This last year has been tough.

Like some of you, I have throttled way back on my flying (OK, ripped it to idle actually) until the COVID-induced fog lifts. Looks like I’ll be another non-current pilot, anxious to re-introduce myself to the cockpit, safely and smartly, when the personal distractions subside a bit.

However, like a lot of you, I’ve also been taking advantage of the absolute deluge of Zoom-based hangar fly chats, virtual pilot get-togethers, IMC/VMC Club meetings, YouTube videos, online courses, classes, seminars, webinars… it is like being locked in a candy store full of free flying stuff!

There is an abundance of sources you can tune into, and learn all about the “Top 10 Things You Must Know” about the “Top Five Things That Every Pilot Must Remember” about the “Three Absolutely Essential Things You Must Master…” to be able to handle the “Number One Most Critical Thing Every Great Pilot Must Be Able to Do.”

…fly the plane?

Anyway, I want to address one of my favorite topics: in-flight emergencies. (I’m going to switch to using “EP” for brevity). Although EPs are one of the most common subjects discussed during these electronic gatherings, they deserve a much deeper dive than just the basic “Establish Best Glide Speed and Pick a Suitable Landing Spot” stuff.

I am always interested in polling groups to see who has had an actual, real-world, heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping, seat cushion-sucking EP; where, despite your supreme confidence and phenomenal piloting skills, the much-preferred Happy Ending wasn’t guaranteed until you stepped onto solid ground.

I am surprised, but happy, with the relatively low number of pilots that have had one: that’s a good thing. Experiencing a significant EP is not a square you must fill to be considered a “complete” pilot. Unless you fly taildraggers. In which case you are expected to join the “Those That Have and Those That Will” Ground Loop Club.

My emergencies

For some reason, I have had several major EPs in both my civilian and military flying activities. (Maybe that’s why no one wants to fly with me?) Fortunately, they have all ended well, so far.

A few of the more memorable ones, which I have no problem recalling in vivid detail, include:

The engine quit – now what?

PA-28-140: Engine failure on takeoff, over water, with two students on board. I set up to ditch; then decided I could get back to the airport; we made it over the airport fence, but not quite to the runway.

PA-25-150: Engine failure while towing a glider, in the mountains. Luckily, it happened high enough that the glider and I could both get back to the grass airstrip. I had to slip to a landing with my head sticking out the left side window/door; the windshield was covered with oil.

I say “engine failure;” in both cases, an O-320 cylinder cracked around its base, and the engine kept thrashing itself at a low RPM until I pulled the throttle to idle; then it froze. I should maybe stay away from O-320s.

Continued VFR Flight into IMC #1: On my long commercial cross-country, not instrument rated yet. Over northern Florida, I was forced lower until I was committed to landing on a road. After pulling up to miss trees, power lines, and a traffic signal, I decided instead to climb up through the soup and declare an EP; I got vectored to the nearest airport (TLH), and then down through solid IMC to a 2-mile final (vis was right at 2 miles). Worked like magic. After landing, the only thing the controller said was, “Have a nice day.”

Continued VFR Flight into IMC #2: Now a CFI; flew cross country from Anchorage to Valdez in a Cessna 182. I took the inland route via Thompson Pass. Blasted off out of Merrill Field and was immediately scud running. It was just plain stupid in so many ways; never mind the details.

F-15A: Left engine (P&W F100) exploded/disintegrated/left the airplane, literally, during a high-G, basic fighter maneuver training sortie. Rained parts all over the New Mexico landscape. On landing, found the left engine bay was “vacant.” Shrapnel went through the bulkhead and damaged the right engine as well. It failed during shutdown.

F-15C: Rudder actuator failure, resulting in a rudder “hard over.” One rudder locked in a fully displaced “inboard” position; the other rudder tried to compensate to maintain directional control. Over East China Sea, 100 miles northwest of Okinawa. First (and still only) time that has ever happened in an F-15.

B-1B: Intense fumes in the cockpit; over the Pacific Ocean at night. Could not determine the source; turned out to be a disintegrating air conditioning unit.

I have also had a fair number of regular, run-of-the-mill EPs: various failed or degraded hydraulic/electric systems, nav and/or comm radio malfunctions, minor engine malfunctions (compressor stalls/stags, afterburner blowouts, bleed air overheats), flaps that wouldn’t do as commanded, hot brakes, failed brakes, high oil temps + low oil pressures, overheating avionics (ironically, due to icing conditions).

