December 2002Features

Playing The What-If Game

Are You Really Prepared For A Power Failure?

Pilots know how to fly. That's how we earned our certificates to begin with, after we demonstrated to someone that we could answer enough questions and perform prescribed maneuvers well enough to meet the FAA's standards. One of the many things that we practiced, and practiced, and then performed for the examiner was a simulated engine failure.

But that was yesterday. Are you still up to it today? Imagine that you're flying home from a vacation. You're on the takeoff roll. It's a nice Sunday afternoon. Your mind is somewhere else as the airplane builds up speed. Suddenly, your pilot friend in the right seat unexpectedly says, "Abort! Deer on the runway!"

No problem. Your reaction is predictable: throttle to idle, maintain directional control, apply the brakes, etc. Pretty cut and dried.

It should be - especially when somebody else says, "Abort." You are a certificated pilot. Automatic reaction. Do what's necessary. Ask questions later.

But what if the problem that caused you to abort wasn't that obvious? What if you'd forgotten to lean your mixture before takeoff at someplace like Colorado Springs or Albuquerque, where the summer density altitude is routinely 8,000 or 9,000 feet?

Without leaning, your rpm will be lower than "normal," and takeoff acceleration somewhat slower than at sea level. Would you notice that right away? The automatic reaction just isn't there, is it? Nobody says the word "abort" to you. It's your decision. How promptly and effectively would you handle it?

This example typifies the kind of abort that sneaks up on you - the type of real-life situation in which we have to be alert enough to do the right thing without someone else saying, "Now!"

Are you psychologically just as ready to abort on every takeoff as you are to "go?" Or as ready to go around as you are to land?

Engine Failure At 250 Feet AGL

Let's continue the takeoff scenario. Same beautiful day. Liftoff, routine. As you pass through 250 feet or so above ground level, your engine decides to quit! What do you do now?

This situation is pretty routine, too, isn't it? Maintain control, briskly lower the nose (because you're already below best-glide speed), lower the flaps (or leave them up, your choice), and, as you've told your instructor you'd do so many times, just land straight ahead.

But hold on! Would it surprise you to find out that at many airports from 250 feet agl you will probably run off of the end of the runway? And do you know what is off the end of the takeoff runway where you most often fly?

Would a slight turn to the right or to the left (after running out of prepared surface) be better than going straight ahead? At Colorado Springs, where I fly, there are days when it might take 5,000 to 6,000 feet (or more) to stop from an abort 200 to 300 feet after liftoff. How much distance do you need?

Why not find out under safe, controlled conditions? For that matter, there are a lot of potentially disastrous scenarios that you can mentally "game" ahead of time so that, if the time comes, you'll at least have devised some kind of plan as to how you'll handle it. Call it the "what if" game.

You might want to check it out at a suitable airport. Saving a few seconds of unbelieving indecision now could make all the difference later.

Turning Around

Now let's look at another takeoff situation. You've made it past 250 feet. Departure is going well. It's still a gorgeous, clear day. You're already through 500 feet when suddenly your newly inspected engine gives up. Same drill: maintain control, lower the nose (yes, you'll still be below glide speed) and - then what?

Well, here's where the "temptation zone" rears its ugly head. Will you continue straight ahead, or try to turn and make it back? Have you thought about this? If you opt to reverse course, could you make it back to the runway? How do you know?

Unless you're flying a glider, at 500 feet AGL there's probably no way unless your runway is very long - especially if there's a crosswind on takeoff and you didn't turn into it immediately when the engine failed. More on this later.

Sorting Out Danger Ahead Of Time

The point so far is that the conscientious pilot learns to sort out potentially dangerous situations like these ahead of time. If you haven't done that, chances are that the outcome of each of these scenarios could be bad.

So let's ask the question again: Are you as ready to abort a takeoff as you are to fly? Do you know how far it will take you to return to the runway after that engine failure at 200 to 300 feet - and stop on the remaining runway, or deviate slightly to stay safe and avoid obstacles?

How about the higher scenario? Although every flight manual and pilot's operating handbook I know of recommends landing straight ahead, turning only enough to avoid obstacles, how much height do you think you'll need to give yourself hope of returning to the runway?

If you don't routinely consider these kinds of questions, now might be a good time to start.

What-If Drills

"Today's the day!" The secret to a successful takeoff abort is simple: Be ready for it. Abort early and avoid the rush. Be just as ready to abort the takeoff as you are to lift off. Before you ever cross the hold-short line, get ready by saying to yourself - and aloud to those in the aircraft with you - "Today's the day!" This little trick will psychologically prepare you for anything that happens.

Engine failure at 200 to 300 feet. You might have to see this to believe it. Bear in mind that your reaction to an engine failure will not be immediate. It will probably take at least three to four seconds for you to react to an actual engine failure.

With your instructor, pick an airfield with a long runway. Don't try this at your local grass strip. Try to find one at least 8,000 to 9,000 feet long. Coordinate with the tower by phone ahead of time - or on initial radio contact, telling them you have a request to perform a training operation - and explain what you plan to do. Tell them again after you ID yourself before taking the runway. After executing a normal takeoff, simulate an orderly, controlled engine failure by closing your throttle at the selected altitude. Maintain precise control while counting to four, lower the nose (and flaps, if desired), and touch down normally on the runway. After you bring the airplane to a stop, evaluate the distance used - from the start of the takeoff roll to where you stopped. Take that into account as your plan for this emergency. It could even influence your choice of runways under certain conditions. For sure, it will reduce the anxiety as you see the end of the runway looming ahead of you.

