Instructional Blog: In-Flight Emergencies 101 – Part 2

In our last post we began the discussion of handling In-Flight Emergencies (IFEs.) We talked about four critical steps to take when handling an IFE, and covered the first step in detail. We now move on to steps two and three in our quest to prepare for the next IFE:

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

Analyze the Situation

When something goes wrong you will feel an urgency to spring into action. Do not just start throwing switches and trying to fix what you don’t necessarily know to be wrong. In some cases no action is better than taking the wrong action. By taking time to analyze the situation properly you can avoid doing something stupid like shutting down a perfectly good engine when the problem really is a gauge malfunction. I always tell my student pilots to “go slower in order to go faster.” If the aircraft is under control, you have time to take a deep breath and correctly figure out what is wrong with it so you don’t waste time taking action that won’t fix your problem.

In tabletop emergency procedure discussions SUPT student pilots go through every gauge, switch, and circuit breaker in the cockpit (by memory) telling the instructor what they would expect to see under normal conditions and asking if that is in fact what they see based on the emergency (yet undetermined by the student) in this situation. SUPT students are taught to develop a scan flow to make this task easier and are encouraged to practice it by sitting in front of a cockpit poster and repeating the flow over and over.

Usually the IFE discussion kicks off with an attention-grabbing indication such as a Fire Warning light or Master Caution light. If your aircraft is equipped with such warning indicators, this is usually a good place to begin, as it will cue you in to where to look next. For engine related malfunctions, check the engine “stack(s)” (tachometer, EGT, oil pressure/temperature, fuel flow, etc.) For electrical malfunctions, check electrical components and gauges (ammeter, battery voltage indicator, etc.), monitor equipment powered by the electrical system (radios, MFDs, lights, etc.), and circuit breakers. You get the idea.

Systems knowledge is key in this second step. I can’t overemphasize the importance of preparation and study. Once you have gleaned every piece of data from monitoring your displays and systems, then you can make your diagnosis based upon your systems knowledge and guidance in the operating manual.

Take the Appropriate Action

You know what is wrong with your aircraft and now is the time to decide which action to take. Decision making during an IFE can be quite complicated. What do you do to keep the situation from getting worse? Where is the best place to land? Do I have enough gas to make it? Can I shoot an approach given my current IFE at my intended landing field? Should I/can I choose an alternate landing field? This is where airmanship and experience can really help out, but even a new pilot can confront difficult situations with the proper preparation. The FAA has provided some good reading on aeronautical decision making in in Chapter 17 of The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. You can download this publication for free here: http://www.faa.gov/library/manuals/aviation/pilot_handbook/

(See also FAA Advisory Circular 60-22 here: http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/advisory_circulars/index.cfm/go/document.information/documentID/22624)

There is at least one decision that has been made easy for you: which steps to take with the aircraft systems to remedy your IFE. Engineers have spent hours and hours figuring out what actions you should take to deal with malfunctions that can happen in your aircraft and they have spelled these procedures out in your checklist. Your job here is to strictly adhere to the checklist (ever heard the term “checklist discipline”?) and accomplish the steps the brainiacs have figured out while sitting on the ground under low/no stress conditions. I guarantee they have thought through situations more thoroughly than you are able to in the few seconds/minutes you have spent analyzing the situation while airborne under the weight of the emergency situation.

If you do not adhere to the appropriate checklist you essentially become a test pilot as you are trying to fix your problem. Do you know your aircraft better than the people that built it? Are you willing to bet your life (and the lives of your passengers) on your ability to “find” a new solution to a problem that has already been thought out by the engineers? Stick to the checklist.

The first time you crack the checklist to learn what these emergency procedures are should not be when you have the emergency. Again, preparation is key to handling an inflight emergency.

To close out our discussion of taking the appropriate action it is important to note that depending on the emergency, you may never get to opening the checklist. During critical phases of flight (takeoff, landing, low-altitude flying) it may not be practical to break out the checklist and go heads down. Taking the appropriate action may include aborting a takeoff or landing straight ahead. It may mean changing flap configuration on short final to safely make the runway. This goes back to our discussion of knowing your “critical action procedures” and following them exactly. Yet another reason to get in the books!

Whatever course of action you end up taking, remember: it’s probably a good idea to be doing all of this while pointed at your best emergency landing field.

In Part 3 of this series we will talk about getting the aircraft safely back on the ground. In the meantime, look over the emergency procedures checklist and the aircraft systems information in the operating manual for your aircraft. You don’t have to memorize every emergency procedure (although you would be the MASTER of your aircraft if you did!), but know where to look in the checklist and have a solid understanding of your aircraft systems. When faced with an IFE, you will be grateful you took the time to do so!

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 3 – Instructional Blog: In-Flight Emergencies 101 – Part 3

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