by Nate "Buster" Jaros
Probably the biggest and most trained upon emergency in all of aviation is the engine loss and engine out situation. Us military guys train to it exhaustively, and I know the airlines guys do as well. We here in GA train to it of course too…right? Don’t you train for this regularly? You know your engine failure procedures!
Admit it, if you’re new to aviation, or like a lot of GA pilots, you probably don’t have a solid engine loss procedure memorized. What’s the first step in your aircraft’s engine failure procedure? The last? Be honest. If you do have them memorized (and practiced) good on you. Regardless, I want to address items that will assist you in simplifying and dealing with any engine failure or engine problem…in any GA bird.
I don’t aim to be on my soapbox, especially if you’ve read my book Engine Out Survival Tactics. You know from reading that book that I take engine loss training to a new level, and am an advocate for continual training and keeping ‘current’ on your individual procedures. More specifically you know that I promote glide and sight picture training that needs to be imbedded in your skull for the day when your engine quits. All that notwithstanding, below are three key tips for helping you recall and more importantly, understand and internalize typical GA engine failure procedures, and will help you survive.
Engine Failure Procedures and Your POH
Let’s break it down into three key items that simplify this process. But before we dig into this, I want to emphasize one thing. Use your POH! I can’t emphasize that enough. Have a look at what it recommends and do it’s steps first and foremost. Memorize the critical items to every emergency checklist, just like the big guys and military pilots do. After accomplishing that, think about these three crucial aspects.
The Combustion Triangle
When we talk about procedures, what are the things in the cockpit that you should do, or think of when faced with a rough running, underperforming, or failed engine? “It depends Buster” you might say, and that’s true. It depends on your aircraft.
But does it?
Ever heard of the Combustion Triangle? Probably. It’s of course, the three things needed to make an internal combustion engine run (amongst burning other things too). It’s worth stating here that those three items are Fuel, Oxygen and Heat. Made even simpler for us pilots, you can think of these as Fuel, Air, and Spark.
When you really break down your aircraft’s specific procedures in the POH for an engine problem, take note. I bet you that you are troubleshooting the Combustion Triangle.
The V35 Beech Bonanza POH (mid 1960s) recommends the following steps for an engine loss:
1. Fuel Selector - Select other tank
2. Aux fuel pump - On
3. Mixture - Full rich, then lean
4. Magnetos - Check left, right, both
5. Alternate Air T-handle - Pull and release
The 2013 Cirrus SR-22 manual recommends the following:
1. Best Glide Speed - Establish
2. Mixture - As Required
3. Fuel Selector - Switch Tanks
4. Fuel Pump - Boost
5. Alternate Induction Air - On
6. Air Conditioner - Off
7. Ignition Switch - Check, Both
Notice any parallels? Yep, each critical procedure calls for troubleshooting the Combustion Triangle (Fuel, Air, and Spark) with the most critical and most common controllable failure in our aircraft being first. That being fuel and fuel delivery.
I wont bore you with the stats here (all are in my book) but it’s worthy of note that the 2010 Nall report stated that in that year 8% of all fatal accidents were the result of fuel mismanagement by the pilot/crew. Some sources place general fuel delivery (contamination, clogged lines, etc) as a cause for aircraft accidents at closer to 40% in aviation as a whole.
An August 2017 NTSB Safety Alert stated that “From 2011 to 2015, an average of more than 50 accidents per year occurred due to fuel management issues.” Either way, probably the most significant thing you can control in the cockpit with a misbehaving engine is the fuel and fuel delivery, and it’s likely to be part of the problem your engine faces.
Knowing that fuel delivery is a very high probability of being “the culprit” you face, at least statistically, note where these two above manufactures place their critical first steps in the procedure. Fuel is first! After that, both procedures troubleshoot the air entering the engine and the ignition system. If you really want to break down the above manufacture’s procedures you can think of them as the following:
I like to think of these engine failure steps as a flow in my cockpit. We do “flows” in military jets. If you’re not familiar with it, a flow is a sequence of buttons, switches, and actions really that you do in a certain order, every time. These flows match the checklist. You memorize the actions and remembering the flow facilitates that. Just like a pianist might remember a sequence of key strokes without referring to a music sheet. During an actual emergency, you accomplish your flow for that event, then go back and reference the checklist when time allows and confirm all the steps were done.
Go ahead, give it a try. Just get your gear sit in the seat, in the chocks, engine off and touch all the items, in order with your hands. Do this five or more times for your engine out procedures (amongst others) and you’ll have the beginnings of a cockpit flow. Do the steps your POH recommends. After that, when it comes to engine emergencies recall that combustion triangle and think:
With this you should be on your way to successfully giving your engine it’s best chance for a re-light. And as I’ve said before, always follow your POH first, but take note of what it has you troubleshooting, I bet it’s the fuel, air, and spark steps.
~ Fly Safe
Intentional engine failure, glide to landing. Nicely done, but too risky for me
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
As you probably know, I often discuss airborne, and in-flight emergencies, and emergency procedures (EPs) centered around engine failures and so forth while traveling around the skies. If you’ve read my book Engine Out Survival Tactics, you know it’s an extremely thorough look at this specific EP, and provides pilots with some concepts and training regimens to help solve that difficult puzzle. What I’d like to do now is to have a look at another specific emergency, one that is not discussed too often in GA, but trained and discussed heavily in the military and professional flight operations. We are going to look at three key considerations during an aircraft emergency on the runway.
The following are three important considerations to think about every time you take the runway for takeoff, or land…with or without an emergency. The following works for takeoffs, aborts, normal landings, and emergency landings too.
Bottom line: if you’re on a runway here are three things that you need to know. Here we go!
1. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
Fly the plane first, and know if you should go or stop (more on that next). Whatever you are doing, get the thing under control, get it on centerline and get it stopped safely. With a fire or some other engine problem, or even controllability issues like a blown tire or such, your only job is to aviate. Don’t worry about what happens next, or what’s going on on the radio, or that Air Force One in on six mile final behind you…fly the airplane and get it safely stopped.
Keep it on the runway, and fly it till the last part stops moving. Use all available controls - brakes, steering, crosswind controls. That is job number one! If you’re going to depart the prepared surface, continue to do your best at controlling the aircraft, and consider shutting down the engine.
During a takeoff, be ready for anything. Again, job one here is to aviate…nothing else. When I’m traveling down the runway on takeoff, I’m mentally prepared for an abort every time. Sometimes I even say to myself “I’m aborting, I’m aborting, I’m aborting” until I pass my go/no-go point. More on that next. Be spring loaded to abort your takeoff with anything that doesn’t look right, sound right, or smell right. “Abort early, abort often” we sometimes say in the military training circles.
Remember, going Ferrari speeds on the ground with three little wheels, brakes, and tires near the departure end of the runway is risky stuff. Always aviate, navigate, then communicate…in that order, and based upon where you are at in this phase of flight - the aviate step is really the only thing you should be doing.
2. Know your TOLD
We need to take a deep look into what we in the military call TOLD (Takeoff and Landing Data). That might be the subject of an entire other article, or even a book, but you owe it to yourself to thoroughly understand TOLD for your aircraft and specifically how to make the Go/No-Go decision.
In single engine aircraft in the USAF we have something called Refusal Speed (RS). Refusal Speed is the maximum speed that the aircraft can attain on takeoff, then call for an abort (refuse the takeoff), and stop in the remaining runway. We calculate and brief a RS on every takeoff. Refusal speed is essentially a go/no-go decision maker number. If I'm below this speed and I have a problem, I can abort safely. If I am beyond, or faster than this speed, I don’t have the option for an abort anymore…I must continue to takeoff as an abort now would put me off the departure end of the runway surface. Make sense?
