Will your students be prepared when something goes wrong?
Many instructors teach emergency procedures using perhaps the most catastrophic scenario possible: a complete engine failure. We do a good job teaching students how to get an airplane safely on the ground without power. Examiners always include a power-off landing during the practical test.
However, most in-flight incidents pilots face are not full-fledged engine failures but rather a wide range of less dramatic situations that are ambiguous, requiring good analysis and decision-making. The Private Pilot Practical Test Standards require that applicants be taught how to analyze an emergency situation. We usually interpret this analysis as trying to find out why the engine quit and determining if a restart is possible. The requirement for analysis is much broader than this.
Something happened to me not long ago that changed my approach to teaching emergency procedures. I was a half-hour into a 200-mile cross-country flight when I heard a loud crack, and the engine noise increased dramatically. I reduced power and turned back toward an airport I had passed over about 10 minutes earlier. (There is something to be said for planning cross-country routes that pass near airports on the way.) A trace of smoke was evident in the cockpit, and I could feel heat building up around the rudder pedals. If things got worse I was prepared to plant the airplane in a farmer's field before reaching the airport, and I had selected a suitable spot.
I considered pulling the mixture and cutting off the gas and master switch, but I didn't believe there was a fire because the odor was more like exhaust fumes than an oil, gas, or electrical fire. The oil pressure and temperature were normal, and the engine was still producing power. I called the field's unicom and announced my location, the problem I was having, and my intention to land on the nearest runway. Before I knew it there was a Pitts flying off my right wing. Much to my relief, the pilot reported that he didn't see any smoke coming from my airplane. Fellow pilots always seem to be there when you need them.
I landed safely and taxied to the ramp. As I walked toward the front of the airplane I noted that a small section of the cowl was scorched. I raised the cowl cover and immediately saw the problem. The front exhaust stack had broken between the manifold and the muffler, creating a deafening noise and spewing hot exhaust gas into the engine compartment. Fortunately the fracture was not near the carburetor or fuel lines.
On the drive home from the airport where I left my airplane, I wondered what my students would have done if they had experienced the same situation on one of their solo flights. Perhaps they would have landed in a farmer's field without a second thought, landed at the next airport they came to, or just continued to their destination. I reflected on how I teach students to analyze unusual situations under pressure.
The more a student knows about the aircraft and the failure characteristics of systems, the better he or she will be able to analyze what's going on and take corrective action.
What I experienced first sounded like a propeller problem, but there was no imbalance. It also sounded like an internal engine problem, but oil pressure and temperature were normal and the engine was still producing power. The smoke and heat would normally indicate a fire, but the cockpit smelled more like exhaust fumes, not the aroma of something burning. My analysis convinced me that there was a rupture in the exhaust system and I needed to get to the nearest airport and land, but it probably wasn't a real emergency unless I decided to complete the 200-mile trip. I opened the vents to circulate air through the cockpit so that I didn't absorb too much carbon monoxide from the exhaust during the short hop to the airport. I subsequently learned that there are smoke hood systems available that will protect pilots from smoke and carbon monoxide for about 15 minutes--about the time it takes to make an emergency landing. Using a filter about the size of a soda can, the device fits over your head while still providing visibility to fly the aircraft, and it costs about $60.
I believe the best method for teaching problem analysis and decision making is scenario-based instruction. You simulate unusual situations in flight and have the student cope with the event. For example, set up a simulated partial power failure caused by a broken piston or valve. Reduce power to about 1,500 rpm and have the student analyze the situation and take appropriate action to get the airplane safely on the ground. What if the elevator cable breaks or jams? This event can be simulated by teaching the student the use of only power, trim, and ailerons that will lead to a safe landing. How would your student handle electrical or engine fires, fuel leaks, a door opening, a loose cowling that exits the airplane, or the exhaust failure I experienced?
This is just a partial list of potential things that could go wrong in the air. If we take our students through these simulated conditions, not if but when it happens to them, they will be much better prepared to cope and make the right decision.
Richard Hiner retired from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as vice president of training. He can be contacted.
By Richard Hiner