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09/01 - Emergency Operations

By Steve Krog

Aircraft used for today’s training purposes are very safe and seldom experience a serious malfunction or emergency situation. However, that doesn’t mean that a problem will never happen. Pilots still run out of fuel or leave oil caps off. So, in preparation for a possible emergency situation, you’ll be given emergency procedure and forced landing practice.

Though very rare, one can never predict when an inflight emergency might occur. If you followed the news recently, a US Airways flight made an emergency landing in the Hudson River shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. Airline pilots undergo intense emergency flight training at least once each year and review the procedures before every flight. US Air Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger’s training certainly paid a handsome reward: All 155 persons on board survived the ditching.

If and when an emergency does happen, there’s not much time to react and it is important that correct procedures are followed to ensure a safe landing. This will occur only if proper training has been taught by the instructor and learned by the student.

Before proceeding further, I must again reinforce that flying is a very safe endeavor. Unlike driving a car or motorcycle, however, when in flight we don’t have the luxury of stopping along side the road should we encounter a mechanical problem. Throughout your training you will be taught how to recognize and deal with in-flight emergency situations correctly should they ever present themselves.

Pilots are taught to ”think ahead of the airplane.” For those of you who have already begun flight training, you’ll recall that phrase. And for those of you about to begin training, you’ll hear your instructor say it many times. Those words also applies to emergency operations, but more on that a bit later.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classifies emergency landings according to category:

1) Forced landing

2) Precautionary landing, and

3) Ditching

The forced landing is defined as an immediate landing, on or off an airport, necessitated by the inability to continue further flight. A typical example would be an airplane forced to land due to engine failure.

The precautionary landing is a premeditated landing, on or off the airport, when further flight is possible but inadvisable. Examples might include making a landing due to deteriorating weather, being lost, fuel shortage, and gradually developing engine trouble.

Ditching is defined as a forced or precautionary landing on water.

Except for flight training that occurs in Hawaii or in some coastal states, most all flight training is done over terrain, so we will focus on forced and precautionary landings over terrain, flying a single-engine aircraft.

The FAA also requires that emergency operations be adequately taught and the FAA examiner, or designated examiner, is required to test you on emergency operations sometime during your sport or private pilot checkride.

There are three scenarios in which forced landings are taught and practiced:

1) On take-off

2) During cruise flight and

3) In the traffic pattern in preparation for landing. We will focus today on forced

landings that occur on or just after take-off.

Engine Failure on Takeoff

Let’s assume you have completed a thorough pre-flight of our airplane, conducted the pre-takeoff checklist, and you’re ready to taxi into position and begin the takeoff. You align the airplane with the runway centerline, take a deep, relaxing breath, and begin a smooth application of full power. Just as you reach full power and the airplane’s controls become responsive, the engine loses power. You haven’t left the ground yet. What should you do?

Remember the phrase: “Think ahead of the airplane”? Here’s where it comes into practice. The very first thing you’ll want to do is continue to control the airplane, keeping it directed straight down the runway. Then close the throttle (bring it all the way back to idle). Begin applying firm but even brake pressure and continue applying brake pressure until the airplane comes to a stop. Turn off the fuel and switch the magnetos OFF. Why turn off the fuel and magnetos? Perhaps you were taking off on a wind-favorable but short runway and there is a chance you may run beyond the end of the runway before stopping. In that case we want the fuel and ignition systems turned OFF in the event the terrain off the end of the runway is rough and could cause damage to the airplane.

In review: 1) Maintain runway heading.

2) Close the throttle.

3) Brake firmly and evenly.

4) Turn the fuel and magnetos OFF.

The procedure just described is one that you and your flight instructor will practice with some regularity throughout your training. The first two or three times it occurs, you’ll be a bit flustered, initially. But with the help of your instructor, the procedures will become second nature to you.

Engine Failure After Takeoff

In this scenario, assume you have completed the take-off and reached about 300 feet AGL in a nose high 60 mph climb attitude when the engine malfunctions. Until you have practiced this scenario with your instructor, your first thought will be to turn back to the runway. However, that is the last thing you’ll want to do and I’ll explain why in a following paragraph.