I have also had unlocked doors/canopy in-flight, bird strikes, bat strikes, lightning strikes, plugged up toilets, and a couple significant physiological episodes. Oh yeah, flew into a thunderstorm at night, in formation.

All these were relatively easy to handle and, in general, not that exciting (except for the thunderstorm thing…), usually because there were systems redundancies, or other ways to mitigate any loss of capability.

Military pilots relentlessly train for emergencies—and it pays off.

The other factor that helped immensely is the US Air Force’s absolute obsession with safety, emergency procedures, and systems knowledge. We spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy focused on handling emergencies under peacetime and combat conditions. From the infamous daily “Stand Up” in undergraduate pilot training, where if you goofed up in handling an EP, you were grounded; to hundreds of hours in cockpit procedure trainers and full flight simulators; to briefing an EP before every training flight and combat mission. We also had monthly (and sometimes weekly) written tests where we had to recall the BOLD FACE steps for every applicable emergency procedure… verbatim… including punctuation.

Handling EPs

There are a billion things that might constitute an EP in your airplane. For all relatively modern airplanes, the manufacturers have addressed most major known malfunctions in the Emergency Procedures section of your plane’s AFM/POH. On the other hand, if you fly a 70-year-old tube and fabric antique, you’re probably on your own.

I think we can all agree that regardless of what you fly, there are some universally bad EPs. They’re the obvious ones that announce themselves with bright RED warning lights, maybe a big “X” across a blacked-out MFD/PFD screen, various tones and buzzers, possibly even a soothing, but monotone female voice chanting “Warning, Warning…” into your headset. These may also be accompanied by visceral stuff like violent shaking, loud noises, blinding smoke, choking fumes, cabin pressure fluctuations… maybe a sudden departure from controlled flight.

Ones that quickly come to mind: engine failures, primary flight control malfunctions, anything on fire, certain untimely catastrophic system failures (like electrical failures, at night, single pilot, in IMC), running out of gas. Combinations of all the above. Basically, all the stuff the FAA wants you to report.

How you handle these are relatively “black and white” (my words) in terms of the steps you need to take to, as the USAF taught me

  1. Maintain aircraft control
  2. Analyze the situation and take the proper action
  3. Land as soon as conditions permit

Seems simple enough. If you can fly the plane, accomplish all the applicable checklist(s), think clearly and objectively, and not panic, you have a rather good chance of getting down safely. Then if it is still not looking good, you can always eject.

(OK: Yes, I realize most of us can’t eject.)

Not all emergencies announce themselves with smoke and flames.

Then there are the “gray” ones. They can be insidious; they may not announce themselves with warning lights, strange sounds, or seat-of-the-pants sensations. Sometimes it is something that’s not quite right with the plane, but not addressed specifically in the Emergency Procedures section. Or it’s a situation that is not addressed at all, and the pilot is basing his/her reaction on their own knowledge, experience, and sometimes… luck.

The classic “my engine gauges are still in the green, but not where they usually are” scenario, often leads to a “let’s just press on and continue to monitor” decision. Things can deteriorate over time and distance, and if you don’t recognize the signs that your plane is getting sick, you can fly yourself out of options.

Ever had a bird strike? You heard and/or felt a “thump,” in your Cherokee, but it didn’t come through the windshield, so you pressed on. No big deal, right, I mean, how much damage could it do? Usually there is no detailed checklist for that, other than to stop what you’re doing, slow down, assess the damage and controllability, and land as soon as practical.

Land as Soon as Practical vs. Land as Soon as Possible… a great topic for another discussion.

Turns out it wedged itself into the gap between your Piper’s stabilator and fuselage; you don’t even notice it during your descent on the approach, but it will take a Herculean effort to salvage the flare. Maybe it punctured your nose wheel tire? Maybe it ricocheted off your main gear wheel pant and punctured your wing tank? Probably worth landing sooner than later to investigate, while you still have enough gas for some options.

I had an itty-bitty, 1 oz. “Big Brown” bat hit the extended flap on my F-15, at night, on short final. It put a hole through it as if it were a cannon shell.

