"Dover...About That Emergency..."

How to deal with forced landings: Practice, train, practice, train.

September 1, 1993

One of the best pieces of self-administered recurrency training a pilot can give himself is simple and effective: regular review and revision of emergency landing procedures. As time goes on, these skills — learned as part of primary training — can get very rusty and even fade away completely. The problem is compounded as the pilot moves on to new and different aircraft, and a definite Catch-22 eventually sets in. The more you fly without problems, the less you believe you'll ever have any.

For multiengine pilots, consideration of the consequences of total power loss may seem to be a minor matter; after ad it's one of the main reasons you pay the price for "two" in the first place. Realistically, the chances of it happening are small enough. If it does and you find yourself steering your light twin to the ground in a hurry, the chances are it'll be because something happened to the fuel. That "something" can be self-induced (you ran out of it), and indeed, this remains one of the leading causes of such problems. But it can also be because of fuel contamination. Twins continue to get into trouble because of misfueling incidents. Ask air-show pilot Bob Hoover about that. After a lineman filled his recip's tanks with Jet A a few years ago, he found himself pulling off his best dead-stick landing yet — on the slopes of a box canyon.

My multiengine instructor always cautioned against a too-early choice of crossfeed in an emergency, based on the not unreasonable premise that what caused the problem in the first place might simply transfer itself to the other engine. Uninvited water is certainly a hazard, despite the pilot's best efforts during preflight (a good tip is to give the wing a good shaking; that way, water trapped in crevices in fuel bladders may be shifted to the drains arriving at engines and injectors or the carburetor). The point that total power loss in a twin — for whatever reason — is a possibility; the proficient pilot had better be prepared.

Level at 9,000 feet on a freezing December morning, I had just settled our elderly Piper PA-23-160 Apache; down in cruise on V379, enroute from Hyde Field in the Washington, D.C., area to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for a business meeting. I noticed a slight flickering of the left propeller.

We were in and out of pretty messy instrument meteorological conditions at the time, so I reached for the carte heat, thinking the Apache's noted susceptibility to ice was to blame. But no, that didn't do the trick. The stuttering in the prop got worse, and a feeling as cold as the weather began to creep over me. I scanned the instrument pane}everything seemed normal. As a multiengine instructor with lots of PA-23 time, I was ready for what would have but was still unwilling to commit to a feathered engine (and a canceled mission).

Instead, I pushed on every familiar lever and knob I could find. Among them were the fuel selector valves, a pair of uncomfortable brass handles on a box behind the throttle pedestal I palmed them forward, returning them to Main from the auxiliary tank position I had selected a few moments earlier. Still, no joy �- now what?

"Dover Approach, er, I believe we have a problem," I said in the opening shot of what would become a somewhat intense conversation over the next few minutes. "I need to, er, descend here to clear air, and, er, see if I can get something sorted out.

Students of correct radio procedure would learn a lot from listening to my air traffic control tapes. Working hard now on a problem that in my mind could have been anything from imminent prop failure to God knows what, this part of normal flying etiquette was the first to decay. The (U.S. Air Force) controller, though, quickly joined the spirit, quizzing my intentions. Did I want to declare an emergency?

"No, what I need is a descent, as soon as possible, and I'll keep you in touch," I stumbled.

Okay, came the voice, friendly and efficient, "Cleared to 3,000 feet, and keep me informed.

As I carefully throttled back both engines and dropped the nose into dark clouds, the aircraft began to fell frighteningly "different." Scan, scan, scan, I said to myself, as I noticed — among other things — it making strange kicking movements, left, right, and in a random sequence. Not I guessed -� correctly -� the right engine had joined its partner in this unaccommodating dance. Still nothing on the instruments seemed to help, but, hey, you think I�m going to feather either of them with this going on? No way; I hung on, seeking � above all else �- precious attitude control.

"Er, hello Dover, I think I'm going to turn back to Hyde, here, and sort of go back VFR," came my nervous call. Level now and in clear wintry air, I thought I might be able to sway and fly this thing home at the same time. But seconds after this example of confused thinking, I looked down at the airspeed indicator. Added to the gyrating pulses passing through the aircraft was another factor The airspeed was declining back toward V MC. Any light twin near this speed with this kind of asymmetric thrust problem is a no-no, I thought. I began to make gentle speed corrections as I tried to make sense of the surging, power-up, power-down tango the apache was now dancing — with me in its arms. The result was a steady loss of altitude.

"Dover, about that emergency," I began. "Okay, I'm declaring it, and I, er, think I'm going to have to put this thing down in a field, somewhere around here. Real soon."

Okay, the controller said, "But I can see you're near Delaware Airpark, and that's at 12 o'clock, a mile and a half."