In some cases, on some runways, RS can be well past takeoff speed. Imagine a Cessna 152 taking off from Edwards runway 04R/22L which is 15,000 feet long. The little Cessna could takeoff, fly for nearly one minute and then still land safely in the remaining runway distance. For him, on that runway, his theoretical refusal speed might be well over 300 KIAS (obviously not reachable for the Cessna, but you get the point).
We don’t compute refusal speeds in GA. In fact because our takeoff rolls are so short relatively, it’s almost moot. But a way to calculate a Go/No-Go decision is needed, and our performance charts don’t often provide this important number. We’re all a bit like the little Cessna in that regard. Where it becomes critical is on shorter runways or when it’s hot, or the aircraft is heavy.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a refusal speed for your GA steed? The top speed you can attain and still stop in the remaining runway. In GA, we’re somewhat blind to this important and most useful feature found in bigger single engine aircraft. (Keep reading, I'll show you a tactic on how to develop this for your bird).
One additional (and critical part) of this RS discussion is first knowing that this (and any) arbitrary number in the performance charts is correct to begin with. What I mean is, how does a pilot even know if his aircraft is accelerating down the runway “with book speed?” How do you know that you are actually performing like the charts predict you are? For example, your charts say you should have a 900 foot takeoff roll today, at this wind, weight, and temperature. But how do you know your aircraft is performing “as advertised?”
Knowing this “engine performance” factor is critical in your TOLD. We call it Acceleration Check speed, or simply “the accel check.” Think about it like this. You’re rolling down the runway on takeoff, things seem great, but unbeknownst to you, your engine is only producing say, 50% thrust or horsepower. You might eventually reach that refusal speed, and liftoff speed, but it will take you a mile or more to reach that velocity. By then, you could be off the departure end of the runway, still not airborne, and yet below RS.
You, the pilot, need some way to validate that your engine is producing “book power” or all that refusal speed nonsense goes out the window. If you think about it, ALL your TOLD numbers, climb charts, cruise figures, etc are predicated on the fact that your engine is “normal.”
We use an Accel Check Speed in the Viper, and in single engine aircraft in the USAF. Here’s how it works. The Viper charts say that 1,000 feet past brake release we should be going 100 KIAS (on this given day, with this particular weight, and in this scenario). If I pass the “eight board” (9,000 foot runway) and I see 100 KIAS, I’m good. My TOLD is valid and my RS is valid and all my other assumptions for this takeoff are valid. My engine is “normal.” Cool.
But If I’m passing the eight board and I only see 90 (or less) KIAS…something is wrong. At that point I abort the takeoff. An abort at relatively lower speeds is far better than later or with less runway remaining. Does that make sense? Accel check speed is a check speed, at a certain check distance. And it’s sole purpose it to validate engine performance, thus validating the rest of your performance charts.
You might be able to determine what an appropriate Accel Check speed is for your aircraft, and use it on every takeoff. If you are taking off from a high DA airport and don’t lean your NA bird correctly, you can catch an underperforming engine early. Or if you fear those tall trees at the departure end with a full load of fuel and folks, knowing a baseline for adequate (and correct) performance for your bird is paramount. A way to validate your engine performance early in the takeoff run, would be extremely smart.
We commonly don’t have refusal speeds and acceleration check speeds in GA aircraft (as they are not typically provided by the manufacturer via actual testing). The March 2103 Cirrus SR-22 Information Manual, Performance Data section even states “Computed performance data in this section are based upon data derived from actual flight testing with the airplane and engine in good condition and using average pilot techniques.” They are basically saying the same thing…the engine and airplane are normal, and all your performance data is based on that.
One simple TOLD technique for us in GA that mimics an Accel Check speed, and a Refusal Speed is to ensure you reach 70% of your takeoff speed by the time you are halfway down the runway. This is sometimes called the 50/70 rule. And it works!
I actually have a mark I made with a piece of tape on my airspeed indicator at my typical 70% speed, and I always figure out what the runway markings or distance remaining markers should say at halfway down the field, and ensure I hit my 70% speed by that point. It’s a check speed, at a certain check distance. And because we don’t have a reliable method to figure an Accel Check speed in our aircraft, this method is perfect, applies on all runways, and should occur quite early in your takeoff roll.
Checking your performance on the takeoff is critical to identifying an engine emergency early, and it’s easy to do. Just ensure you do it every time, like we do in the F-16, T-38, and like the majors do as well.
I know this was a long discussion, but it’s vitally important. Know your TOLD.
3. To Taxi or Not To Taxi…That is the Question
You’ve successfully landed with a problem, or emergency and stopped on the runway. Or maybe you aborted a takeoff and got it safely stopped on the runway. Great job! Now what? Do we taxi back to the hangar?
In the USAF we have a common phrase that we use when discussing various EPs and EP scenarios. We use this phrase to “sanity check” the outcome of our thoughts or proposed plan. The phrase is “what would the line on the accident review board results read, if I continue to do this?” Here’s how it works.
Picture a perfect landing with a brake failure, you somehow get the thing stopped safely and all is good. Now the decision to continue to taxi the aircraft clear of the runway, with a brake failure, looms. What do you do?
Ask your self what the accident board would say, or what their writeup would read and you’ll gain some clarity.
“Mr. Buster, the mishap pilot (PIC), successfully landed his Bonanza with a brake failure. Following the successful landing, while attempting to taxi with no brakes, he lost control of the mishap aircraft and entered a ditch on the side of the runway, causing a prop strike, engine damage, undercarriage damage…. etc.”
Get it? You can also apply this sanity check phrase to other aspects of your daily flying. When you find yourself asking “Do I really have to sump the tanks? Should I accept an intersection departure when it’s hot and the airplane is heavy? Should I fly under that bridge?”
Ask your self what the accident board’s writeup might look like following your question, and you’ll immediately know the answer.
As far at taxiing clear after landing or aborting with an emergency, that is a typical question that I see many many USAF students struggle with in T-38s and in the F-16. If you have an engine failure, well that decision is made for you already…you’re not going anywhere. But what about a rough running engine, or low oil pressure, or some other engine anomaly? I’m not saying you shouldn’t taxi clear, but the sooner you get the engine shut down, the less damage that you might inflict on the suffering motor. You also don’t know what is going on up there in the cowl, maybe there is a fire, or soon to be a fire. Shutting things down as early as practical during any engine anomaly is smart business.
We sometimes teach that if you have to push up the power (with an engine anomaly) to move the airplane on the ground, that you are probably doing it wrong.
Another consideration is any kind of brake failure or brake issue, a blown tire, or any kind of steering difficulty. The USAF actually has a safety rule on these sorts of things for most aircraft. It says “don’t move the aircraft.” Simple.
If you have a problem with controlling the aircraft on the ground, get it stopped and leave it. You don’t want to inflict more harm, and honestly, it’s not like you're on the deck of an Aircraft Carrier where low fuel aircraft are on short final and you need to get out of the way. Other local aircraft can land on other runways, divert, or even land on taxiways (with tower approval) in an emergency.
Think about how stupid you’re going to feel (that line in the accident board’s findings again) if you decide to taxi clear of the runway with a flat tire/brake failure/steering problem and lose control of the aircraft…just to allow that other GA single behind you (with probably four hours of fuel on board) to land, or do a touch and go.
