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How would you handle an emergency?

Six keys to safety

I was nearing the completion of a pleasantly uneventful cross-country flight from Frederick, Maryland, to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. The weather had been beautiful, and I had a bit of a tailwind helping push me home on the two-hour flight. Everything was going according to plan. That is, until I was about two miles from the threshold. I lowered the gear handle on the Piper Arrow, but nothing occurred. No green lights. I recycled the gear, still nothing. Maybe a circuit breaker is out? No, everything was fine there as well. Oh, boy, now what do I do?

During training, we spend a fair amount of time learning what to do in case of emergency. Unwanted situations, such as power loss, fires, electrical outages, carburetor ice, and, yes, even gear failures are addressed during training. A good instructor will try to place an unsuspecting student into a scenario where he or she will have to handle these emergencies in a safe and controlled manner. Have you ever had an instructor reduce power in flight and announce, "You've just lost your engine. What are you going to do?" But what about once you receive your certificate? When was the last time you practiced a manual gear extension, or perhaps a simulated in-air engine restart? Sadly, most pilots don't practice these critical skills nearly enough.

So, how do you prepare to handle an emergency? What steps can you take to keep your skills up to snuff so that you can walk away from an emergency with a lesson learned, as opposed to a bent aircraft? Here is a list of top activities to help keep you prepared in the event of an emergency.

Fly frequently. It almost sounds counterintuitive, as you would think more air time would subject you to more opportunity for an emergency. However, pilots who are current are much more likely to be able to handle the rigors of an emergency than those who fly infrequently. The more frequently you fly, the less brainpower you need to expend on relatively simple tasks, such as maintaining heading and attitude, or communicating with ATC. It stands to reason that if less of your brain is being used on the basics, you will have more brainpower available to deal with the emergency at hand. Additionally, current pilots tend to be more "ahead of the airplane" and can therefore identify situations that can lead to an emergency earlier in its development.

Know your airplane. When was the last time you opened the pilot's operating handbook (POH) for your airplane? Have you reviewed the emergency procedures lately? What about your aircraft systems? Still remember which electrical bus your radios are on? The point is, knowledge is power. The better you know your aircraft, the more likely you are to make the correct decision at the critical time.

Also consider what happens when you transition to a different aircraft. Different aircraft have different emergency procedures. Would you handle a gradual loss of power differently in a carbureted aircraft than you would in a fuel-injected one? How about moving from a Cessna 172 to a Piper Archer? Would you remember to switch the fuel tanks if the engine cut out? And don't get lulled into the trap of thinking that "moving down" to a more simple airplane doesn't require any review. Any time you switch aircraft, whether you are moving up or down in size and complexity, requires you to read and review the emergency procedures for that particular aircraft. Just because you are proficient in a Mooney doesn't mean you can handle an emergency in a Cessna 150.

Practice. OK, you've read and reviewed the emergency procedures for the aircraft. Now go out and practice them! If you aren't comfortable doing them alone, take along an instructor. The important thing is to go out and execute them. Do an entire lesson or review session of nothing but emergencies. Or, do one or two emergencies of the instructor's choosing every flight.

Another option is to take a fellow pilot along for a flight, and have him present you with situations that require your intervention. For example, your friend "notices" the oil pressure dropping, and oil temperature rising. What will you do? Or maybe the lights on the instruments are gradually becoming dimmer, and radio reception is getting weaker. Present real-life situations that will help you, and your fellow pilot, think through how to handle the potential emergency. These exercises will not only keep you more proficient, they can be fun and build piloting confidence.

Open discussions. Ask others how they would handle an emergency. Read articles. Read another pilot's blog. Take part in hangar talk. Just discussing options with fellow pilots can help you consider options that maybe you hadn't considered before. If you know pilots who experienced an incident or emergency, ask them how they approached the situation. If they experienced the same situation again, would they do anything differently? It is more desirable to learn from others' mistakes, than to go and make them all yourself. Use the knowledge of others to make you a smarter pilot.

Understand. There is a difference between an immediate emergency and an impending emergency. When human beings notice a problem, there is a natural instinct to immediately react. Sometimes, this reaction can do more harm than good. While all emergencies require prompt action, it is most often prudent to think through the situation first. If you are picking up airframe ice, should you go up, or down? Your fuel is getting too low to make your destination because of unexpected headwinds. Should you land immediately in the field below, or plan to land at an airport a few miles behind you? It is usually advisable to spend a few moments contemplating your best course of action prior to making a rash reaction (although, if you have flames licking at your feet in flight, I would recommend getting the aircraft on the ground immediately). By acting before we think, we can often make matters worse than the original problem that caused the reaction.

Keep yourself fit. Let's not forget that you are the pilot in command, and as such, are responsible for conducting the flight safely. Don't forget before every flight to make sure that you are fit to fly. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Use the "IM SAFE" checklist before every flight (see box). While it's unlikely that you will be at your very best every single flight, know what your limits are and respect them. When possible, create personal limits that will help you realize when you're not at your best. Remember that we as pilots are the most important piece of safety equipment on board the aircraft, so make sure we are working at our best when flying.

Like most things in life, if it is important, it requires effort. Maintaining proficiency in emergency procedures is no different. However, the relatively small investment of time and energy used to maintain this proficiency can pay off huge dividends in the event of a real emergency.

So how did my situation turn out? Once I realized that landing without wheels was less than desirable, I informed the tower that I was executing a go-around and needed to be vectored out of the way while I attempted to resolve the problem. I ran through the emergency gear extension checklist, and the gear lowered and locked without further incident. I let the tower know that I had resolved the issue, and returned for an uneventful landing.

Maintenance later informed me that a wire leading from the gear handle to the hydraulic gear pump had worked itself loose, causing the gear to malfunction. This drove home an important point to me. Emergencies don't come on a schedule. They can occur at any time, usually when we least expect them. Because of this, we always need to remain vigilant, and ready to deal with whatever may come our way.

Clint Robson is an independent flight instructor living in North Carolina.

Flight fitness: The “I’m Safe” Checklist

I—Illness Do I have an illness or any symptoms of an illness?
M—Medication Have I been taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs?
S—Stress Am I under psychological pressure from my job? Am I worried about financial matters, health problems, or family discord?
A—Alcohol Have I been drinking within eight hours? Within 24 hours?
F—Fatigue Am I tired and not adequately rested?
E—Eating Am I adequately nourished?