Again, “Think ahead of the airplane!” Immediately lower the nose to the best glide speed attitude for your aircraft. In this case, assume 60 mph is the best glide speed. NOTE: I said glide speed attitude. If you stare at the airspeed indicator trying to stabilize it at an indicated 60 mph, you will have wasted valuable time and altitude. Scan the area directly ahead of you and approximately 45 degrees to either side of the take-off path. Select a field in this area and set up to land. The first time or two your instructor has you practice this situation, you’re first inclination is to turn back. However, turning back to the runway after takeoff after losing power is never an option. Rather, we must pick a landing area directly in front, or 45 degrees to either side. Your second inclination is to lower the nose and try to “force” the airplane into the field selected. This creates another problem.

When lowering the nose too far, airspeed increases and will cause you to glide over the selected field touching down well beyond your selected point. Maintain the glide speed and use a “slip” or flaps if you have them, to touch down where desired. Once you have the glide speed stabilized and know that the field is made, close the throttle, turn the fuel and magnetos OFF, and continue with the approach and landing. Continuing straight ahead or turning slightly allows you more time to establish a safe landing attitude, and the landing can be made as slowly as possible, but importantly, the airplane can be landed while under your control.

In review:

1) Lower the nose and assume the best glide speed.

2) Select the best available landing area either straight ahead or about 45 degrees to either side.

3) Turn off the fuel and magnetos.

4) Make gentle turns if you need to avoid obstacles.

5) Slip or apply flaps to get rid of any excess altitude, and.

6) Maintain glide speed.

Why Not Turn Back?

While it initially may seem to you that the turn back is the best procedure to employ with engine failure immediately after lift-off, in reality, it is your poorest choice. Here’s why:

Using the example above, you experienced engine failure at approximately 300 feet AGL, in a nose high 60 mph climb attitude. Under normal conditions it takes a pilot about 4-5 seconds to react before beginning a turn back to the runway. After lowering the nose and initiating a shallow to medium bank to the left, it will take nearly one minute to complete the 180-degree turn. At a 60 mph glide speed, your airplane will be nearly 4,000 feet to one side of the runway. You must, however, continue the turn approximately another 45 degrees to get the airplane headed toward the runway. You’ve now used up about 75-80 seconds. The airplane you are flying descends at approximately 1,000 feet per minute in the power off glide configuration. You will have descended about 1,300 feet placing you 1,000 feet below the runway! That is not where you want to be!

Under controlled conditions, I will have the student execute a turn back to the runway after takeoff and reaching 300-500 feet AGL. Even knowing the simulated engine failure is going to happen at that altitude and preparing for the same, it still takes 3-5 seconds to lower the nose to the best glide speed attitude and initiate the turn. From that altitude we’ve never been able to make it back to the runway of departure. This demonstration makes a lasting impression on the student and, hopefully, will prevent any attempt at turning back in the event of an engine failure a few seconds after takeoff.

Can one ever safely employ a 180-degree turn back? Yes, it can be done. However, a number of things need to be taken into consideration. It depends on the wind, the distance traveled during the climb, the altitude AGL reached, and the glide distance of the airplane without power.

When practicing forced landings, student pilots will probably encounter one or more psychological experiences that can interfere with their ability to act quickly and correctly when faced with a forced landing.

Pilots will sometimes experience a reluctance to accept an emergency situation and become paralyzed at the thought of what is occurring. Think ahead of the airplane and remain in control. Take a deep breath and think through the situation. This is easier said than done unless you have practiced emergency situations.

During your flight training your instructor may have had you practice forced landings over flat terrain with a number of fields from which to select. However, you may not always be flying over similar terrain. Should a forced landing situation occur under these circumstances, don’t worry about saving the airplane. It is made of tube and fabric, aluminum, or fiberglass, all of which can be replaced. Sacrifice the airplane to save you and your passenger(s) from harm.

Even though engine failures are extremely rare, we still practice situations in case we may have to face a true emergency. Practice provides a pilot with acquired knowledge, and acquired knowledge provides us with the needed skills if someday we’re faced with a true forced landing.

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