It’s your call, but I’m airing on the conservative side. That has done me good for a career in the USAF and 2,000+ hours in fighters.
Here's a video of a Cessna landing with a flat right tire. They did a great job!
Top Photo credit Flying Magazine
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
I was airborne over Southwest Texas. Today’s sortie put me as the instructor of record in the back seat of a T-38C. In the front seat, was one of my students. He was doing well and had advanced through most of the grueling T-38 syllabus just fine. Today, he was “leading” a two-ship of T-38s, and on our wing was one of his classmates, and that kid was solo. Unbeknownst yet, one of us was about to get an advanced lesson in the aviation emergency frequency.
It was part of the normal syllabus in the T-38 to send student pilots solo, as well as formation solo or “form solo” as we’d often call it. Form solos were tough training sorties for us old and crusty IPs (Instructor Pilots) because not only did we have one dangerous student at the controls in the front of one aircraft, but another dangerous solo student at the controls of another aircraft…with the sole purpose of flying extremely close to the lead jet. Three feet wingtip separation was the required position through barrel rolls, turns, and Lazy-8s with up to (but not to exceed) 90 degrees of bank. Amongst other formation maneuvers too.
By this point in the syllabus the students were pretty solid in the ole T-38, but it was still a sortie on which to not let your guard down. More than one solo T-38 student has come dangerously close to their lead jet and been told to “break out.” We had our hands full as IPs managing this sortie. Sometime called the “2 v 1”…meaning two students versus one IP, that moniker stemming from the classic 2 v 1 Air Combat Training profile common in fighter aircraft training. In the T-38, flying a form solo ride, it often felt like they were both out to get you and sometimes it felt like a real combat sortie. Your head was definitely on a swivel.
The Guard Call
We were midway through the profile when a loud and clear radio call came in through our helmets.
“This is Laughlin SOF on GUARD, Laughlin AFB is now executing a weather recall for rapidly deteriorating weather. All local aircraft conserve fuel and begin immediate recovery. SOF out.”
The SOF was the Supervisor of Flying. This was an experienced pilot who's job it was for six to eight hours to basically oversee all local flying operations. He or she would help with emergencies, assist solo pilots on the radios if needed, and generally coordinate all flight operations for the base with an eye for safety overall. Today the SOF was watching massive thunderstorms approaching Laughlin AFB, which were about an hour away (or so the weather guessers predicted), and he smartly decided it was time to get everybody home.
We immediately called a “knock it off” within our two-ship. “Talon 31 knock it off, Talon 1 knock it off.” Then the acknowledgement from our solo wingman, per the standards “Talon 2 knock it off” was textbook.
I instructed the student pilot up front to set up for the recovery per the standards. This had him beginning a recovery profile, descent checks, having both aircraft fence out, sweeping ATIS, and performing a fighter standard post-fight battle damage check. It was aviating, navigating, and communicating at it’s finest. It was a lot to do going 300 kts just 40-50 nm from the base, but by this time in the program, these guys could usually handle it.
The rest of the recovery was uneventful, though I could tell my solo wingman was a little “off.” He was flying intensely to say the least, and I could tell he was trying to be on his “A game.” He was nervous however, and I could sense it, as well as hear the tone of his voice through the radio as we checked in on different frequencies during the ride home. Maybe he was really concerned about the approaching storms?
We brought the two-ship up initial after passing through the normal VFR recovery points that funneled all traffic into the pattern for the designated T-38 runway. Overhead the numbers, the signal for a typical five second break and a salute were issued and we each split off for downwind and configured for landing. Landing and taxi back were also uneventful, the solo student did everything correctly and was on frequency and positioned correctly for our two-ship taxi in. We could see the gray storms approaching pretty clearly now, a bolt of lightning was spotted in the distance, and winds were picking up a little. We were glad to be back home and safely on the deck.
We parked side by side on the ramp as was common and shut down our sleek jets. I happened to notice that my solo wingman seemed pretty distraught over at his jet. His head was hanging low and he just seemed “off.” He reluctantly did his post-flight walk around and he just wasn't his usual happy self after executing a fine solo in the Mach-capable T-38 jet. Hmmm. He was also very quiet and wouldn’t make eye contact on the van ride back to the squadron. Something was wrong with this kid.
After dropping off our helmets, parachutes, and limited survival gear we eventually got to the debrief room where my two students sat upright and attentive. I stood in the usual fashion, and began to go over all the items in a typical debrief that we needed to discuss. I couldn’t help but notice again that the solo student was upset. He seemed disgusted and maybe even angry. At one point in the discussion and re-creation of the sortie’s events I mentioned the weather recall and the nicely flown recovery, pattern entry, landings, and taxi in ground ops.
The solo student’s eyes widened. He looked at me with an air of hope, and confusion. I could tell he was really lost at this point. It was almost time for them to be able to ask questions anyway, so I went ahead and opened up the floor to questions. I could see he had a lot to ask me.
“Sir” he said, “what do you mean weather recall?”
“The weather recall, you know! The call from the SOF about the recovery due to bad weather approaching.”
“What call from the SOF sir?’ he questioned. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
“Did you have Guard selected on your radios today?”
I already knew the answer, it was a classic blunder for a young trainee.
“Not sure sir, I guess maybe not. I never heard anything from the SOF.”
And that right there explained it. But I was still wondering a few things about his shift in attitude…right about the time we started the recovery.
“What did you think was happening then when we called the knock it off, and then proceeded to RTB?”
His reply. “Well sir, we were executing that last leaf of fingertip at 90 degrees of bank, and I fell out of position. It took me awhile to get back into formation.”
“Yes, I saw that, but you made a good recovery, and you did it safely” I informed him.
“Well sir, I thought that I had just busted the ride…as you called for the knock it off, and the immediate recovery.”
It made total sense then. This poor kid never heard the guard call, but obviously heard our decision to knock it off and start home, just after he had made a significant mistake (and a good correction). He thought he busted the ride and would be receiving the equivalent of an “F” on the mission for the day, which can have lasting implications on later choice of aircraft assignments after graduation.
The Moral of the Story: Guard Frequency
Radios in our USAF jets have a built in capability to monitor the Guard frequency, whereas our GA radios typically do not. But if you have a spare radio, a COMM 2, consider keeping it set to 121.5, as you never know what kind of information you might receive on that frequency. Besides, Section 3 of the FAR/AIM suggests all pilots may monitor emergency frequencies. If you were to get lost on the radios or fly near restricted airspace, a helpful ATC controller will most likely use Guard to notify you of impending trouble…and possibly save your license.
Always try to have Guard selected and monitored on your radios. I admit that I don’t always do this in my GA aircraft, it’s an old school technique, but monitoring it can save you a lot of headache.
Having Guard selected would have prevented my solo student from thinking he busted his training ride for nearly two hours on that stormy day. Having all available information in the cockpit can help your Situational Awareness immensely.
Some Cool T-38 gear
Some old, but good T-38 Videos, and a great T-38 Book for those interested.
Courtesy Vance Class 07-11
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s a beautiful day to fly. You enjoy a simple and thorough preflight of your airplane as the dew burns off the wings in the calm and cool morning air. As you prepare your steely beast to go, you feel ready and prepared for the short flight you are about to undertake. You have full tanks of fuel, water to sip, and your trusty kneeboard with some regularly used checklists and maps all at the ready. It should be a simple VFR flight to your favorite morning breakfast destination. Aside from all your preparation, there is one thing you haven’t thought of. Something most pilots don’t put much planning into. What is your emergency response plan for an aircraft accident?
