perished as a result of being distracted by the abnormal/emergency situation. Fly the airplane. This is not to say you can’t let the autopilot fly, that might be exactly the right decision depending on the nature of the problem. Just don’t forget to monitor it.
  • Aviate: Wind your watch. Emergencies can cause you to rush and depending on the type of emergency, getting punchy and flipping switches and being erratic is bad. Unless you are on fire or you lost an engine on takeoff, immediate action is generally not necessary. Take a breath.
  • Aviate: Determine the severity of the emergency. Don’t make something minor, like a door or panel coming open, become an emergency. Most airplanes fly just fine like this if you keep the speed under control. Again, fly the airplane first, then assess the situation.
  • Aviate: Use the checklist. If your situation is addressed by an abnormal or emergency checklist, use it. This is why it is important to be familiar and in some cases memorize certain checklists, because when you have an engine failure on takeoff you aren’t likely able to reach for the printed card to execute critical items, like maintain airspeed. You need to be able to just do it.
  • Navigate: Come up with a plan. Sometimes the checklist will tell you, land as soon as possible. Does that mean land off airport or at the next available suitable runway? It depends on the situation, but you need to think through what you are doing next if the issue hasn’t been resolved. The nearest button on the GPS is your friend. At all times keep flying the airplane.
  • Communicate: If time permits and the situation dictates, let ATC know you have an issue. Declare an emergency if you have one; there is virtually no paperwork involved, contrary to popular belief and it makes sure your situation is given due attention. ATC can be an extremely valuable resource, both in the air and after you have landed. If you don’t have a frequency tuned in use 121.5. Also Squawk 7700 if you have an emergency. This lets ATC identify you immediately if within radar contact. Remember, keep flying the airplane throughout.

Now I will circle back to proficiency, this is why it is so vitally important. Being proficient will allow you to physically perform better in the airplane and just as important, it will allow you to think clearly and make good decisions, rather than let fear turn into panic.

All of this makes us better, boosts our confidence, and in the end will yield superior results when your day suddenly starts to go badly.

Remember the saying, “the harder I work, the luckier I become.”

Please know this is not a complete treatise on the matter, but rather an attempt to provide some guidance you may have never considered and to get all of us thinking about something that we hope never happens.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please comment below.


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