Proficient Pilot

Emergency!

November 2, 2009

Believe it or not, this really happened. I was administering a flight review to a 2,100-hour private pilot who had been flying his own Beech V35B Bonanza for almost 15 years. Because he seemed to know his airplane well, I decided to test his knowledge using a scenario-based approach. While cruising toward the practice area at 6,500 feet, I asked, “Larry [his name has been changed to preserve anonymity and avoid embarrassment], can you hear me OK over the intercom?”

He nodded.

I then gave him the following instruction: “I’m only going to say this once. Imagine that you are getting positive indications of an engine fire. Smoke is coming out of the cowling, you can smell it in the cockpit, and the area near your feet is getting hot. I want you to now treat this like an actual emergency, and I will say no more until the problem is resolved.”

Larry put the airplane on autopilot, spent a minute fishing for the pilot’s operating handbook from somewhere behind his seat, took out his reading glasses, and spent two more minutes searching for the proper emergency checklist. By the time he found and began to review the procedure, there probably would not have been a need for it—the airplane would have been consumed by fire before the first combative step had been taken.

There are at least two lessons to be learned from this true story. The first is that emergency checklists should be immediately available to a pilot. On TWA aircraft, for example, checklists were kept in a flat, metal sleeve on top of the center of the glareshield and could be quickly extracted by either pilot. The second lesson is that pilots need to be familiar and memorize in some cases the initial steps to be taken during those emergencies or abnormal situations that require immediate action. An engine fire certainly is one of those.

When an engine failure occurs at altitude in a single-engine airplane, for example, pilots usually don’t need to read from a checklist even though one is always provided in the POH. They know from training that the airplane usually should be placed in a glide at the best glide speed. Similarly, should a pilot encounter a runaway elevator trim, he is aware of several quick and immediate ways to disable the electric trim. (In most cases, depressing and holding down the autopilot-disconnect switch should be used to quickly interrupt the trimming until the system is turned off.)

But in the case of other and perhaps dire emergencies, some pilots are clueless; they have no idea what to do, something I demonstrated to an FAA inspector at one of my seminars several years ago.

At the end of the presentation, the inspector asked the group to critique the seminar on cards that had been distributed earlier. I then asked these pilots to also write on the backs of their cards the first thing they would do if they had reason to believe that an engine fire had begun to rage under the cowling. “And, please,” I added, “do not share this with your neighbor. Keep your answers to yourselves.”

Only about half the attendees responded. The rest had provided answers that ranged from “dive toward the ground” to—you guessed it—“follow the checklist.” Only about a fourth gave the correct answer, which is to “immediately turn off the fuel.” The engine-fire checklist for virtually every piston airplane says essentially the same thing, yet only a minority of pilots is aware of this necessary lifesaving step. Eliminate the fuel, and the fire typically goes out. The pilot is left with having only to make a forced landing, which admittedly can be easier said than done. This, however, is preferable to going down in a flaming ball of molten aluminum.

Preparation for an emergency means knowing what needs to be done and then doing it without wasting precious time. Thinking about such procedures before they occur gives pilots the mindset needed to better cope with emergencies when they do happen.

When is the last time you referred to the emergency section of your POH? When is the last time you actually studied the checklists step by step? If you are typical, it has been a while. It is neither necessary nor recommended to memorize emergency checklists, but it is important to know the initial steps that need to be taken at the onset of certain emergencies without wasting valuable time locating the needed checklist. An engine fire? Shut off the fuel. It should happen that quickly (as long as you are certain that you do, in fact, have an engine fire.)

A legendary ground school instructor, Sailor Davis, used to teach “Emergency” at TWA and would begin the first class by saying, “Gentlemen [there were no women airline pilots then], you are professionals trained to deal with three things that can kill you: gravity, combustibles, and inertia. Keep them under control, and you’ll die in bed.” The same admonition applies to general aviation pilots. Although you probably will never have to deal with a serious emergency, one never knows when the fickle finger of fate will point in your direction. My friend Ernie Gann had it right when he said that fate is the hunter that seeks out those who are least prepared. Don’t be one of them.

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