Working as a team

In my experience, in all these situations, there is always room for a helping hand, whether it is other crewmen in the cockpit, a wingman in another plane, or an air traffic controller sitting in a facility on the ground. How you use them is the key to success; but you must get them involved first.

Ever coordinate an airborne “battle damage check” with another airplane? How about a slow speed tower fly by so they can look you over?

Which leads to another topic I would like to touch on: the decision to “Declare or Not Declare” an emergency with Air Traffic Control (ATC). This is a great conversation starter and usually leads to some heated exchanges.

I am not going to list all the possible advantages of declaring an EP with ATC. I really cannot think of any disadvantages. Some facilities may be able to help more than others. Whether they can help you at all depends on the dynamics affecting your flight. One thing they absolutely cannot do is fly your plane for you.

They are there to help—use them.

I am surprised at how reluctant some pilots are to declare an EP with ATC, as if some stigma is attached to saying the “E” word, that follows you around for the rest of your flying life. What I find more intriguing is some folks who are the most hesitant to declare one have never had an actual “real world” emergency. Yet.

My question: what informed your decision on when to declare an emergency with ATC, or more importantly, to NOT declare one? Was it just parroting a carry-over philosophy from your past CFI(s)? (Remember the Laws of Learning.) Is it based on your own bad experience with ATC, or maybe a story about another pilot’s situation? Maybe it was getting harassed at a hangar fly for being a wimp?

One of my favorite answers: “Well it depends… on how bad the EP is.” Obviously, my next question is, “Well, how bad does it have to be before they ‘fess up and declare?”

Their decision to declare an emergency is an easy one when it is one of the bad EPs; conversely, it’s the “gray” kind of EP that leads pilots to struggle with the “Do I or Don’t I” decision; and unfortunately, it’s often the “don’t declare” option that wins out.

So instead of unequivocally saying the E-word, they will describe their circumstances, with no apparent sense of urgency, to a controller who may or may not be a pilot, who does not understand how dire their circumstances really are. Then they expect that controller to help them come up with a Plan B.

One of my favorite winter flying EP scenarios is icing.

I recently heard a very experienced CFI tell a group of mixed-experience pilots, that he would not declare an emergency in a situation where his Part 23, light single-engine, non-FIKI airplane started to ice up, just to get priority for an instrument landing, even though approach control told him to “expect vectors through final for spacing” while he was still several miles and minutes away from getting on the ground.

His rationale: “Seems a little extreme to declare an emergency just for that;” so, he elected to trundle along unnecessarily, with possibly more ambushes waiting between him and the runway. His single caveat: “I can always negotiate with the controller when I get closer.”

My response: NUTS. Why not declare the emergency, so the controller can give you priority, expedite your arrival, limit any additional low altitude maneuvering, eliminate additional ATC amendments or delays, help prevent other distractions, minimize your exposure to the “elements,” and even give the tower a heads-up that your directional control might be a bit “iffy” on landing. They might even “roll the trucks” for you as a precaution. That’s OK; the CFR troops don’t mind the exercise.

So now a room, maybe half full of inexperienced pilots, thinks declaring an emergency is “a little extreme” in cases like this, but they don’t have the subjective judgment yet to know if/when that might be true.

Happy to argue! entertain other points of view?

In summary

  • Having time to deal with an EP is a luxury. I have seen EPs that were handled well and ended well, ones that were handled poorly and ended badly, and ones that were handled badly and ended tragically.
  • The amount of time spent addressing the EP, while airborne, was usually a major factor in the outcome. The accuracy in identifying, handling, mitigating, and “accommodating” the impacts of the EP was crucial. The availability of additional help, and how it was used or not, was also a player.
  • When is an EP not an EP? What does it cost to declare one with ATC? What might it cost if you don’t?
  • I am fairly sure the FAA would rather you declare one then end up not needing any help, than not declare one and end up in a smoking hole because they couldn’t help you. Or they did not understand how much help you really needed.
  • Finally, FAR Part 91.3 reminds us that: (a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft, and (b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
  • Never hesitate to exercise that authority.
  • Please remember, you can always laugh about it when you’re safely back on Earth, surrounded by family and friends, and it wasn’t as bad as you thought. The FAA won’t even send you a bill… probably.