With the New Year holiday in the rear view mirror, it is time to follow through on those resolutions like losing weight, exercising more, spending more time with family, starting the Great American Novel, etc. Personally, I have made two resolutions: 1) I am not going to eat any olives (I hate olives and haven’t eaten one since I was a kid and figured out I hate olives) and 2) not to kill myself (or anyone else) with an airplane.
Browsing accident reports, we read about the accident “chain” – a series of events and decisions that had to occur in the correct order for the resulting accident to have taken place. If a different decision is made anywhere along the sequence, the chain is broken and thankfully, the result is just another interesting flight. Sometimes things happen that are completely out of our control. I am content understanding that if a meteor comes crashing through the windscreen (or any other part of the airplane) while I’m flying – well – I am going to have a bad day. But how can we best prepare for emergencies we can deal with that should not result in a catastrophic accident but often does?
Some years ago, before cameras were watching your every move, media outlets in most cities had something called the “Airborne Traffic Watch.” When I was in college at the University of Kentucky, Leslie “Tag” Veal would fly around the city of Lexington twice a day in either his Hughes 269 helicopter or his Cessna 150 and report on the traffic around New Circle Road or tell us when a train was about to cross Waller Avenue or Broadway causing a major rush hour back up. I had several opportunities to talk with “Captain Tag”, as he was known on the radio, and he related how he would practice a different emergency scenario each day just in case he had an equipment malfunction. Captain Tag flew west in 1987 but I still follow his advice all these years later.
The Year Ahead
Captain Tag flew every day and he had a scenario for each day of the week. Few of us fly daily, but it is pretty easy to develop a rotating list and every day we do fly, practice the next maneuver on the list. The following is my list, comment if you have a different one.
Believe it or not, this seemingly simple maneuver continues to kill people. It requires us to change everything. Power has to be added, pitch is changed from nose down to nose up, elevator trim adjusted, rudder pressures (and trim if available) changed, flaps reconfigured and gear (if appropriate) retracted. All of this reconfiguration without hitting the ground, deer, building, utility wire or whatever is causing the need for the go-around. With regular practice it becomes second nature to add power with your right hand as you increase rudder pressure with your right foot. The left hand adjusts the pitch for the best climb airspeed and the right hand moves from the throttle to select takeoff flaps as that speed is reached. Confirm positive climb rate, retract the gear and finish by adjusting the trim. Practice makes all that a lot smoother, easier and seamless.
Electric motors power the flaps on many of today’s aircraft. If the motor fails, can you still land even if your checklist calls for a measure of flaps? The answer is obviously yes so this is a skill you should practice. Some high performance aircraft POHs admonish you to refrain from actually landing in this configuration, but there is value in experiencing the different deck angle that results from a no flap approach before you actually have to do it – at night – in reduced visibility – for real.
The Sound of Silence
Generally a modern aircraft engine will show signs of illness before it dies. Roughness, temperature changes and fluids on the windscreen are all signals it is time to land. Most of us will fly for years and thousands of hours without an engine failure but knowing you can “dead stick” it in is a tremendous confidence builder. Airplane engines don’t like long power-off glides so don’t pull the power at 10,000 feet and spend the next 10 minutes gliding to 2,000 feet. Understand the skill of a no-power landing comes in the last 1,000 feet of altitude so start the maneuver near (like over top) a rural airport where you are unlikely to have to share the traffic pattern. Pull the throttle to idle and maneuver to downwind where you can adjust the aircraft’s speed and the length of the traffic pattern legs so as to arrive over the numbers in landing configuration and airspeed at about a foot of altitude. Remember pulling the prop adjustment to low RPM (for constant speed propellers) will extend your glide if needed and DO NOT forget to extend the landing gear before landing. And speaking of landing gear…
Three in the Green
When flying a retractable gear airplane we should practice manually extending the gear. Again, failures of these systems are rare but if they were to occur we can benefit from the experience. Just knowing how many hand pumps or crank turns are required brings peace of mind when a manual extension is required – in IMC – with a load of curious passengers.
Practice crosswind landings whenever the opportunity exists. At airports with multiple runways choose the one with the most crosswind if traffic permits. If it has been a while, start with a crosswind component equal to ½ of that listed as the maximum demonstrated crosswind in the POH and work up from there when the occasion presents itself. When your destination is a single runway with a stiff windsock at 90 degrees to the centerline, you’ll be glad you did.
14 CFR 61.57 requires an instrument pilot to have logged six instrument approaches, holding, and interception and tracking of navigational signals. I am curious as to how you can conduct an approach or hold without intercepting and tracking a navigational signal but I am not going to question the government. They are the guys with the badge so usually the best you can do in an argument with them is second place. Flying “under the hood” requires a safety pilot but even if there are none available, there is nothing preventing you from practicing setting up your avionics and flying the approach VFR. These “fake” approaches will keep you up to speed on your cockpit’s automation next time it is required for the real thing. Just make frequent radio calls to alert other aircraft to your position using direction and distance from the airport. Using waypoints on the approach plates means nothing to the VFR only pilot on downwind, but calling a 5 mile final will alert them as to where to look. And speaking of automation…
George is on Vacation
I don’t hear it much anymore, but pilots used to call the autopilot George as in “Let’s let George fly awhile.” Forty years ago autopilots in piston singles were rare, now they are common and commonly used on every leg of every flight. During an interview with one of the pilots of Asiana Flight 214, he stated he felt very concerned hand flying the visual approach to runway 28L at San Francisco’s International Airport. His dependence on the aircraft’s flight systems to keep the plane upright and on target led to tragedy when all those systems were not available. We can ward off over-reliance by flying one leg of our next trip without the autopilot. Heck, if it is a VFR day, we could turn off the GPS, open a sectional chart and utilize our pilotage skills. Alternatively, if we are bold enough, use the winds aloft, compass and clock to dead reckon our way to the destination. Good practice for a day when the cockpit’s electrons go on strike.
Don’t Turn Back, but don’t be Stubborn Either
“If the engine quits on climb out establish best glide and land straight ahead.” This is a frequent quote from pre-takeoff briefings. Fact is the best spot to land might not be straight ahead but off to one side or the other…or maybe it is that runway we just left behind. It is possible to turn – or turn around – with sufficient altitude. How much that altitude is depends on you and your airplane. The only way to know how much altitude is adequate is to practice the maneuver at a safe altitude under a variety of conditions. Remember, getting to the runway center line requires at least a 210 degree turn, absent a significant crosswind, followed by a 30 degree turn in the opposite direction to align the airplane properly for landing. Practice for this by climbing to a safe altitude (3000 ft AGL) at Vy and retard the throttle. Count to five (research shows it takes this long for it to “sink in” the engine has indeed quit) and begin a turn in one direction for 210 degrees. Then roll into a turn in the opposite direction 30 degrees and note how much altitude is lost. That is the minimum for you to consider a turn back. But also calculate how long it takes to turn 90 degrees. This provides a new minimum for you to make a landing area anywhere in your field of sight.
Flying’s Great Bargain
I think of a bargain as something that costs less than its value and as pilots we often lament the cost of everything associated with our passion. Developing a list of emergency skills, then practicing just one on each day we fly will cost next to nothing (so it’s cheap) and may pay great dividends (eliciting skill instead of panic) when things go wrong. So develop your list, save it as a document on your iPad and get yourself ready to be ready should the need arise.