TOPIC: Preparing Yourself for a Crisis
Although I originally wanted to write this month’s article on a more technically oriented topic, I decided instead to provide a short lesson in the philosophy of in-flight emergencies. Why? Because, as I read the accident reports in the NTSB accident database and in pilot journals, I am continually reminded that pilots often react inappropriately to emergency situations. In other words, pilots often have a habit of making a bad situation worse. Many times, it’s not the emergency situation itself that results in fatalities; it’s how you, the pilot, react to the crisis that determines your fate. For instance, an engine failure, as serious a situation as it is, does not inevitably lead to a serious accident. However, a pilot inappropriately reacting to the engine failure, perhaps attempting to stretch the glide then stalling and impacting the ground is, many times, the cause of serious injury or death. Of course there will always be situations beyond our capability to control, but frequently, the severity of an accident is directly influenced by pilot actions.
Have you ever actually been faced with an emergency situation? The longer we fly, the better the odds that all of us will be confronted with a crisis requiring timely decision making, good judgment and piloting skill. Timely decision-making depends partly on being mentally prepared for the flight. Good judgment requires that we have a sound knowledge base. And both good judgment and piloting skill require training. We do ourselves a disservice by trying to convince ourselves that flying is safer than driving. Flying is an extremely rewarding pursuit, but it is not for everyone. There are, in my opinion, people piloting aircraft that should reconsider their currency and proficiency level. Are you one of them? As with anything truly rewarding, flying has its risks. Just as enjoying the great outdoors carries the risk of falling or being eaten by a bear, flying carries its own risks. It is terribly unforgiving of mistakes. Of course, even if we do not err, even if our intentions are noble, challenging situations can and will still occur.
Pilot’s perceptions of the likelihood of an emergency situation generally fall into two categories. There are pilots who, on some level of consciousness, refuse to believe that an emergency situation can happen to them – at least not on “this flight.” That works until your engine quits on takeoff. Then there are pilots who realize that sometime during their flying career, perhaps very soon, they will have to react quickly in a crisis situation. It is so important to realize that we basically earn the right to fly and to carry passengers. A successful cross-country trip, or an enjoyable sight seeing venture, or a thrilling aerobatic flight is our reward for proper training and mental preparation. Moreover, we have a responsibility not only to our passengers, but also to those on the ground, which many times also become victims of an avoidable aircraft accident. Being mentally prepared is only the first step. Having the knowledge and skills necessary to control your aircraft during a crisis is absolutely critical. For pilots flying larger more advanced aircraft, stick and rudder skills become very important during a crisis.
If you read enough accident reports, you realize that many accidents, or at least many fatalities, could have been prevented. How many times have we heard witnesses describe hearing an aircraft engine sputtering, followed by silence, then only to see the aircraft roll over into a dive and impact terrain – many times this occurs over perfectly suitable terrain for a forced landing. What was the problem here? Was it the engine failure? Or, was it the pilot’s reaction to the engine failure? Think about it. Most airplanes fly very well without an engine. The only difference is, without an engine, we are now a glider, although perhaps an inefficient one. And now we have only 2 choices on when to land – soon or sooner! We can still choose our landing sight, but it may not look like that 5000-foot long, 75-foot wide runway we are used to. Still, many forced landings are survivable if you can get there without losing control of your aircraft first. Bob Hoover, combat aviator and famous air show pilot, said “if you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”
What can you do to prepare for your (next) crisis? Rich Stowell has written an excellent book called Emergency Maneuver Training: Controlling Your Aircraft During a Crisis. He has also prepared some excellent training videos. His web sight is http://www.richstowell.com/. Knowledge is a good first step. You must make an honest personal assessment of your ability to handle a crisis during all phases of flight, really from start, to takeoff, to land, to engine shutdown. A course such as Rich Stowell’s in Santa Paula, California, or Aviation Performance Solutions’s Emergency Maneuver Training Course in Mesa, Arizona is a great way to prepare for a crisis. Here is a sample of the instruction at APS:
Having had proper training is not the end of the story. You must still prepare thoroughly for every flight. Here are just a few things to consider before even leaving the ground:
as Philip Oppenheimer
introduces Accelerated Stalls
as Karl Schlimm
describes the Flat Spin entry
Demo: Affect of Control Inputs on a Spin
Many times a crisis can be avoided before you even leave the ground! Consider the following points:
- Are you mentally prepared for this flight? Personal issues (having an argument with your spouse, or financial problems, etc.) can severely hamper your ability to think clearly. Fly another day if you are distracted.
- Are you trained well for this flight? Are there elements of this flight for which you are not trained adequately? Some examples might be short field or high-density altitude operations, or mountain flying.
- Ensure that your aircraft is airworthy. Have you checked the logbooks? Is there any information contained within the logs that is worth noting – perhaps the aircraft controls have just been rigged. Are there inoperative instruments (they should be placarded) or other avionics? Has the autopilot been acting up?
- Perform a weight-and-balance. Is your aircraft loaded within weight and center-of-gravity limits? An aircraft loaded out of limits basically invalidates the performance data! Do you know the potentially dire results of overloading your aircraft, or loading it with a center-of-gravity too far forward or too far aft?
