Fly like a fighter: Emergency procedures

June 12, 2013

Air Force pilot training is very stressful, by design. They figure if you can handle, in part, the imposed stress of an aircraft emergency at zero knots in the flight room in front of 10 to 12 instructors and all of your classmates, then you will have a better chance of handling things in the air. Every morning we had an emergency procedure stand-up meeting. One of the instructors would present a scenario with only an initial indication of a malfunction, then a student would be called to stand at attention, take “control” of the aircraft, figure out what was wrong, and talk his way through a logical outcome. This included asking questions about cockpit indications; sights, sounds, and smells; gauge readings; and even making the proper radio calls during the scenario. Knowing the right questions to ask was sometimes the hardest part.

When I became an instructor years later, I thought it would be so much easier to be on the giving end of an emergency procedure training session as opposed to the receiving end. I was wrong. If a student flipped a switch, they would then usually ask, “What does my gauge now read?” As a new instructor, I didn’t always know what it should read, and so I had to guess. Then I ran into situations where the student was handling the emergency incorrectly and either moving the wrong switch or doing things in the wrong order. Figuring out the cockpit indications in these cases meant I needed to be an expert on the aircraft systems. Over time, I was able to answer all of their questions with confidence.

Emergency procedures training continues throughout one’s entire Air Force flying career. Every checkride includes a thorough ground evaluation of systems knowledge and the same format of an emergency procedure session that we learned in pilot training. Most units have adopted an “EP of the Day” matrix, where a different emergency procedure is included in the mission briefing, with 31 emergency procedures listed to cover each day of the month. And every month we had to fill out from memory a boldface ops limits sheet—perfectly, or else you were grounded.

Now that I have been out of the Air Force for a couple of years it feels a little weird that I haven’t been filling out boldface ops limits sheets and haven’t discussed a different emergency procedure every time I fly. Looking at my own general aviation flying and that of others I now fly with, we are all probably a little rusty on reciting, verbatim, all of the operating limits of our aircraft. This is especially true for those flying different airplanes. Further, many owner’s manuals, pilot operating handbooks, and aircraft flight manuals do not have boldface emergency checklists that should be committed to memory. It is up to us, as pilots, to determine what the critical items are that should be memorized.

To help with my own proficiency, I created a boldface ops limit sheet for my Cessna P210. Since the emergency steps in my POH really haven’t been updated since 1980, some of my boldface items are not verbatim from the POH, but include steps that I know are relevant for the emergency procedure. Here's a blank one that you can fill in for your own use. Let’s all do our part to stay safe by being ready to handle, from memory, the initial steps of any emergency we might face.

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,700 hours total time during his 33 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”