I admit, it’s not something we all like to think of too much. Right? Who wants to think about that horrible situation and some of the harsh realities of what could happen to you, or your loved ones in the event of an aircraft accident? If you’re like most pilots, you don’t think about it much at all. “Going there” mentally, picturing all the possible and ugly outcomes is just too difficult, and messy. Flying is supposed to be fun!
Why is it that as pilots we spend countless hours and dollars perfecting our patterns and landings, studying books and increasing our pilot knowledge, as well as taking the time to plan out a flight from checking NOTAMS and TFRs to mapping out the route and looking at weather and even alternate airport options? Why all this preparation?
Pilots are habitual planners and thinkers, yet most omit a critical planning step in every flight…the aircraft accident plan. Today, we are going to talk about one important method for building your emergency response plan for a accident by discussing survival packs. When I ask pilots the question “Do you carry a survival pack with you when you fly?” almost every pilot responds in the negative. Yet in the USAF, survival packs and survival gear are not only mandatory, but their contents are trained with regularly.
Let’s have a look at some GA survival pack ideas.
Survival Packs: Essential Pilot Gear
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to build a survival pack, which I believe is the number one thing you can to do to build an emergency response plan for an aircraft accident.
First, I need you put all morbidity aside. Get over any hangups that you might have, maybe even reduce that pilot ego that we all have a little. It can happen to you, and you should be prepared.
Early in my USAF pilot career I was sent to Fairchild AFB, Washington for SERE school. SERE stands for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape. SERE school teaches essential concepts and training for today’s combat pilots and crews. Of note, the survival portion of the four week school was about two to two-and-a-half weeks. It’s pretty intensive, and it’s a major chunk of the training time at SERE.
Secondly, I’m not pretending to be a survival expert, by any measure. I like watching Bear Grylls and I enjoy some hiking and short wilderness adventures, as long as there’s a comfy bed and a cabin or hotel nearby. Nor am I going to be able to train you on everything you need to know about survival with one short (well, it’s kinda lengthy) article. The purpose here is to provide you with some basics, some theories of survival, and allow you to decide on your own what items you want for your pack.
Short of actual survival training in the field (which I also recommend you get) the most important thing you can do to increase your survival odds after an off airport landing…is to have a survival kit. Again, we plan for so many airborne contingencies, take a minute to plan for one possible airborne contingency, that is the one that finds you battered and bruised, walking away from a successful off-airport landing. It’s the least you can do.
Okay, here we go.
My Survival Gear: Kit Basics
There are two ways to develop your ideal survival pack. The first is to grab a bag and fill it with gear. Hmmm, okay. The second method, is to find the gear you believe is important to you, and then locate a suitable container that can nicely hold all that gear.
I think option two is the preferred method. Get your gear first, then find the container second. Additional considerations are also just how large of a survival pack do you really want? When you start talking about life rafts and Himalayan overflights, you’re going to need a pretty big pack. If you’re into just local flights, and “lunch-n-backs” to the nearest fly-in restaurant then a smaller and more manageable survival pack might be the right thing for you. It would be nice to be the ultimate Boy Scout and have everything conceivable in your pack, but that just isn’t cost effective, realistic, nor sound for a pilot watching his load and CG as well.
You also need to know what kind of basic gear you need. What terrain are you typically overflying? Survival packs for desert flight operations will and should look drastically different from the pilot who flies over arctic tundra, or mountainous terrain, or over the ocean.
Additionally, we will plan for a speedy recovery once SAR (Search And Rescue) is initiated, but we need to also plan for the worst case situation. It might actually take SAR some significant time to locate you. In this article, we will focus on a survival pack basics that allow for minor injuries, and a goal of 24 to 48 hours survival before recovery. You can adjust your pack as you see fit.
Lastly, the key concept that I go with, and learned about at SERE is this…simplicity.
Simple items fail less, and can make the difference when you need them the most.
Complicated battery operated devices and even cell phones are great technology and options, but will they fail you when needed? How long will they last? You’ll notice that I don't talk about or include GPS devices, radios, or other battery operated items in the discussion. There’s a reason for that as I prefer to go “old school” with options that wont fail me in the field, ever.
Breaking Survival Down: The Gear
At USAF survival training, it becomes blatantly obvious pretty fast, in order to survive you need air, then water, then food, then shelter. Take it one step further, and you can add signaling as well. That’s it! Now there is a whole lot of training and skill that goes well beyond that simple statement, but simply realizing these basics can help you easily identify what you need. Let’s have a quick look at each item as it relates to our survival gear in the GA cockpit.
Water. When faced with either a simple outdoor situation or the worst case aircraft accident, you will need water if you expect to survive more than a day or so. A few items that I picked up at SERE were that you’ll need a water collection device of some sort, as well as clean, safe water to drink. If I’m flying over the arid deserts of the Southwest (as I mostly do) I will try to bring a gallon or two of water and throw them in the back of the plane. It’s a simple solution, but it also assumes I can get to the water jugs after the landing. That’s a big “what if.”
Two important items in my pack for water collection and drinking are a simple stainless steel canteen cup, and a water filtering straw. The canteen cup is useful for hundreds of things in the field and can collect water or be used over flame to boil water or even dinner. I use the canteen cup in my pack as the bottom hard shell, placing it in the pack first and then filling it with other items. The filtering straw is lightweight and if I can find any appreciable water source, this will do the trick and keep me from getting sick. Remember, I’m planning on possibly a 24 hour recovery, hopefully no more.
You can also consider adding a small tin ofiodine tablets as well. These can be dissolved in your collected water for purification and last forever in a sealed container.
Food. Food is a difficult one, but there are hundreds of option once you know the tricks of the trade. Ideally in our 24 hour period, you can survive just fine without any food. Consider packing a few granola bars in your pack for extra energy, and replace them every so often.
While food may not be an immediate concern, it will be a long term issue if you find yourself stranded for any length of time. That being said, I put a few other critical items in my survival pack that can help me with a myriad of tasks, as well as later food gathering if needed. I have two different knives in my pack, as well as a small fishing kit. A few hooks, some line, weights and similar items cost you pretty much a zero weight penalty, but can be a key item in your pack if you’re really stranded. My fishing kit lives in a really small round Altoids-like tin. With practice, the knives can be used to help fashion snares, spikes, and spears for later hunting.
Shelter. For basic shelter over a 24 hour period, you don't need much. Consider that you may also have injuries and even could be in shock. With that I pack four mylar “space blankets.” They work well in the cold desert nights and also serve as great signaling devices and even rain catchers. Far easier to pack that blankets and sleeping bags, I recommend the mylar space blanket. You can even use them to make a small tent or lean-to if you’d like.
The knives can also help you construct some shelter if you really want to go full Bear Grylls out there. I’ve also added a 50 foot length of "550" paracord. There are hundreds of useful things you can do with paracord, and having some kind of basic string implement out there can help you with many tasks. I guarantee you’ll need some string to tie up something in your campsite, help with snares, or to make your shelter stronger and more secure.
Lastly, I include a metal “ring saw” which can be used to cut larger branches and trees if needed. It’s effective, and light weight.
Let’s talk a little about fire too. Fire is pretty important and having it can really improve your living conditions and morale. As the sun sets and rescue forces are nowhere near, being able to start a fire easily can be a big boost. I pack a small flint and steel. It’s that little orange aluminum stick, it weighs nothing and it really works.
