After an Accident

"Make it a habit to do the right thing all the time" — Cal Weeks

December 1, 2000

Everyone in aviation knows that certain emergencies are just too dangerous to practice with any degree of authenticity. The off-airport landing and the low-altitude engine failure on takeoff are good examples; no one is going to ask you to land in the treetops, or demand that you make a critical maneuvering decision with no margin for error, 500 feet above the runway, just to see if you can carry it off.

Training does require proficiency in handling these emergencies, but we simulate the problems with a reasonable margin of safety. The off-airport approach is discontinued at a safe, regulated altitude. The low-altitude engine failure is practiced a few hundred feet above an imaginary runway that is actually well above the terrain. Back in the office, the flight instructor follows up with stern words about how the real thing would be far more serious than what we have just experienced. When the preaching and teaching are done and the trainee has satisfied the requirements of the applicable testing standards, we know that there is only one sure way to see if the lesson has been taken in the right spirit. And we fervently hope that years down the road, when the inevitable urge to become casual about operating procedures takes over, the pilot will remember that a surprise quiz may still be lying in wait.

That's why it is always a source of insight to talk to someone who has experienced a true emergency "in the wild," and ask that person to compare the real McCoy to the cheap imitation offered in training. Such a conversation brought me to one of my favorite haunts: the Millinocket Municipal Airport in Maine, where an old friend, Cal Weeks, the local fixed-base operator/flight instructor, had had ample opportunity to contemplate such questions since a late spring day in 1999. On that day, Weeks suddenly had to solve a survival equation that confronted him with an emergency commonly encountered in training—but without the safety margin so generously provided in the instructional environment. Asked to boil all of his reflections on the incident down to the most fundamental lesson for any pilot, Weeks replied: "Make it a habit to do the right thing all the time."

There was still a lot of work waiting for Weeks at his one-man fixed-base operation, Plain Air Inc., when he began his takeoff run on Millinocket's 4,700-foot-long Runway 29 for a two-hour fire-patrol mission in his Cessna 172L. All was normal as he began his climb. There was a brisk breeze blowing from about 310 degrees. About 1,000 feet from the departure end of Runway 29 is the intersection of Runway 16/34. Weeks was about 400 feet above the ground, nearly over the runway intersection, when the engine stopped. "It quit abruptly," he said. "I didn't have time to think about a restart."

The problems didn't end there. Houses and wires precluded a straight-ahead landing. Ahead to the left stood a large paper mill with tall stacks. Weeks' only remaining out was the intersecting runway and its cleared zone. So the question now was: turn left or right? Most of the 4,008-foot-long intersecting runway lay to his left. But in the instant available to him for decision making, Weeks says he "dismissed immediately" the 130-degree turn to a downwind landing on Runway 16 that this choice would have required. Instead he opted for the more controlled 50-degree turn into the northwesterly wind, to attempt his landing on the short section of Runway 34 that remained available to him. His plan was to use flaps and a sideslip to lose altitude rapidly, touch down on the remaining pavement, decelerate as much as possible with hard braking, and then take his lumps in the grass.

"People who watched it said I bounced on the tar," he recalled. The result of that bounce was that the airplane tangled with both the grassy area alongside the runway, where braking was poorer, and then some small trees before it came to rest—"substantially damaged," as described in the language of the official report. But Weeks walked away essentially unhurt.

Such an outcome, avoiding risk to nearby residents and emerging mostly unscathed himself, must be credited as an outstanding success. But I asked Weeks if it would change the way he teaches emergency landings in the future. He said that it probably would. For one thing, he won't be satisfied unless he sees his students develop an "automatic response" to the emergency situation in which they find themselves. At low altitude, there is no place for the elaborate ceremony commonly taught to deal with engine failures—although several thousand feet in the air, it is certainly still proper to establish optimum gliding speed, select the best possible landing zone, attempt a restart, and communicate. But at 400 feet, trying to do all that would steal precious seconds and might well distract the pilot from doing what is necessary to bring about a successful outcome. "Urgency prevents you from analyzing," he says.

Compare that to typical flight-training lessons on emergencies: The instructor introduces the simulated failure, and then waits until the trainee establishes the proper glidespeed, waits until the trainee finds a place to land, waits until he or she troubleshoots the problem…. That's fine when introducing emergencies, he says. But after the intro stage is over and proficiency is being demanded, "it must be more of a drill." (This is something that any students wandering into Millinocket for flight training any time soon will quickly find out.)

If the ability to exercise judgment is important, airmanship plays an equally critical part in solving the survival equation. Veteran pilot Weeks' conditioned response to immediately lower the nose to avoid stalling, and then control the airplane by feel without the need to refer to the airspeed indicator or turn coordinator, helped him divide his attention between aircraft maneuvering and the equally important mental calculations that led to his successful landing.

Anything else?

"The other thing would be to clear your mind," he reflects. "In the routine of flying, sometimes you don't get your mind focused on the immediate task at hand." He admits that he was surprised—but certainly not paralyzed—when his engine quit. As the operator of a one-man business, the fire patrol (or in official lingo, aerial observation) flight was just another task on a busy day, and there were other jobs awaiting his attention. The possibility of an interruption seemed remote. But when the problem arose, Weeks, with his years of experience, was able to put surprise and disbelief aside and deal with the "new task," as he describes the events of the day. "A less experienced pilot might not have come out as well," he acknowledged.

If even a working pilot finds himself aided by the old reminder to expect the unexpected, and to get through danger zones quickly, I think of all those pilots whose technique I have observed who take off day after day with never a thought as to such considerations as the airport's surroundings, or the rate of climb to employ. Indeed, many just trim the aircraft for takeoff and then accept whatever airspeed they get. Many pilots can't even recall the speed recommended by the manufacturer for such an operation, or the performance it provides under standard and nonstandard conditions. Nor have they even tried, since the checkride was passed years ago. Can you?

Remember that the elite pilot's club consisting of "those who have" experienced an emergency extends its membership invitations unannounced and unsolicited. It may come at 400 feet or 4,000. The initiation ritual is unforgiving and must be faced by the ready and the unprepared alike. But the pilot who gets through flying's zones of vulnerability as quickly as possible, and knows what to do while traversing them, is armed with the right answers.

Links to additional information about information on emergency procedures may be found on AOPA Online ( Dan Namowitz is a writer and flight instructor living in Maine.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.