Slow hands

June 1, 1994

When asked what the first reaction to an emergency should be, an old airline captain replied that he would reach up and wind the clock on the instrument panel. There is a prevailing myth that says that pilots must have ultra-fast reflexes to survive. The truth is that flying is much more of a thinking game than a purely reactive one.

Quick hands are needed more by automobile drivers than pilots. Big rigs whizzing by the family flivver less than 4 feet away at a closure rate of 120 miles per hour is exhilarating. Considering the confines of highways versus airways, I'll take the high wide-open spaces every time.

The vast majority of aviation accidents are primarily of the pilot's making and typically involve judgment relating to weather or landings. However, mechanical emergencies are the ones most likely to prompt a too-hasty reaction from the pilot.

Thankfully, the need to respond instantly is only needed in few cases such as an engine failure on takeoff. One way to think about emergencies is to divide them into two categories: those that must be resolved in a finite time, say 10 minutes or less, and those limited only by the endurance of the aircraft. In airline and business jets, a problem of the latter nature is sometimes defined as an "abnormal condition." Things aren't so bad as to be immediately threatening, but something is definitely amiss and needs attention.

A readily available check list is useful in all situations but becomes essential when time is limited. Using a check list ensures that the brain doesn't lock up when we need some good synaptic response. The check list acts as a primer to get into the problem-solving groove before time runs out.

Consider an engine failure at altitude — definitely not a pleasant thought but not one requiring lightning hands either. In a typical single- engine aircraft at 5,000 feet agl, a normal cruising altitude, there is probably six or seven minutes before ground contact. Plenty can be done in that time to troubleshoot the problem, and really there is not all that much we can check — provided, of course, we remember to check it all. The first thing is to set up for a power-off glide to a suitable landing spot.

Then, for example, in the Cessna Skylane RG, we'd check the carburetor heat, the fuel selector, the mixture, the ignition switch, and the primer. That might take 30 seconds or so to accomplish. Assuming the engine remains dead, it will take about another 30 to 45 seconds to configure for an off-airport landing, shutting off fuel and nonessential electrical equipment. The balance of the time will be spent flying the airplane to a suitable spot, hopefully, and sending a Mayday message. It's busy, to be sure, but not a time to rush. It also makes the case for flying as high above the terrain as reasonable for conditions. More altitude simply means more time.

Making haste in search of the solution frequently creates more trouble. Mispositioning a fuel selector to Off will ensure that an engine that was running rough because of a lean mixture will become very smooth and very quiet. The timing could be interesting too, because the engine may run for a minute or so while it burns up the residual fuel in the lines. If, in the interim, we have continued our quest for the problem, going back to reset the fuel selector may not seem like an obvious solution. Mysteries like this can be avoided with a methodical approach.

Engines seldom quit without some warning. Decisive action could be needed but not necessarily precipitous action. We may need to turn toward a nearby airport, but rushing the process is rarely required.

Vacuum failure in VFR conditions is a nonevent, but in instrument conditions, without a backup system, it can turn into a long ordeal. The aircraft will continue to fly as long as we give it appropriate guidance. It's important not to get in a hurry when the gyros are out. Maneuver to a runway with precision guidance and radar vectors, if possible. Take the time to set up and do it right the first time. A quick intercept to the final approach course or a rushed procedure turn invites disorientation and loss of control.

If the alternator stops feeding the juice to the radios, there is time, maybe 20 minutes with a fully charged battery, to find a runway. The key is: Spot the problem when it occurs. Once the lights start to dim and the controller's voice begins to fade, the problem becomes much more complex and potentially dangerous. Once you become incommunicado, the situation changes from being an easily solved finite one to a more challenging long-term odyssey. Quick hands won't save the day, but some careful and logical thinking certainly will.

A pilot I know had the alternator on his Bonanza quit in solid instrument conditions. Unfortunately, he didn't spot it until the battery began to fail, too. It was just for such an occasion he had purchased a hand-held transceiver. But the batteries in it were stone-cold dead. To make a long story short, he made a 180-degree turn and descended to the minimum enroute altitude. Twenty long minutes later, the flight broke out into VFR conditions and landed uneventfully. No quick reflexes or anything remotely approaching it was needed.

Landing gear malfunctions are another area where a slow, steady approach is usually preferable to instant response. I've had three landing gear difficulties over the years, and in each case, it made sense to proceed cautiously. Twice, the gear would not extend. Each time, I rejected the approach and turned out of the traffic pattern. That gave me time to troubleshoot and resort to the emergency extension system. In some airplanes, if you get in a hurry and don't configure the system to lower the gear properly, there may not be a second chance. A single charge of nitrogen in a "blow down"-type backup system can be wasted if the gear switch isn't in the right position.

In the most recent instance, on climb-out from Washington National, the landing gear pump on a Cessna P210 continued to run although the gear was tucked up as far as it could go. This is not a big deal, as long as the pump motor is disabled before it overheats. There was time to ask the person next to me to take the controls momentarily while I hunted for the circuit breaker. That's a case where it helps to know the aircraft well and how to set priorities. The flying always takes priority. A pump will probably run a few minutes in these circumstances without self-destructing. It would be tough to explain why you crashed a perfectly good airplane to save a landing gear pump.

Even in situations where you'd think that quick reflexes would be essential, there are stories to the contrary. Take midair collisions. Avoiding one could require fast hands, especially if the bogey is spotted close by. But frequently, the participants never see each other, even after the encounter. If the aircraft hasn't suffered a mortal wound, a steady hand to bring the flight back to an airport or a suitable field will save the day.

Watch a professional pilot coping with a problem, and you generally won't see a lot of rushing around. Good training and experience eliminates a lot of the motion and hones the thought processes. Adrenaline-charged actions are more likely to be wrong than reasoned ones. The old saying about "there's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over" might be reworded for aeronautical use: There's always time to do it right and seldom time to do it over.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.