Consider some kind of starter-tinder if you want as well. Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly are the best fire starter I know of. One spark from that flint and steel on a cotton ball with petroleum jelly will light off in a hurry, even if damp. Sparingly place them under your dry tinder when constructing your fire pyramid.
You can also add all sorts of miscellaneous items to your pack, depending on how much weight and space you have. I picked up a pre-made medical kit that wasn’t too overblown, yet had a good amount of key items, or items that I valued. Consider a quality medical kit, they come in all shapes and sizes. Be sure it will fit in your survival pack. Mine nestles perfectly into my canteen cup.
I also have a simple sewing kit in my pack too. We used these in SERE from everything from, well…sewing damaged gear and clothes obviously, to making fish hooks and so forth. I had one lying around so I threw it in. You might even need it for medical situations too.
I don’t have any chemical light sticks yet, but need to add a few. They will last forever in your pack and obviously can help you at night. More on them in a minute. A flashlight with fresh batteries would be a novelty too, but you have to be diligent about keeping the batteries fresh. Again, simple wins the day.
I think we spent maybe a full day in the field at SERE school learning about signaling, and various signaling options. After air, water, and food, and perhaps shelter…signaling is incredibly important. As SAR ground crews approach, or helicopters pass nearby, how are you going to help them find you, and zero in on your precise location? They say that survivors help themselves, and assisting SAR with locating you might be the difference between being picked up now and a much longer overnight visit in the great outdoors.
My absolute favorite signaling device for the day is a true and professional signal mirror. These things really work, and on a bright and sunny day, you can reliably flash someone and get their attention out to 40 or more miles! There's even one story from World War II that one troop was able to signal a passing ship at over 100 miles. Any flat metal or reflective surface (like a smart phone) will also work, but they can be hard to aim, and not as focused. Trust me I’ve tried it with airborne assets looking for me, and it is difficult. The signal mirror makes aiming a cinch and with it you can precisely hit any target. My recommended mirror is one from Coghlans. It’s harder to find, but is Mil-Spec and actual glass and metal (as opposed to the plastic ones). It has a hole for tying off a string loop as well and is substantially more focused and accurate than some of the plastic ones out there, though those work okay too.
After that, laying out shapes on the ground or using those mylar blankets can all help get an airborne SAR team’s attention. Additionally, if you have a fire going, throwing some wet or live branches and leaves on the fire will make a ton of smoke, also very effective. Think “obvious” and always use color and contrast to help your position stand out to SAR forces. A whistle is also a good item to have for calling in nearby ground recovery teams.
Night signaling is a little more tricky. A flashlight can help, but the batteries can fail. What I like to use is an item we trained with in the F-16 called the “buzzsaw.” The buzzsaw is simply a chemical light stick tied onto the end of a three or four foot length of paracord. Spin it over your head and trust me, you will be seen. Most SAR forces are also employing NVGs as well. A buzzsaw can be seen by NVGs nearly five miles away.
The Survival Bag
My survival bag is pretty sweet. Easily found online, there are hundreds of option to choose from. I chose a simple single-sling design that can be easily carried, and I’ve even worn it in the cockpit. Red is my preferred color as I want it to be very visible and easily findable. Some of today's camouflage gear is pretty sweet too, but you risk losing it, and being visible in the field is the true name of the game when it comes to survival.
I try to keep my kit within arms reach in the cockpit, assuming I’ll need to egress the aircraft quickly after an off airport landing. Following the ‘landing’ my plan is to secure the fuel selector and aircraft battery, then grab the survival bag and run!
There are a lot of options out there for a survival bag. Find what works for you and what can easily carry all your gear, and remember, you might have to walk many miles with all that gear. Think about that when searching for the right carrying sack and planning out and selecting your gear.
Developing some field survival skills are an important part of any pilot’s training. Lacking that, a simple survival kit that you build and maintain can be an asset worth it’s weight in gold should the day arise when you need it.
There are literally hundreds of volumes published on outdoor survival, with their associated techniques and ideas. Far more than we have time to discuss here. What I hope is that you will also consider in your pilot training and flight preparation repertoire is putting together a simple survival pack. It just might be the edge you need when the chips are down, and be the best part of your emergency response plan for an aircraft accident.
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
So there I was… It was a night mission over Iraq in the F-16. It was the summer of 2008 and I was with my unit the 34th Fighter Squadron “Rude Rams” conducting two-ship flight operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Little did I know it on this night, I was about to have another lesson on how to aviate, navigate, and communicate to increase flying safety.
On this particular night we were busy, and the weather was bad. I was leading a two ship over Baghdad and we were tasked with searching some specific city roads with our Sniper Pods. We were looking for “hot spots” and anything that could have been an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), and anything that was simply out of place along US occupied roads.
The weather was all around us as we orbited above the well-lit city below. I remember being in and out of some clouds, and having to constantly coordinate with our airspace controllers to get to a higher block of airspace, or a lower block to be able to see the roads below. We were staying busy just avoiding the weather in effort to see the ground below with our Pods.
During one of these coordination efforts, we were suddenly given a new piece of airspace to proceed to, as well as a new altitude to maintain. At that moment my wingman called “Joker,” and the weather at the tanker track had just been reported worse and the tankers were moving over 100nm farther away to improve their situation. They too wanted better airspace. As I was scribbling most of this stuff down, in the dark cockpit, with little aid from my finger lights and the semi-adequate green “indexer lights” the Viper cockpit provides…I dropped my pencil. “Are you friggin kidding me?! Sonofa!” No one else was in the jet to hear my exclamations.
To summarize what just occurred nearly instantly in my cockpit, I received new airspace and altitude to go to and maintain. That required finding the new airspace and programming its points and borders into the navigation system. I had to climb my two-ship to the newly assigned altitude and level off or risk hitting other airborne assets in the vicinity. My wingman declared Joker fuel meaning he had to depart to the tankers NOW or he’d potentially be too low on fuel to continue the mission.
Additionally, the tankers had decided to move farther away from us, necessitating a new fuel calculation for when we needed to depart and head toward them, and that also made my wingman’s fuel state even more critical. And to top it all off, fumbling in the dark cockpit with my checklists and trusty kneeboard of knowledge, I had dropped my pencil. This furthered my increasing problems with obvious implications for note-taking, as well as some minor safety concerns for the ejection seat.
It was a classic SNAFU situation, and I had a mess on my hands.
Solving the Problem
As pilots, we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been overloaded and task saturated. It’s uncomfortable, and it can be dangerous. How do we deal with these situations when they arise? How do we continue to fly and operate safely, and clean up the proverbial mess?
The main coping method we were taught in the USAF when dealing with these task overloaded situations was a tool called prioritization. If you’ve got a few hours under your belt in any aircraft, you’ve probably had a CFI or another pilot talk to you at least once about task prioritization. Task prioritization is the weapon (or tactic) in your belt for dealing with an overload.
But what exactly is cockpit and task prioritization and how exactly do you do that, step-by-step in your cockpit?
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
Maybe you’ve heard this mantra before, maybe not. It’s simple! Aviate, navigate, communicate, in that order. That’s it.
In it’s essence, it is the simplest and most broken down way to use your prioritization tactic. Here’s how it works.