- Calculate performance data for takeoff and for landing as a minimum. Once you get to the runway, how will you validate your takeoff performance? Some runways have runway remaining markers. Otherwise, you can study the airfield layout and pick a ground reference – perhaps a runway/taxiway intersection – that corresponds with your calculated rotation point.
- Have you conducted a thorough pre-flight?
Now is the time to mentally prepare yourself for what you will do if things do not go right! Consider the following:
- Review the takeoff performance data. What will you do if you get to your planned rotation point and takeoff is not even imminent?
- Review your takeoff emergencies:
- How will you stop the aircraft if you decide to abort the takeoff?
- What will you do if your engine fails immediately after takeoff? If you think that you will turn back to the runway, think twice.
- How much altitude will you lose in the turn around? (You can find out by performing a simulated engine failure on takeoff at a safe altitude).
- What is the optimum bank angle in the turn? Have you considered that even if you have enough altitude to turn around, you may be faced with a healthy tailwind and not enough runway to make it worth your while? Usually your best bet is to find a landing spot either straight ahead or to the left or right of the nose.
- Next time you depart your home field, take a good look at what the terrain looks like off the ends of the runways. It might be a good idea to fly overhead (above the traffic pattern or Class D) and study the terrain. If there is an aerial photo of the airport in the FBO office, study that. Realize it may have been taken 40 years ago, though! If you are flying into a strange field, note the terrain around the airport before you land. You will then be better prepared for a forced landing immediately after takeoff.
- How often do you practice takeoffs? Really practice them? How do you judge success or measure your proficiency?
- The bottom line is; don’t take your craft into the air if you are not mentally prepared for a crisis
Now let’s briefly discuss some general considerations when a crisis does occur. The first rule is: Maintain Aircraft Control! You must fly the airplane at all costs. Do not let the emergency checklist, passenger(s), or radio communications distract you. Some important points to consider when flying the aircraft are:
- Now let’s briefly discuss some general considerations when a crisis does occur. The first rule is: Maintain Aircraft Control! You must fly the airplane at all costs. Do not let the emergency checklist, passenger(s), or radio communications distract you. Some important points to consider when flying the aircraft are:
- Look outside at the horizon if VMC (or at the attitude instruments if IMC).
- Use control inputs to make the airplane do what you want with reference to the horizon (VMC) or instruments (IMC). Fly the airplane. Don’t let it fly you. And do not throw your hands in the air and leave it to fate. Take charge!
- Don’t stall the airplane. You control angle-of-attack directly with the elevator. Pulling back on the yoke increases angle-of-attack which increases lift (until you stall the wings, that is). At any speed below maneuvering speed, you will stall the aircraft if you attempt to command more lift than the aircraft is willing to give you. (At speeds above maneuvering speed, pulling too hard will likely result in structural damage or failure). Conversely, you can remain below critical angle of attack at any speed, even below published stall speeds, and keep the aircraft flying. Absolutely no matter what the crisis, you will exacerbate the problem by stalling the aircraft. You should know the warning signs that your aircraft gives you when approaching the stall or when stalled.
- If over banked, stop pulling, roll the aircraft upright and recover. Lift does you no good if most of it is oriented somewhere other than upwards. Find the horizon and roll to it! Don’t just pull!
Once you have regained control, if you lost control in the first place, and know that you can maintain control, you can then perform other tasks (reading the checklist, performing checklist items, etc.) Don’t ever let performing checklist items keep you from flying the airplane. Trying to restart an engine is not nearly as important as maintaining aircraft control!
Many emergency situations end uneventfully. Unfortunately, more than a few end tragically because the pilots were unprepared for the crisis. Many accidents were never even preceded by an emergency – controlled flight into terrain due to pilot distraction would be an example. A crisis may occur because of mechanical failure of a component of the aircraft. You may have done your best to ensure that your aircraft was airworthy. Unfortunately, you can never be sure what invisible glitches lurk inside your aircraft’s engine, or electrical or hydraulic systems. Engines will fail and landing gear will fail to extend despite your best intentions. This is why it is so important never to let your guard down, no matter how much confidence you have in your own abilities. Make no mistake, there are many crises which could have been avoided in the first place. Do yourself a favor and don’t work yourself into a corner by not being prepared, low on currency, or in need of training.
Closing Comments and Recommendations:
What is your best defense in aircraft unusual attitude or upset conditions?
- First, attempt to avoid conditions that can induce unusual attitudes in the first place! Steer clear of thunderstorms and wake turbulence! Avoid IMC or flight into low visibility conditions if not properly certificated and trained. Avoid distractions.
- Second, get the proper training. According to an article in AW&ST (May 8, 1995 issue): “Training should include flights in aerobatic aircraft to practice recovery techniques because no simulator can model the disorientation of actually being upside down… recurrent training every two years, with time in an actual aircraft, would be a good start.” Regardless of the aircraft that you fly, proper training will enable you to learn to react decisively in a high-pressure environment, and to learn proper recovery techniques to avoid a “panic” response that could worsen the situation.
- Contact a APS – Emergency Maneuver Training representative. Certainly, we would like to take this opportunity to recommend our programs at APS which offer customized UPRT courses. Please give us a call a 1-866-FLY-HARD and ask to speak with a flight training specialist or submit online form below for more information today!
Get this training somewhere. The life you save may be more than just your own.