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Single-engine procedures

When faced with worst-case scenarios, these kick in

If you’re an instrument-rated pilot trying to build time for the airlines, this is for you. If you’re not, you might want to read it anyway.


Engine out
Photography by Mike Fizer

IFR pilots know that many airports have standard instrument departure procedures, commonly called SIDs or DPs. Many of these are very simple—the chart shows a bunch of VORs or fixes. You will be vectored to one of those VORs or fixes, and then on course. But some of these procedures are complex. The complexity is usually due to the terrain and/or the surrounding airspace. Noise abatement also factors into DP design, especially for jets.

What you may not realize is that the airlines (and probably some corporate flight departments) also have their own special procedures that kick in if the aircraft has an engine failure. What’s interesting is that most of these procedures are designed for both an engine failure on takeoff and an engine failure in a go-around. I find this odd only because a go-around gives you a head start on altitudes, airspeed, and good old inertia, so I suspect that most of this is done for the sake of (relative) simplicity.

When I was flying regional jets, my company had a handful of these special procedures (when Jeppesen charts were still on paper, the special pages were pink, so we called them—wait for it—pink pages). We didn’t have many special procedures, as most of our operations were on the East Coast, so the only places they were required were in the Appalachian Mountains and in a few densely packed cities with buildings near the departure corridor. We had one for Reno, Nevada, that looked like a plate of spaghetti. The chart had lines everywhere, which were supposed to delineate the various ground tracks based on losing an engine at certain distances from a given fix. Beethoven didn’t write anything this complex, so the best briefing I heard was, “I will climb to this altitude and fly this heading. After that, give me progressive!”

Here’s why that is so important: ATC has absolutely no idea about these procedures. They know, in a general sense, that they exist. But they don’t know what they are, let alone for each airline or each fleet.

Each fleet?

Yep, one airline might fly several fleets into a given airport, and each one may have different single-engine procedures. In fact, some may not even need a special procedure. Common fleets, such as the Boeing 737, may only need the procedures for one model of the airplane, but for the sake of simplicity, the carrier may opt for a one-size-fits-all approach. But they may not. Odds are, you’ll never know, and in the heat of the moment, you won’t care. But the point is this: If you lose an engine, ATC will expect you to fly either the missed approach that is published, or the alternate instructions they usually give. At some point, someone on the flight deck needs to say, “Hey, we’re busy, and we have an alternate procedure we need to fly. Hang tight and we’ll get back to you.” At that point, ATC will leave you alone and look for their binoculars.

So, where I’m going with all of this is simple: You will spend some time in the simulator dealing with engine failure scenarios that are not only hair-raising, but also require an attention to detail. You might be asked to discuss the procedure in an interview, sight unseen. And if you’re a VFR pilot, or even an IFR light twin pilot, don’t take the public procedures for granted. You won’t have access to the airline special procedures, but if you are flying into challenging terrain, make sure that you have some idea of how you’re going to get out of a jam if you’re flying around with one engine running and one that is several hundred pounds of dead weight.

And, as a point of interest, in my current airplane, at my current carrier, Reno still has some challenges, but nothing like it did with the regional jet. Las Vegas, on the other hand, requires some fancy footwork if something goes wrong.

These procedures are designed by a combination of the airline, the manufacturer of the airplane, and other expert groups. They are designed for a worst-case scenario, such as heavy weight (maximum takeoff weight and/or maximum landing weight), and for hot temperatures. Anything under those criteria will be less critical or exciting, but don’t let that distract you.

Your life and safety depend on it.

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications


Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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