Safety Publications/Articles

Keeping It Real

Maintaining A Safe Level Of Emergency Simulation For Students

The military has a saying, "If you train like you fight, you will fight like you train." The theory is sound; if the training is identical to the mission, the mission stands a greater chance of success. As flight instructors, can we adapt this doctrine to our daily instructional duties? Absolutely. In fact, many would argue that we have a responsibility to expose our students to all the situations that might arise when they are pilots in command. The trick is to maintain an acceptable level of safety while simulating those situations.

Certain procedures and maneuvers are simple - a standard entry to a traffic pattern, a full-procedure ILS, or a normal takeoff in a twin. The instructor's challenge comes when we have to practice the procedures that are not so normal, such as an engine failure in the pattern, a partial-panel ILS approach, or an engine failure after takeoff. These are the operations that we need to simulate as genuinely as possible so that our students are more confident and prepared when we are not with them in the aircraft.

The value of physically performing an emergency maneuver is immeasurable. Consider the example of an emergency power-off landing in a field. A student who is continually made to go around at 3,000 feet agl would most likely have a difficult time actually hitting the emergency landing spot that he or she has picked, whereas the student who has routinely glided down to 1,000 feet agl will have a better perception of what it looks and feels like to reach, or miss, a specific point. Those extra 2,000 feet will better prepare your student for that unfortunate possibility that a go-around is not an option.

The application of checklists can also be improved through more realistic practice. Fortunately, our emergency checklists rarely make their way into our daily aviation lives. But the failure to use those checklists also hinders our ability to use them when the situation warrants. We can combat disuse by requiring our students to actually run the appropriate checklist for the given maneuver (the next flight review that you perform might be the perfect time to try this). These are perfect examples of how realistic training benefits your students, but for us, keeping it real poses some interesting problems.

Let us examine the concept of reality a bit deeper. During instruction, we are intentionally putting our aircraft (with us in it) in abnormal situations for the learning benefit of our students. The more life like those situations are, the more valuable the lessons are for the students. This puts a tremendous amount of responsibility in our hands as CFIs.

My first student and I were practicing steep turns at 4,500 feet agl. After the second turn, and seeing that my student was faring well, I decided to simulate an engine failure. As he was rolling wings level, I brought the throttle back to idle and informed him that his engine had just failed. I watched as he immediately started to pitch our Piper Warrior to find its best glide and began to run the engine-restart checklist. Once he completed that checklist, I told him that the engine had not restarted. He then began to look for a suitable place to land. What he found was a nice long road about three miles west of our position - a road that I wasn't sure we were going to make.

As we maintained our descent, my student continued the engine-securing checklist, and I concentrated on the landing point that he had picked out. More specifically, I was occupied with the fact that we were not going to make the road. I brought myself back into the cockpit and instructed him to go around at 1,500 feet agl. As the big arm of the altimeter passed five on the dial, my student advanced the throttle and nothing happened. My heart stopped when I looked down to find the mixture at idle-cutoff. I rapidly reduced the throttle, increased the mixture and gently pushed the throttle forward. We passed through 1,200 feet agl, the engine roared back to life, and my heart started to beat again. While I was busy watching our approach, my student was dutifully executing the engine-securing checklist, which included shutting off the mixture. He was only doing what he had been instructed to do.

The first day we covered emergency checklists I had taught him that it was his responsibility to treat all the emergencies as if they were real, and it was my responsibility to ensure the safety of the procedures. In this situation he kept his end of the deal, but I did not. It became a perfect example of how quickly a simulated emergency can become an actual one if we're not careful. With that in mind, there are actions we can take to maintain an acceptable margin of safety during emergency procedures.

  • Always think ahead of your student and the aircraft. Understand and learn to anticipate the reactions of your students. Knowing how your student and aircraft react will help to keep you in control of the situation.
  • Maintain a high level of discipline. Keep your situational awareness inside and outside of the cockpit.
  • Follow all limitations outlined by the PTS. These limitations are a built-in safety margin - it's our job to know and follow them.
  • Always leave yourself an out. Be ready to recover from every situation. Leave an acceptable margin for error and reaction time. This might be extra altitude, the area in which you train, or simply taking control of the aircraft. Whatever the case may be, always have an escape plan.

Since learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience, our job as CFIs is to provide quality experiences to our students. That is why it is imperative that the experiences we provide are as true to life as we can make them. Keep it real and keep it safe. Train like you fight and you will fight like you train.

David Wright is director of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, he is a CFI with more than 2,000 hours.

By David Wright

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