First… Aviate. Seems obvious right? But you have to fly the plane first and foremost. You have to. There is no way to get around this. I’m sure you’ve heard of the stories where competent pilots got distracted, or went heads down in the cockpit to do some kind of task and flew right into a mountain or the ground. Typically this is called CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) and annually it’s reported that about 34% of all aviation accidents are CFIT. Globally, for larger jet and transport aircraft “CFIT was the second most frequent category of fatal accident representing 31 fatal accidents or 36 percent of total fatal accidents with sufficient information for classification” from 2010 through 2014.
Pretty sad actually, but proof that you have to fly the plane first, and keep flying it all the way through your difficult cockpit event. If you are spatially disoriented and upside down in clouds, you need to fly first and get on the round dials and recover FIRST before any attempt is made to navigate or talk on the radios. It seems simple, but sometime pilots forget this.
Second…Navigate. Once you are flying and are continuing to keep the plane safely flying, now you can move on to the next tier of items, of which I lump under the “navigate” category. For me, “navigate” means anything from re-orienting myself spatially or getting un-lost, to adjusting anything in the cockpit like maps, dials, GPS pages, and even radios. Anything that is one step past basic “stick and rudder” flying that now assists me in the art of flying better, for me, is lumped into the navigate step. The “navigate” step doesn’t have to be a hard and fast traditional navigation, or map reading. It is all things that make your job in the cockpit easier, and allow you to effectively transit through the airspace, safely.
Lastly…Communicate. Communicate is the last step, and least important. This is smart for many reasons. Technically, talking on the radios is the least important thing we can do as aviators when faced with serious task prioritization problems in-cockpit. Never forget that plenty of aircraft fly around the US every day without ANY radios on board, and guess what…they survive. It may be tempting to talk on the radio or answer that call from ATC, but if you are seriously struggling in the cockpit, just let them sit at their zero knot, one-G station a little longer while you get your feces consolidated. They may get a little angry at you for not replying, but I’d rather have an angry controller (that I can call later and chat with) than be spatially disoriented, or lost and trying to recover my airplane.
Besides, who hasn’t heard the center controller desperately trying to reach some random airplane on his frequency without avail? The controller usually gets some heavies in on the action and has someone relay voice communications to the mute pilot. Eventually the sleepy pilot pipes up and answers on the radio, and nothing big typically ever comes of it.
Communications are important, but in the massively huge act of flying an airplane, they’re the least important, for sure.
That’s pretty much it. If you Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate…in that order, always, you should forever have a solid tool to help you get out of a jam and safely prioritize the cockpit tasks you are dealing with. Learning to aviate, navigate, and communicate will increase your flying safety.
So how did I get out of that situation in Iraq with my task overloaded two-ship? Well I thought you’d never ask!
First, I decided to forget the pencil, it was gone into the bowels of the dark cockpit. I could accept the risk of it jamming up the ejection seat for now, and statistically that was a rarity anyway. So it was gone, and I had a pen I could use instead.
Second. I aviated. I immediately started climbing my two-ship, knowing altitude in the Viper means more fuel efficiency. I also told my wingman to “out climb” me to the top of our newly assigned block of airspace. I think we were told to “Elevator block 25 to 29” (FL 250 – FL 290) and I coordinated with him to go straight to Angels 29, and I would go to Angels 28 thus ensuring deconfliction in the dark night and a fuel saving strategy was immediately happening.
If you’re wondering why I ‘communicated” with my wingman right here, because communication comes after navigation…right? Well in the Viper we always had a dedicated second radio frequency, called interflight that we would only use to communicate to the flight members. Part of maneuvering (aviating) and navigating the 2-ship was communications. So I made a two second call on interflight to clue my wingman in on what was happening. “Ninja Two, set Angels 29.” That’s it. And besides, we always fly with contracts so when he saw me climbing, he knew that staying above me and deconflicting with me was his primary duty anyway. I could have maintained radio silence had I chosen to. Making the two second radio transmission certainly helped our overall effectiveness and navigational well being. It was an administrative call that aided his situational awareness.
Moving on. Third (thirdly?), after the new heading and our climbs begun, I started programming my new airspace assignment into the navigation system so I could see the outlines of my fragged area in my poor excuse for a moving map in the Viper. This also ensured that we were safely deconflicted from all other friendly air traffic nearby as we sorted out the situation. Frequent glances at the fire control radar screen also proved that nothing was off the nose anywhere near us anyway. Good.
Fourth and lastly, and only after I had both of us safely aviating (deconflicted) and navigating the right direction, I began to communicate with ATC. What must have seemed like hours to the poor ATC controller, I eventually piped up on the ATC radio and confirmed with him that we were moving to the new altitude and airspace. In addition I also begun coordination for a climb even higher (the fuel saving plan again) and a tanker plan I was concocting.
What I ended up telling the controller was a new strategy for getting gas faster. Due to our assigned tankers moving farther away because of the weather, we were going to request for them to fly toward us while we flew toward them at the same time. This would allow for us to all meet roughly halfway from the normal transit distance, where we could link up, get gas, and have them “drag us” to wherever they needed to go as we refueled. It was a pretty common technique and the trusty tanker guys were always willing to accommodate thirsty fighter guys who were down on their luck a little by “meeting us halfway.”
Off the boom, the rest of the sortie was smooth and easy as we patrolled our assigned areas looking for trouble. As we flew and slipped through the night sky peacefully, I unknowingly learned another lesson in how to aviate, navigate, communicate to increase flying safety.
If you haven't heard the big news, we had a save! I am humbled and honored that a pilot has read some of my teachings and it allowed them a measure of success, during an extremely difficult time in their cockpit.
While I certainly can not claim a majority of the credit, as we all know training and preparation will be what saves your bacon during ANY inflight emergency, I am again humbled to have helped out in some small way.
Have a look HERE to read the story verbatim, as it was sent to me and see some of the photos after an oil pressure line failed this Bonanza owner 4,500 feet over Northern Texas.
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
The year was 1989, and I had just logged about 15 hours in the local Cessna 150. My first 15 hours in any aircraft actually. I was flying out of a hole-in-the-wall airport in Hackettstown, New Jersey. The runway was just a 2,200 foot strip of asphalt, with a huge crest in the middle, and grass all around. Derelict planes lined the grassy sides of the runway, with weeds and such reaching up and gently brushing the old bellies of these sad beauties. I was nearing my first solo in what could have been the first Cessna 150 ever built (not really, but it sure looked the part) and I kept wondering to myself…what are the safety procedures in an aircraft?
My instructor’s name was Bruce. He seemed like an “older” gentleman, with a bit of a swagger and a beer gut too. I was just 17 years old, so to me Bruce seemed like he could have been in World War II but I bet his age back then was just in the mid-forties. Bruce was a competent and encouraging instructor pilot and CFI. I’ll never forget some of his early comments and tips as I learned the art of no-flap landings, steep turns, and turns about a point.
What was odd to me however was the lack of any mention of real safety procedures. I mean, I’m just here to learn to fly and get to solo right? Get those 15 hours and let her rip! But what if a wing falls off Bruce, what if we catch on fire rumbling along at a blistering 90 knots!?
This isn’t to say that Bruce was negligent, but back then there really wasn’t any syllabi or even any Pilot Practical Test Standards…that I knew of. We were deep into the backwaters of New Jersey (if there is such a thing). Oh sure, we did a few engine loss scenarios where he would pull the power and I’d find glide speed and we’d search for a field or road or something. But that was about it as far as safety procedures in this aircraft went for his instruction, and my learning.
