The big guys have full-motion simulators. You may wonder how accurately their programming predicts the behavior of an aircraft operating way beyond its design envelope, but at least they provide a safe way to practice running checklists and flipping switches while being tossed up, down, and sideways in the dark. Want to try a partial-panel approach to minimums flying inverted with one engine on fire? It’s probably in the library somewhere.
Out here in the small-aircraft world, finding realistic ways to train for emergencies is a lot trickier. Many of the most dangerous situations can’t be simulated at all, at least not with any fidelity. Whether in a single or a twin, pulling an engine back to idle at 200 feet above the ground on initial climb-out just isn’t a good idea (unless maybe you’ve got a few more thousand feet of runway in front of you, and caution is in order even then). Practicing it at altitude is certainly useful—the student gets a sense of how sharply the nose has to be lowered to maintain controllable airspeed until you get back down to the deck—but doesn’t come close to duplicating the shock and paralysis of having the engine quit for real. Everyone knows what’s about to happen and is ready to react. Maybe things should work that way in the real world, but often they don’t.
Likewise, most light aircraft don’t provide a realistic way to simulate an attitude instrument failure. Yes, you can cover up the suspect gauge, but that skips right past the most crucial step. A series of studies going back to the late 1990s has shown that most instrument-rated GA pilots can fly partial-panel once they’ve identified the failure and covered the inoperative instruments—but actually recognizing and diagnosing the failure can take as long as seven minutes, plenty of time for the aircraft to enter unusual attitudes. Even more surprising was that in the Air Safety Institute’s 2002 study, less than one-quarter of the pilots tested actually covered the failed instruments after they’d figured out the problem. Those who did flew better than those who didn’t.
Unfortunately, there’s usually no way to surreptitiously disable the vacuum system of a traditional instrument panel during a training flight. Glass panels offer a few more options, such as pulling AHRS circuit breakers or turning a display’s brightness control down to zero—but, once again, it’s hard to pull it off without the student noticing.
The difficulties in simulating instrument failures may come back to bite if a real failure occurs in IMC, but the training itself is usually safe enough. The same can’t be said of simulated engine failures. This is especially true in twins—the Nov. 8 issue of Flight School Business noted that almost all fatal multiengine training accidents are the consequence of single-engine work—but pulling a single’s throttle back to idle shouldn’t be taken too lightly, either. That’s particularly true when operating close to the ground at a high angle of attack, which is to say when trying to simulate that failure after takeoff. Even an experienced instructor in a highly capable airplane can see things go bad in a hurry if the initial response isn’t exactly right. In Montana in 2006, a brand-new Pilatus PC-12 was destroyed trying to practice turning back to the runway after a power loss. The 3,200-hour instructor had previously worked as a Pilatus company pilot, while the private pilot who owned the airplane had 140 hours in type. There’s no question that they were deliberately practicing a turnback: They announced this over the CTAF. Two months earlier in California, a Cirrus SR20 came up short of the runway on the first try, recovered, and then spun in while trying it again. The tower controller had approved the request for a low approach, simulated engine failure on climb-out, and landing in the opposite direction.
Even the power losses at altitude that instructors love to spring on their students aren’t risk-free. It’s a good practice for the CFI to assume the engine won’t regain power, because it just might not. Should that happen, it’s nicer to be within range of some place you can actually land, and farm fields may be less inviting than you’d think. A fairly typical example involved a California instructor who neglected to apply carb heat while simulating an engine failure in a Cessna 172; the left wing hit the ground during the resulting forced landing to a pasture. Last fall a private pilot checkride in Indiana ended with that Skyhawk upside-down in a bean field following the simulated power-off approach; the engine died when they tried to go around. A helicopter CFI checkride went into the trees after a practice autorotation turned into the real thing, possibly because the FAA inspector conducting it chopped the throttle contrary to the recommendations in the flight manual. It turned out that he’d logged just two hours in piston-engine helicopters over the preceding two years. You have to wonder whether pilot examiners face additional risk because of their lack of familiarity with the pilot flying and, at times, the make and model of aircraft used for the test.