The federal aviation regulations aren’t as specific as you might expect in defining what constitutes an emergency. No definition is given in Section 1.1, which does provide meanings for terms as basic as “crewmember,” and the Pilot/Controller Glossary is only a little more helpful. It defines “emergency” as “A distress or an urgency condition,” and “urgency” is equated to “a potential distress condition,” so the meaning of “distress” is what drives the conversation. That definition is sobering: “…threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and…requiring immediate assistance”—in other words, someone’s about to get hurt. It’s not a situation you want your students, instructors, or aircraft ever getting into.
At the same time, learning to recognize and manage emergencies is an essential part of flight training (as is learning to recognize and manage urgent situations before they cause actual distress). Operators of heavier aircraft, of course, handle most of this in full-motion simulators, where even partial-panel recoveries from unusual attitudes with an engine on fire create more excitement than actual danger. Unfortunately, those who teach in piston singles, light twins, or small helicopters rarely have that option, leaving them with an uncomfortable choice. The greater the margin of safety maintained during emergency drills, the less realistic—and therefore less useful—that practice tends to be. The more closely training mimics a true emergency, on the other hand, the greater the risk that it could actually turn into one.
Naturally, the emergency that gets the most attention is an engine failure in flight. Not only is that the mechanical problem that causes the largest share of accidents, but it’s much easier to simulate than a flight-control failure (other than runaway trim in an airplane or hydraulic failure in a helicopter). We practice partial-panel flying anyway, but there’s no realistic way to duplicate an attitude instrument failure in most light aircraft. While a sneaky instructor could distract a student long enough to pull the alternator circuit breaker, training for electrical failures is usually limited to discussions of load-shedding, what equipment’s essential on a given flight, and maybe a demonstration of what works and what won’t after the master switch has been turned off.
Checkouts in retractable-gear airplanes usually involve a run at an emergency gear extension, but typically at a comfortable altitude. Even under the instructor’s watchful eye there’s some risk that wrangling with unfamiliar hardware can detract from attention to airspeed and attitude. (An attempted emergency gear extension may have helped lead to the fatal stall of a Piper Apache in Oregon.) But simulated engine-outs make up the lion’s share of emergency practice in single-engine airplanes, twins, and helicopters alike—and they cause the vast majority of the associated accidents.
Managing this drill is tricky enough keeping all your options open. The student must get a real sense of how an engine failure would progress and what the aircraft is and isn’t capable of afterwards. The instructor must guarantee that they’re always in position to make a safe landing if the engine doesn’t come back when called.
The details depend on what you’re flying. Helicopter students need to learn to manage the collective to maintain rotor speed no matter what. The prospect of a late recovery (or an actual loss of power after the throttle is closed) should be enough to discourage instructors from pulling the “engine failure” gag over forests, open water, or rocky hillsides. Single-engine airplanes lose airspeed from the moment the power is pulled off until the nose is pushed down far enough to regain it. With reasonable altitude, finding a suitable field and getting the airplane into it becomes a matter of quick thinking and energy management. Even there, the CFI must be prepared to break off a less-than-successful effort before a safe dead-stick landing becomes impossible. At low airspeed and high angle of attack—such as just after takeoff—any delay lowering the nose risks stalling at an unrecoverable altitude. Add in the higher loadings imposed by steep banks, and there’s little wonder so many attempts to practice the “impossible turn” at ground level have proved fatal.
It may stand to reason that the last-ditch remedy for an emergency arising from a simulated loss of power would be to restore power again. It follows that anything that might jeopardize the chance of bringing that engine back to life should be avoided. Unfortunately, there are CFIs who haven’t gotten that message. Sometimes they’ll do it with the mixture control; others, like the fellow teaching in a Cessna 152 some years ago, “simulate” an engine failure by turning off the fuel selector. In that case, the “instructor's attempts to restore engine power failed, and he elected to ditch the airplane in a lake.” The Cessna sank in 60 feet of water and never was recovered—all because the instructor not only let the engine stop, but did it with no good place to put the airplane down if it chose not to start again. At least he and his student escaped before the airplane sank.
By the way, that school had a standardization manual that called for practicing engine failures by pulling the throttle to idle, adding that “the engine should be kept warm and clear" during the maneuver. Does your school impose similar requirements? Do your instructors pay attention to them?