We’ve written before—more than once—about the instructor’s obligation to simulate emergencies without creating them. While drilling procedures is good, those procedures are more likely to be remembered and used in a crisis if they were rehearsed in situations that mimic the adrenaline rush of the real deal. But the inherent risk of the scenario tends to rise with its realism, which is why designated pilot examiners giving multiengine checkrides are no longer allowed to simulate engine failures on departure below 400 feet agl.
There’s another consideration in emergency procedure training that may not have gotten the attention it deserves: the instructor’s responsibility to make sure the student understands that simulated emergencies are intrinsically riskier than ordinary flight and should not be initiated without appropriate planning.
To be sure, the extent of that risk varies greatly with the nature of the maneuver. In most training airplanes, wings-level power-off stalls are benign enough for published private pilot syllabi to call for students to practice them solo. It’s reasonably safe for commercial pilot candidates to polish the 180-degree power-off spot landing—which isn’t really a simulated emergency at all, but a performance maneuver—on their own, provided they’re predisposed to go around early.
Simulations that involve compromised airworthiness, however, such as hydraulic failures in helicopters or engine-out practice in multiengine airplanes, must be recognized as existing just one step from real emergencies. It’s incumbent upon instructors to make sure the pilots they create understand that these aren’t among the maneuvers it’s OK to do just for fun.
This thought was brought home by the preliminary report on a Piper Twin Comanche crash that took place near Haines, Alaska, on May 27, 2017. Three people were on board; the backseat passenger was the only survivor. By his account, about 20 minutes into the flight the 29-year-old private pilot “intentionally shut down the right engine” to demonstrate “how to restart the engine in flight.” However, the starter would not crank it over, and “several attempts to air-start the engine by gaining altitude and diving the airplane down to use airflow to assist in rotating the engine” were unsuccessful.
At that point the pilot decided to divert to “a remote gravel airstrip near Glacier point” with the intention of using a battery booster he was carrying in the baggage compartment to get the right engine started. The passenger’s last memory was of the pilot making a low pass over the runway to check its condition.
Witnesses saw the airplane reach the end of the runway, pitch down, and bank right, hitting the ground in a nose-low, right-wing-down attitude. They reached the scene by boat but were unable to extract the surviving passenger. As the airplane was engulfed by the rising tide, a tractor was commandeered to drag it to higher ground until authorities could reach the scene and remove the passenger from the wreckage.
It’s more than likely this young man’s MEI had taught him that the loss of one engine in a twin is a genuine emergency, potentially life-threatening, and the only appropriate response is to get the airplane on the ground in the nearest suitable location. It’s also highly plausible that the actual effect of his multiengine training—most of which, after all, consists of operating with one engine caged or simulating zero thrust in a wide assortment of flight regimes—was to instill the attitude that deliberately shutting down one powerplant was a normal exercise to be practiced at the pilot’s discretion. And there’s a good chance that he hadn’t received much practice in maneuvering close to the ground on a single engine—especially with three adults on board.
The problem is not limited to engine failures or emergency procedures. We know of several cases in which students or newly certificated private pilots decided to do spins from which they never recovered. The airplanes in question were certified for spins, though at least one—flown by a 19-year-old who’d passed his checkride three days earlier—was loaded outside the required CG envelope. Their instructors had probably said the right things in training, but as with the Alaskan pilot’s MEI, their counsel didn’t take.
There is an admittedly fine line between counterproductively frightening students by stressing the gravity of the emergency being simulated and courting complacency by treating it as just another maneuver to master for the checkride. Among pilots, though, a little fear is usually healthier than none.