Technique: Emergency winning Performances

NASA awards go to pilots who got it right

August 3, 2009

Shortly after this year’s Academy Awards, the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) managers issued some awards of their own. Normally ASRS receives reports of confusion or problems that need to be addressed to improve air traffic control or the national airspace system. Pilots making such reports may even be eligible to have disciplinary action waved in connection with the flight.

Sometimes the reports—kept anonymous by NASA—are about what went right. That’s why NASA officials honored these pilots in their Fifth Annual Award Winning Performances issue of Callback, the monthly ASRS safety bulletin. Here is what pilots did right.

Best live-action sequence

A Beech Bonanza pilot had an engine failure at night over mountains with a mother and her 1-year-old baby in the back. He had just taken off from a Class B airport in excellent weather.

As he was climbing to 8,500 feet the engine issued a muffled “poof” and stopped producing power. The pilot knew flat terrain lay behind him and started a shallow turn as he declared an emergency. Even before there was any indication of trouble, once he was over inhospitable terrain he had used his GPS to check for the nearest airport as a precaution. He spotted what he thought was an airport out his window, and another push of the GPS button confirmed his sighting.

The airport was two nautical miles away, so he immediately reversed course toward it. He did not talk to the mother, although he could see she was distressed, and stopped trying to restart the engine. Instead he focused on lining up with the airport. His radio updates to controllers continued.

Once at the airport he was too high, despite having lost 5,000 feet in five minutes, so he began spiraling down, aiming for a touchdown at the middle of the runway.

On the base leg he lowered the gear and flaps to eliminate excess altitude, turned final with crosswind corrections, and touched down at the midpoint of the runway. He applied brakes immediately and used the last exit to reach the taxiway.

Only then did was he able to talk to the young mother, asking if she and the baby were all right. On exiting the aircraft, the lower cowling was found to be covered with oil. Mechanics later determined that the camshaft had failed.

Best short feature

An alternator belt broke while a student and instructor were practicing GPS approaches in actual instrument weather.

The first indication of trouble came just before crossing the final approach fix when the GPS, the transponder, and the HSI abruptly failed. Electrical failure occurred a short time later, taking with it an electronic turn coordinator and digital tachometer. The instructor took charge and began a climbing turn to between 4,300 and 4,700 feet, the aircraft’s last known VFR-on-top altitude.

The student contacted the controlling agency with his cellphone and explained the situation before cellphone reception was lost. After discussing options, the two headed for the last-known visual weather conditions to the southeast.

While en route, the battery regained a charge sufficient to restore communications and the pilots received radar vectors through the clouds, breaking out at 900 feet one statute mile from the runway.

You’ll find two additional “awards” for good decision-making and crew coordination—mostly involving airlines—in the same issue of the February Callback (

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.