Safety procedures in an aircraft, in any aircraft, are a huge deal these days. Again, I’m not saying it wasn’t important back then, but today even the mainstream media and your Average Joe knows quite a bit about safety procedures in various aircraft. Ask anyone about the Miracle on the Hudson, or MH370, or that Asiana flight that crashed on approach into San Francisco a few years back. That Average Joe today knows a heck of a lot more than most about aircraft safety and safety procedures.
Let’s also not forget our friendly local news which counts every bumpy landing at the local airpark as an “aircraft disaster.” Live at ten PM!
Developing Your Safety Procedures
One of the things I quite frequently reflect on from my past is just how much the USAF and our USAF training focuses on safety, and procedural safety knowledge. Safety knowledge and rote memorization of certain failure situations is paramount in military aircraft. We had to memorize multiple checklist procedures and were required to perform them flawlessly in the simulator every year as part of our check ride. It was no-joke, permanent record kind of stuff.
Sadly, until recently, I have not seen this level of commitment and concern in General Aviation. The training I have had over the years in GA with regard to safety procedures has been minimal. There was some training in-flight, but it generally involved an engine-out glide, and that was about it. No emergency checklist discussions, no fire in the cockpit procedures, no emergency divert, or low fuel discussions or reviews. It just didn’t happen.
I will give kudos however to some major players in GA today. Cirrus aircraft and their sharp recurring emergency training syllabi as well as the American Bonanza Society and its BPPP (Beech Pilot Proficiency Program) are both top shelf academic programs, and I bet you they have more than once saved someone’s life. Both are excellent approaches to flying safety and procedural safety knowledge, and are modeled after military and airline training programs. And I know there are some outstanding CFI's out there as well.
So what are your safety procedures in your aircraft? Do you have any?
Well of course you do, your POH has some checklists, and those are a great place to start. I even re-copied mine and made them into a laminated “quick sheet” in my kneeboard. I’d recommend you start there. Grab your POH and make up a Smart Card, or Quick Reference sheet, whatever suits you. You’ll be on your way to better procedures, and safer for it.
Have you heard of CAPS? No, not the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (although it’s definitely a cool feature). CAPS in professional aviation stands for Critical Action Procedures. They are the memory items for certain critical emergencies that you have to have memorized, period.
We have CAPS in the military and the major airlines have and use them too. I’d highly recommend you memorize a few of your critical emergencies in your aircraft’s procedures and train to them, as well as practice them on paper or with verbal repetition as part of your pre-takeoff checks. It’s pretty simple, but if you memorize a few checklist procedures, and practice them, it can help you perform them when you come under real pressure. It’s the same stuff the military and the majors do.
Lastly, if you’re looking for additional ideas for some safety procedures, here’s a pitch for my book. I’ve outlined a great set of engine failure CAPS that can be memorized and transported to just about any single-engine GA aircraft. They involve establishing a glide, switching fuel tanks, checking (and sweeping) the mixture, and checking the magnetos. Pretty typical stuff actually. But you need to have them memorized and practice them (even sitting on the ramp, engine off, use your cockpit like a simulator). Trust me, it helps.
Please consider your safety procedures for the aircraft you fly and be familiar with them. It’s more than just a checklist, and way more than good ole’ Bruce would teach. Make safety procedures in your aircraft available and clear. You never know when you might need them.
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
Here's the scenario: You're at 10,000 MSL and your engine fails. You are at the black dot in the center of the picture, on glide speed, and exactly 17 nm from two airports. Airport A is to the North, and Airport Z is to the South. Both airports are at Sea Level. Winds are from the North at 10 KIAS, and constant throughout all altitudes. We also are presuming a perfectly held glide speed for best L/D MAX for entire profile. Yes this is a hypothetical situation, but it brings about a good discussion and some good key points to remember and train for.
For those that don't know, the Bonanza glide ratio in feet per nm is 1.7/1,000 feet. That is a nominal clean Bonanza, on speed will glide 1.7 nm for every 1,000 feet of altitude.
So in the case above, IF THERE WAS NO WIND, theoretically, the engine out airplane could make it to either airport. But as with real life, we have winds to contend with.
Given our scenario, and winds... Which airport to do you choose?
Knowing our glide performance and ratios, you might be tempted to pick Airport A, that headwind might help you "float" or stay aloft longer. Maybe??
Well, this is simply not true. The gliding airplane will perform the same throughout the glide profile and and airmass, and the headwind component will simply slow your ground speed and you will land short of Airport A. Your TIME in the glide will remain the SAME as if you were in a no wind situation. With headwinds, your ground speed will suffer, and you will not reach Airport A.
By the way, how far short would you land if you went to Airport A?
That's easy! 1.7 nm
Remember, that for every 10 KIAS of wind through 10,000 feet of altitude will reduce your glide RANGE by a factor of your glide ratio per nautical mile. So for the Bonanza at 1.7nm/1,000' ... you will land precisely 1.7 nm short. This of course assumes a perfectly held indicated airspeed for the weight of the aircraft, and perfect 10 KIAS of headwind all the way down. Not very realistic, but an interesting relationship none-the-less.
So that leaves us with Airport Z.
Airport Z is your best option. The wind will "push" you there faster and theoretically you would arrive 1.7nm "early" due to our above math relationship. That equates to 1,000 feet of altitude in the Bonanza. Perfect to set up your energy for a Low Key or Base Key downwind entry for a 180 degree turn back to the north and a nice touchdown. So you'll arrive overhead Airfield Z at 1,000 AGL. Make sense?
Key takeaway: Always consider ALL available surfaces to land, keeping in mind that all surfaces that reside in a "downwind cone" from your present position will be better options than ones that force you into fighting headwinds through the glide. When touching down (engine out), if at all possible, it's always advisable to land into the wind to slow that groundspeed and reduce impact forces.
See more discussions like this one in Engine Out Survival Tactics, available in paperback or eBook.
by Nate "Buster" Jaros
General Aviation (GA) aircraft accidents kill hundreds of people every year. These crashes and fatalities have always been a source of much discussion, and a source of much study. Amidst all of the statistic and analysis, engine power loss and mechanical failure mishaps continue to be a leading cause of fatal accidents in General Aviation. In fact, engine loss accidents are the number one cause of crashes not later deemed as “pilot error.”
A fact sheet issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2014 stated that powerplant system component failure was the third leading cause for all General Aviation fatalities for the decade 2001 – 2011 (FAA Fact Sheet, 30 Jul 2014).
How can we better prepare pilots for these types of failures, the types of failures that are out of their control and in which no one can see coming? With my book, and some training, I aim to help you become a more informed and safer pilot. You will be armed with the tactics to defeat the engine loss situation in your single engine aircraft, and survive. Let’s have a look here at some of the things discussed in my new book, Engine Out Survival Tactics.
1. Know Your Glide Performance.
What is a glide ratio? Simply stated, a glide ratio is the mathematical ratio of how far forward an airplane travels under no power, and its subsequent vertical distance lost in traveling that forward distance. Generally, these ratios are given for stabilized flight, stabilized at that airplane’s “best glide” airspeed and under no wind conditions.
You need to know the glide ratio of your aircraft and be able to translate that ratio into numbers you can “see” in the cockpit, like feet lost for nautical miles traveled. Knowing this baseline book performance of your aircraft is the bedrock of your engine out knowledge.
You should also have an idea of what the winds at altitude are doing, and how they affect your glide. Obviously, a headwind shortens the glide, while a tailwind lengthens that glide distance. But knowing the winds at altitude and also on the surface, can be tricky. Modern avionics can help here some, but you should strive for ways to keep sharp on identifying what the winds “out there” are doing by using various techniques you learned in your early training.
