In-Flight Emergencies 101 – Part 1

Are you somewhat apprehensive when it comes to handling your first (or next) in-flight emergency (IFE)? How will you respond? Will you freeze when the time comes to make potentially life-or-death decisions or will you spring into action and be the hero of the day? The truth of the matter is every pilot faces emergency situations in a different way. I am going to provide you with a simple formula and some basic principles to help you find success when the day comes for you to face an IFE.

As I look back through my flight logs I am reminded of a myriad of emergencies ranging from simple NORDO (no radio) to severe engine malfunctions. While each situation had its own unique set of circumstances they all required a similar set of actions to get the aircraft (and me!) safely back on mother earth.

The Basics

These common steps are drilled into every student pilot that endures Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) and would serve you well if you were to commit them to memory and habit. These steps are:

1. Maintain aircraft control
2. Analyze the situation
3. Take the appropriate action
4. Land as soon as conditions permit

As we explore the intricacies of dealing with IFEs, it is important to remember that although there are various prioritized “steps” to this approach, it may not necessarily be required to perform them in the order prescribed. There will always be variability and the truly difficult IFEs will require a significant amount of airmanship, decision-making, and multi-tasking to get the aircraft safely on the ground.

Throughout this series we will explore each of the four steps outline above in detail. It is important to remember these four steps are in line with the priorities spelled out in every pilot’s mantra “aviate – navigate – communicate.”

Step 1 – Maintain aircraft control

This first step is typically the most important. If you are unable to maintain aircraft control, you won’t be able to make it to the following steps. Maintaining aircraft control may be as simple as turning on the autopilot while you move on to analyzing the situation, or it may require some serious stick and rudder skills just to get the aircraft back to straight and level flight. Remember that your potentially crippled aircraft will have a vote in how you handle the situation – in other words you may be limited in your options to maintain level flight due to a thrust deficiency or a flight control malfunction.

Whatever your situation may be, you need altitude and safe flying airspeed – and you need them before you do anything else. This may require a climb away from the ground if you are low altitude and unable to land immediately (especially if flying low over mountainous terrain), or it may require accepting a gradual decent (as in the case of a thrust limitation or achieving L/D Max to glide to a suitable landing field.) If you experience an engine failure or find yourself in a thrust-deficient situation you may be more able to control your airspeed than to control your altitude. Once you have obtained the airspeed you want, trim the aircraft to that airspeed so you are not fighting the controls as you go through the checklist. Remember: Fly the airplane; don’t let the airplane fly you!

If you find yourself having to maintain aircraft control in a failed-engine situation you will not want to be digging through the POH to find your maximum glide airspeed. Preflight study and performance calculations are paramount to knowing the airspeeds (and other numbers like heavy-weight landing distance) that will keep you safe during an emergency.

As mentioned earlier, there may be a situation where maintaining aircraft control involves quickly recognizing what is happening and immediately executing certain emergency procedures – often times known as BOLDFACE or Critical Action Procedures (CAPS) – in order to stay airborne. These procedures can typically be found in section three (Emergency Procedures) of your POH or Tech Order (aka “Dash 1”.) They should be committed to memory and rehearsed often, as you will likely not have time to consult the checklist when an emergency situation arises.

In any case, if the aircraft is controllable, pointing it at your optimal emergency landing field is usually a good option. (More on this in Part 3 of the series.)

In Part 2 of this series we will talk about analyzing the situation and taking the appropriate action to remedy your IFE. Until then, I encourage you to think through various emergency situations and how to keep control of your aircraft. Think of worst-case scenarios and how your actions will change based on different altitudes and airspeeds (i.e. single engine failure shortly after takeoff at 500AGL vs 1,500AGL.)

We’d like to hear your stories about handling IFEs and things you found helpful in such situations. You can sign in and leave a comment, or submit your story for publication in the “Pilot Stories” blog by clicking here.

Until next time, FLY SAFE!

Read Part 2 – Instructional Blog: In-Flight Emergencies 101 – Part 2