Returning to the takeoff runway. First of all, you should think long and hard about even trying to do this if your engine fails. Thought and preparation before you enter the pattern are invaluable, however. Survey your intended landing site ahead of time if you can, to evaluate the hazards you will face when departing the airfield. Just say "no" if you are tempted to land at an airfield that has no safe place to make a forced landing if you experience difficulties after takeoff.

As bitter a pill as it might seem to go somewhere else, considering alternatives ahead of time and gaming possible scenarios will highlight potential hazards and convince you to go elsewhere.

But let's say that approach doesn't work for you. You're not convinced yet. If you think you might ever put yourself in this situation (where there's just no place to go in the event of that engine failure at 500 to 600 feet) and you want to realistically evaluate your capability to "return," consider this drill from The Proficient Pilot by Barry Schiff (pages 280-292) - but do it at a safe altitude under controlled conditions. It will open your eyes and reinforce the accepted guidance to accept a "controlled crash landing straight ahead, turning only to avoid obstacles."

Aircraft performance and pilot technique both play important parts in this drill. Here's the gist of it.

  1. Assume normal best rate of climb power, airspeed, attitude, and configuration at least 2,000 to 3,000 feet agl; give yourself plenty of room; assure that you're well clear of the surface, airspace restrictions, weather, and other airplanes; note your precise heading and altitude; then simulate engine failure by briskly retarding power (throttle) to idle.
  2. Do nothing for three to four seconds; that's how long conventional wisdom estimates it would take a "normal" pilot to react in these circumstances.
  3. After the four-second "dead" interval, smoothly lower your nose to attain best-glide speed while making a coordinated, "unloaded" (i.e. descending) 45-degree banked turn into the wind, if a crosswind exists. Remember, your airspeed will probably already have fallen below recommended best-glide speed.
  4. Continue that turn for 360 degrees and roll out on your entry heading; flare normally, and note your altimeter reading when the flare is complete.

That's how much altitude it will probably take you - on a good day - to turn around. Then add a pad. You might even add 25 percent. Regardless of how sharp I think I might be on a given day, I personally wouldn't even chance trying this under actual conditions unless I had absolutely no other option, was at least 800 to 1,000 feet agl, and was spring loaded to react immediately to an engine failure.

Even then, I probably still wouldn't try it. Conventional wisdom to land straight ahead has proven successful so many times, it's hard to recommend an attempt to turn back.

After all this is done, you still have to fly back to the runway surface. The real question is, "How did I ever allow myself to get into this situation to begin with?" So, don't.

For a thorough explanation and discussion of this chancy technique - and some persuasive diagrams to prove it - read Schiff's excellent book.

This demonstration is intended only to show why the book's recommendation to land straight ahead is sound.

So to summarize, don't try to go back. Land straight ahead. Plan ahead and don't ever put yourself in the no-win situation of having no alternative but to return to the runway after experiencing an engine failure. Understand the challenge you face if you ignore the above advice by doing this drill, "scoping it out" ahead of time, and understanding what you're faced with if you ever provide yourself no out.

Cross-country cruise altitude. Ever think about the alternatives available to you IFR over low ceilings (500 to 1,000 feet) and the engine fails? Needle, ball, airspeed, and a cool head might get you under the ceiling, but what then? Why not take a look for yourself?

Fly with a qualified safety pilot in VFR conditions, put on your hood, and simulate engine failure in cruise. Use partial panel to descend and then remove your hood when you pop out under your simulated ceiling. Surprise - there's probably no place to go. Evaluate your cross-country route planning with the results in mind.

In VFR conditions, planning a flight at 8,000 to 10,000 feet agl where possible might very well allow you to reach an airfield when the big fan quits, if you're on top of the situation. If you like to fly cross-country at 2,000 to 3,000 feet agl, or lower, over rough terrain, lots of luck.

The Jolly Green Giant. I once did quite a bit of flight instruction on the East Coast. Here is a good drill for that and other congested areas. As you fly along over trees and built-up areas, visualize where the Jolly Green Giant might place his feet if he were walking the terrain you're overflying. Then look for his "footprints" - clearings or other possible landing areas - the most useful of which might be behind you when your engine fails. Ahead-of-time situational awareness can be critical in low-altitude emergencies.

"Max power...flaps to approach..." Regardless of how well you can fly an instrument approach - or a visual approach - a stable final is important. If you don't see the ground or the approach isn't stable, go around. Too many landing accidents happen because pilots fail to make the decision to go around when it is indicated. Eighty-seven percent of the pilots involved in landing accidents which clearly warranted a go-around continued, only to fly into an accident, according to Flight Safety Foundation statistics.


Practice these drills to develop an awareness of your capabilities in "not much time to think" situations. Rehearse your response to potential hazards for which you can plan ahead as an essential component of good flying.

When seconds are precious, there is no substitute for clarity of mind and well-thought-out preparation. In an actual emergency, the few seconds you have spent practicing regular "what-if" drills might make all the difference in the world.

Wally Miller is president of an aviation training, consulting, and marketing firm in Monument, Colorado. He is a Gold Seal CFI who has been instructing for more than 30 years and flying for more than 40.