So you are flying along, smooth operator that you are, when all of a sudden something goes wrong. That "something" could be anything: oil on the windscreen, smoke from the engine compartment, a violent shaking that is making the airframe sound as though you are inside of a washing machine full of tennis shoes. Or your "something" could be far more subtle, yet every bit as serious. You may have noticed that the oil temperature is starting to climb while the pressure drops. Or maybe the electrical system is showing sure signs of imminent failure. Maybe you happened to look outside the window to see fuel running off the top of your wing (if you had my luck, this and the aforementioned oil leak would happen at the same time a day after having the airplane washed and waxed).
Do any of these items qualify as an emergency? If so, under what definition? Obviously a fire of any sort would qualify, as would any shaking of the airframe on the magnitude described above. But what about the fuel leak? Or the electrical problem? This is one of those gray areas of aviation that we all hate, and that leads to hangar flying and arguments galore, because the single most accurate answer is...it depends.
In its wisdom, the FAA gives pilots a lot of latitude in the definition of emergency, to the point that we could essentially say that there are as many definitions of an emergency as there are pilots. But if we get to the heart of it, and start asking ourselves what really constitutes an emergency, we would probably agree that an emergency is an event that jeopardizes the safe outcome of the flight. Furthermore, the event would require timely action by the pilot. Note that timely does not mean rushed. More on that later.
To take this a step further, whatever your definition of an emergency is, the only definition that counts when you are flying is yours. If you feel a situation is pushing your piloting skills to the limit, or if you are scared, then you probably have an emergency on your hands. Keep in mind that what qualifies as an emergency to a 25-hour student pilot is going to differ from the definition used by a 250-hour private pilot, which will differ again from that of a 25,000-hour pilot jetting around the world on Boeing 767s. In fact, some CFIs will tell you that their definition of an emergency is that 767 captain climbing into a Cessna 172 for the first time in 20 years.
Once you have decided that what you are coping with is an emergency — it might be bad weather, a failed engine, or a sick passenger — how do you handle it? The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Emergency Procedures seminar breaks down the process into four separate steps.
Recognition. What just went wrong? It's easy to jump to conclusions, and too often that has led to some hasty actions and decisions that were regretted later. When something happens, take an appropriate amount of time to make sure that your original diagnosis is indeed correct. For instance, if an engine hiccups and coughs, it doesn't mean that it's getting ready to quit. Perhaps you have the mixture set wrong, or maybe carb ice melted and the power drop is temporary. Is the whole vacuum system about to fail, or do you just have one bad instrument? Does the static on the radio mean the electrical system is dying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), or could you just have ice on the antenna?
Whatever you think it is, look at all of the instruments on your panel, and listen to what the airplane is telling you (or isn't). Then, and only then, should you start zeroing in on something specific. In other words, start with the big picture and work your way to the details.
Accurately determining what has happened is a huge step in ensuring a safe outcome. In more sophisticated airplanes, your knowledge of your aircraft systems is going to be critical. If you don't know what to do, don't guess! Pull out the pilot's operating handbook (POH) and look up the system to see if you can find your problem addressed. If the situation has memory items associated with it, and you feel that you must do those items immediately, then do so, but only if you are confident that you are getting the procedures right. If you are unsure, use the POH to accomplish the checklist, and talk out loud to slow yourself down.
How bad is it? Most of us ask this question every month when we get our cell phone bill. In an airplane, it takes on a whole new meaning. Once you have confidently diagnosed your problem, it's time to ask the next logical question: Is this an emergency, or is it just abnormal? If it's an emergency, you are acknowledging that the safe outcome of the flight is in doubt. If it's just abnormal, you are stating that the problem needs to be watched, and could theoretically get worse, but that at this time, the flight can be continued safely. The way you answer this question might be determined by whether you are in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) or IMC, or in a twin or in a single. In other words, it may be a matter of context, but it may not be. A fire is an emergency no matter what you are flying. A failing radio in VMC is usually nothing more than an inconvenience, but in IMC it dramatically increases your workload, not to mention your blood pressure.
Once you know what you need to cope with, you should be able to answer fairly quickly just how severe the problem is. If you don't know, then you honestly don't know; don't rush to judgment, and don't just haphazardly guess.
Time. How much time do you have to work with? If you are flying a single-engine airplane that just became a glider, the answer may be "not much." It may be more than you think, especially if it happens at cruise altitude. If you are cruising at 6,000 feet, and lose an engine, and then descend at an average of 500 fpm, you will have about 12 minutes before you land. That's a lot of time. Contrast that with being in the pattern at 1,000 feet and having only two minutes.
Time can be looked at two ways. First, you may be dealing with a situation where every second in the air is one second too long. Again, a fire would fit this description. So would a sudden onset of appendicitis or a heart attack (it's happened). On the other hand, you may view time as your best friend. An engine that has stopped running for no apparent reason may be coaxed back to life, and you will want and need the time to do what can reasonably be done to restart it. Likewise, if you are over inhospitable terrain with a failed engine, you will want time on your hands to determine where you will land and to notify ATC of your position and predicament.
Time can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Know which one it is and act accordingly. Do not waste it once you have determined that there is nothing else you can do. Engines that won't start or landing gear that won't extend should consume only so much of your time. At some point you need to know when to stop troubleshooting and start thinking about getting on the ground.
But don't misjudge this. A common mistake is that people in a bind feel that they don't have as much time as they really do. You can easily rush, and in your haste, you can make the problem worse. We talk often in aviation about not getting behind the airplane, and I like to preach that the two most important things on any flight are the next two things. But getting ahead of the airplane can be every bit as detrimental as getting behind it, especially if you are wrong in your actions.
Determine your options. Now that you have assessed the problem, and determined the severity of it, you need to quickly evaluate your options given the time available. Keep in mind that panicking is not one of those options. In fact, if you have methodically gone through the first three steps, you should not feel an urge to panic. By now you will have accepted the situation for what it is, determined the criticality of the situation, and made a reasonable effort to either solve the problem or come to the conclusion that there is nothing else you can do.
At this point you need to put together your plan to make the most of it. If the prop has stopped, it's time to find the best place to land. If the electricity is really about to fail, it's time to turn equipment off and conserve the battery power for extending the flaps, and if necessary, the landing gear. If you are indeed having that heart attack, it's time to pick the best airport that has an ambulance to get you to the hospital. Often, the ongoing development of the situation will lead you like a decision tree to the point where the option or options are pretty clear. If you have more than one, and it appears to be a tossup as to which is the best one, then make the best choice you can at that point in time.
Panic is often brought on because people allow themselves to get overwhelmed by information or sensory overload or by a lack of appropriate know-how, such as systems knowledge. It also can be brought on by fear of the unknown or from finding yourself in a situation in which your training and skills are clearly overmatched, such as an inadvertent encounter with IMC. In an airplane, you should utilize the resources you have, including air traffic controllers. But they can't help if you don't ask.
Emergencies can be a touchy subject, because we don't want to frighten our family, friends, passengers, or potential pilots. But the fact is that flying an airplane occurs in a 3-D environment, whereas driving a car occurs in a 2-D environment, and we simply do not have some of the luxuries in the air that we do on the ground. Therefore, it is imperative that we are prepared, and that we have a strategy for dealing with an emergency when the unexpected occurs.
Most important, we must work our way through all of this while remembering to fly the airplane. And remember, if it's an emergency to you, it's an emergency!
Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a regional airline captain.