In the fleeting seconds of flight left, my eyes popped out on stalks as I banked left and right, hoping to see the airport. Trying to help, the controller called out construction activity along the road and a line of trees and then some buildings. But dividing my time between the gauges and the outside world was difficult. The airport's "visibility factor" as it happens is low; it's a tough field to make out at the best of times — it's long and narrow and needed under woods. With rapidly diminishing altitude, my best chance was to catch a quick glimpse — I couldn't. Beneath me, pointing about 230 degrees, was a large brown field. Power lines lay across the northeast end, but I could skip them if I decided to land — now.

I did.

"Dover, I'm going into this field."

The controller replied, cool as can be, "Well, good luck. Call us when you're down.

And down the Apache went, popping and swinging, sounding frightening to a farmer I talked with later. I cleared the lines, yanked the gear handle down, and unconsciously began working the backup pump. My brain, speaking from some recess, said that the left engine, delivering only partial power, would have no oomph to give the hydraulic pump. My right hand blurred, and as I approached the flare, I truly thought we would have to slide this one out. But just as I inched the nose up — the aircraft now thankfully calmer with power at idle — the last green light (nosewheel) clicked on. Light as a kitten, we — the business colleague who had sat uncomplainingly and bravely through this drama and I — set down on a Delaware farmer's field of winter wheat.

The left wheel caught some mud, dragging us a bit, but we stopped undamaged and unhurt. Weirdly, I even tried to turn off the "runway" to the left, throttling up the right engine to help. The wheel stuck, the turn half-completed, and I shut down. Just before I did, however, I called Dover Approach one last time.

"We're okay, no damage, and I'll call you on the phone," I said.

"Roger, sounds good to me — I'll go ahead and cancel the emergency. Talk to you later," came the controller's response.

Later, after the police helicopters, media, and state police investigators — drug cops — had gone, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board had been called, and arrangements for a tow by tractor to the airport had been made (amazingly, I had landed downwind of the airport, which was on the other side of some trees), impressions and questions flooded in.

What if I had been over Long Island Sound, which I would have been 50 minutes later? What if I'd been flying at night, which I often do? What if it had been IMC to the ground? What if only Philadelphia — and not a farmer's field — had been underneath us? These are the dark imponderables of the flying game — it serves no purpose to speculate.

What I did want to know, obviously, was why all this had happened. It didn't take long to find out when, wide a mechanic a few days later, I watched both gas drains trickle out Their strangled flow of fuel, even though the cockpit valves were still in their fully o pen position. My earlier suspicions that water trapped in the auxiliary tanks had caused the problem were wrong — the valves were hung up, causing partial fuel starvation.

For four days prior to the flight, it had tamed severely on the aircraft parked out in the open on its tiedown. When, in the early morning, we had taken off end climbed into freezing air, some of that water had trickled down and, outside the warmth of the cabin, froze solid, Jamming the valve cable runs.

Going from Main to Aux in the Apache, the selector passes through the Off position. As I changed to Aux after the climb out of the Washington area, the selector moved — but the valve, caught in its sheathing of ice, went no farther than something perilously near the closed position. Little spurts of fuel trickled into the carburetors from time to time, firing the engines and producing the random power surges. Marks on my palms proved I had done my best to get fuel flowing again. All I was doing, though, was stretching the cables.

Two weeks later, the cables were replaced, O-rings in the fuel valves were checked and renewed, and a policy of great caution was adopted for any operations involving tank changes. One technique we insist on now is to make such changes within sight — or reach — of airports.

The strongest feeling remaining, though, has to do with the power of practice and training. As a part-time CFI, I have long ago lost count of the number of times I've dosed the throttle and asked a student to perform an emergency landing. That maneuver — always practiced in single-engine trainers — turned out to apply to my twin emergency, as well. The training, as they say, has positive transfer.

Think about it. Emergency landing training aims to establish a mind-set. The drills are ingrained — or should be if you're going to pass the test. The situation divides into two components: headwork and artwork. The first has to do with figuring things out. What's happening? Can we fix it (carb heat, fuel starvation, mixture problems, etc.)? After that, you begin a transition, moving, as one instructor told me once, from head to butt. Your head chooses a suitable course of action — a place to land, the setup for the approach, and the correct configuration — but your butt tells you whether the process is going to work or not. Believe your butt: If it tells you it's not, do something else as quickly as you can. Finally, butt and brain come together again in the last moments. In my case, I remembered to pump the gear down exactly as I flared.

Experience — in this case, practice — is the key. If you're not instructing, it can be hard to stay in shape. The best way to practice is to take an instructor with you and go spend an afternoon Failing" engines over open countryside somewhere. Learn intimately how your aircraft Feels" when the power stops being delivered. Experiment a bit with flaps, gear, and various prop settings.

Pilots who don't practice emergency landings are doing themselves no favors. They won't build the necessary visual picture of what making an emergency landing really amounts to. When it happens — as I learned vividly — things move extremely quickly, with no room for indecision. Parts of your brain — in my case, the part dealing with ATC — may go to mush, but with solid training, other sectors of the cortex can be relied on. Training, in this case, is repetition.


David S. Harvey, AOPA 610011, is an aviation writer and flight instructor who has logged more than 2,500 hours in 1O years of flying.