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Where will you go?

Teaching Google Earth for departure planning

Every year there are accidents where the pilot attempted to return to the airport following an engine failure on takeoff, so it's clear that the message "don't turn back to the airport" isn't getting through.

For my clients, the free aerial photo program Google Earth is providing a fresh way to illustrate the possibilities after an engine failure on takeoff, other than an attempted return to the airport. Beyond that, an organized training program conducted aloft shows students how to develop a plan and gives them first-hand experience with what they'll be facing.

Getting an airplane back to the airport after an engine failure is not a matter of skill, hours, or luck; it is a matter of physics. Unfortunately, the laws of physics are not suspended when the engine quits. With new students and flight review candidates, and for aircraft checkouts, I spend a fair amount of time discussing and demonstrating engine failures during the takeoff and departure phases of flight. While on the ground, we pull up the Google Earth satellite photos of the home airport and review the terrain around the airport to develop a plan--where we'll go--in the event of an engine failure after takeoff.

Once the most desirable emergency landing areas near the departure end of the runway have been identified, we'll proceed with the airwork portion of the training. The satellite views available online may not reveal fences and small power lines, but the telltale signs are there. I'll relate these signs and point them out in the air. Nonetheless, a bird's-eye view of the terrain surrounding your arrival or departure airport is much better than no view--and no plan--at all.

Since it's not exactly the best idea to be pulling the engine at 300 feet above ground level for the purpose of an object lesson, the rest of the takeoff emergency training is done at altitude. I take my clients through the experience of an engine failure in a take-off configuration using two exercises. In each case, we pick an altitude 2,000 agl and then select two ground reference points to describe the start and end of our imaginary runway. Our altitude is the "hard deck."

For the first exercise, we'll cross the starting end of the "runway" in slow flight and in a takeoff configuration. At the halfway point, I'll have the client apply full power and pitch for VY. At 300 feet above the hard deck (2,300 feet agl), I'll pull the power. The first surprise for the client is the amount of forward pressure required on the yoke to transition the pitch attitude from a VY climb to a VG (best glide speed) descent (see "Push," April 2007 AOPA Flight Training). The second surprise is that you don't have time to go looking for a checklist--this is a memorization issue. The third is just how little time the pilot has to do whatever he had planned to do before crossing the "hard deck" at 2,000 feet agl. In a typical general aviation aircraft starting from 300 feet agl, that's about 38 seconds, not including "realization time." If he doesn't have a plan and if he is not ready to execute the plan right now, the outcome will not favor a happy ending.

For the second exercise, we'll continue the climb to 500 feet above the deck. I'll pull the engine and ask the client to execute a turn back to the airport. Try as he may, he never makes it. On average, the pilot is surprised to find himself anywhere from 200 to 300 feet below the deck before he makes it to the ground reference marking the runway end. Only when a standard upwind-to-crosswind-to-downwind pattern is flown does a return to the airport work consistently from the downwind leg.

From my perspective, all of this training will be for naught unless we can also get the pilot to understand that when such an event occurs--in any stage of flight--that the job at hand is not to save the airplane, but to save the souls on board.

The federal aviation regulations say it is the pilot's responsibility to have "all available knowledge" about the flight we're about to take, and part of that knowledge must be a departure plan. We must review the terrain and obstacles around the airport and know exactly what we're going to do if the worst happens at the worst time. Using newly available tools like Google Earth help in understanding and planning the departure plan. Before each flight, students should be asked: "Do you know where you're going?"

Dennis Erskine is a flight instructor in Atlanta and the owner of an Aerostar.

By Dennis Erskine

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