2. Have a Plan: Emergency Procedure Preparedness.
I know it’s a bit cliche, but you must have a plan. What will you do when that engine decides to quit on you?
In the United States Air Force (USAF) we train for countless hours on engine out situations (more on that in step six). But part of that training is having an immediate plan.
Have you ever heard of CAPs? CAPs are Critical Action Procedures, and in the USAF, you must know the CAPs for your aircraft by heart, upside down, and inside and out. Period. We also practice the CAPs for our aircraft once a month on paper from memory, as well as on periodic check rides, and in monthly simulator training too.
The idea behind CAPs are that certain life-threatening and critical emergencies do not allow the pilot time to open a checklist and locate the correct procedures. The pilot must know what to do immediately. In the F-16 things like an engine fire on start, emergency ground egress, and of course engine failure in flight/airstart are all considered CAPs. All of these procedures are memorized. Most major airlines have CAPs for their aircraft and require their pilots to memorize them too.
You might have some bold-print checklists steps for your single engine piston, if so consider them CAPs and commit them to memory. In my book, I also offer more techniques and a set of engine loss CAPs that can apply to all GA piston aircraft. Either way, you must have a plan and know what steps to accomplish quickly, in order to affect a restart and/or safely prepare the aircraft and passengers for the forced landing.
3. Understand Energy Management.
Energy management is an art. It is the art of seeing your descending glide path and understanding your relationship to that path, or ribbon in the sky. Fighter pilots often call this the “sight picture.”
What is energy as far as the pilot is concerned? Energy or energy state is a reference to a summative collection of potential and kinetic energy of the aircraft. Altitude and airspeed to put it simply. An SR-71 at 80,000 feet MSL going Mach 3 has tremendous energy. A single engine piston at pattern altitudes and airspeeds has far lower energy than our SR-71.
When it comes to energy states, different aircraft can have similar energy states but be in different parts of the sky. For example, an aircraft can have high airspeed but low altitude, an F-16 on a 500 KIAS low-level for instance. A similar energy state might be that same F-16 up at 20,000 feet but going very slowly. Even though these aircraft have opposite altitudes and airspeeds, each could conceivably have similar (or the same) energy states. The low-level F-16 could trade that airspeed for altitude and ‘pop-up’ to 10,000 feet in a just a few seconds. Conversely, the slow F-16 at 20,000 feet could trade in his altitude for airspeed by diving to 10,000 feet and regaining airspeed. Don’t get too caught up in the numbers, but the concepts and ideas are important to understand for the tactical pilot as well as the pilot faced with an engine out situation.
After one starts to understand energy states, energy management and precision energy management becomes easy.
4. Know Where to Land.
When faced with a forced landing, if you are not willing to bet your life on the uncertainty of the actual state of the landing surface material (hard, soft, muddy, etc.), and you have retractable gear, then you should land gear up. If you have fixed gear, then it is even more imperative that you locate a suitable hard landing surface. Here’s why.
Getting data from the accident reports on this sort of post-crash damage is difficult to gather. However the preponderance of the limited data I could find and associated pictures seemed to point to highway and road landings with gear down looking pretty survivable. Those landings in fields and deserts with the gear down had a much higher rate of nose damage, flips, ripped off nose gear, and crunched firewalls.
Additionally the 1958 T-34A flight manual has a warning in its emergency procedures section about this situation. Remember that the T-34 is basically a tandem-seat Bonanza, with an identical wing and landing gear. This warning in the manual states: “Make no attempt to land on unprepared or unfamiliar terrain with the landing gear extended” (T-34A Flight Handbook, 1958). The more modern T-34B Navy flight manual also has a similar warning in its manual. That warning states: “When landing with the gear down on unprepared surfaces, the nose gear may collapse from contact with rough terrain and may cause the aircraft to invert making egress difficult. When the condition of the landing surface is in doubt, it is recommended that the landing gear remain in the up position” (T-34B Flight Manual, 1981). Of course flipping a T-34 and landing on its bubble canopy would be especially bad for the occupants, the idea still holds true for any aircraft in this situation, you want to avoid a flip.
If you have the choice and the surface below you is unknown, I’d highly recommend you keep the gear up. If you have fixed gear, you need to land on the hardest and flattest surface you can find; your nose gear can also collapse in soft or uncertain terrain increasing your deceleration forces and increasing the level of risk for injury and damage.
For me, if I can land engine out on a surface that I would consider taxiing or taking off from, then I will lower the gear and land on it gear down. If it’s a soft surface or a field of heavy thick crops, or a desert full of scrub-brush, I wouldn’t be taking off from those environments so my gear will stay up if forced to land there. That is my game plan, and I’m sticking to it.
5. Your Engine Monitor: Know the Signs.
I am sometimes asked what an engine failure in an airplane looks and sounds like. In fact, based on some recent good feedback on my webpage and other internet posts, interested pilots like you, have asked for this information.
Obviously, an engine failure “looks like” a stopped propeller and might “sound like” a big bang or vibration. But that is not always the case. There have been many accidents where the aircraft engine was running rough, or just not developing ample power. In these instances, the engine failure was not as clear-cut and obvious. What you need to realize is that there is truly a spectrum of engine failure varieties and how they might present themselves to you in the cockpit will vary as well. From the horrific bang and stopped propeller, to the insidious Cylinder Head Temperatures (CHT) indication change, a multitude of events can be described as engine failure or pending engine failure and you will need to know how to identify them.
Modern GA aircraft engine monitors are the foremost method to analyzing your engine performance and catching any pending engine problems. Without an engine monitor, you are simply in the dark as a pilot. You really do need to have a somewhat modern engine monitor if you want to better predict a pending engine problem or failure as well as to monitor the overall health of the engine throughout its lifespan. With the somewhat common pre-ignition or detonation events that can damage our engines, one single cylinder CHT will climb rapidly and excessively. The only way to identify these types of more common pending failures is with an engine monitor than can display individual CHTs. It’s that important.
Engine Out Survival Tactics will give you even more information about what an engine failure or pending engine failure “looks like” on your engine monitor, and what you should do if you see the signs.
6. Training and Practice: Sight Picture.
What it all truly boils down to is training and practice. If you want to be best prepared for a possible engine loss event, you have to practice. Like all professional athletes, practice makes perfect. I am not advocating a rigorous professional engine loss program, or even one that is similar to today’s military pilot regimens, however I am saying you have to get out there and do it! You must practice.
A common theme when discussing engine loss events with actual pilot survivors is that they all agree that their training saved their lives. They also agree that there was little time, and cockpit task load was extremely high during their power-loss events. Being able to simply look out the window and know that that road or runway “looks about right” is something that is developed over time with training and practice. There simply wont be time to do a lot of glide math and make careful calculations to your glide path when faced with a coughing engine.
Unfortunately I do not have enough time and space here to cover all the methods and concepts for practicing engine loss events in your piston single, that is the subject of my book and it’s a rather lengthy section as well. But to summarize that chapter, you need to figure out how to replicate a glide in your chosen aircraft and then go out and try it. You can do this from a position overhead the landing surface, or out away from the runway too. There are many options and important numbers that you will need to know and strive to practice to. Repetitive practice and a few key “tricks” described in Engine Out Survival Tactics with arm you with the tools to “see” your glide path and develop that sight picture that will be crucial to a safe real-world recovery.
How ready are you for that engine loss event? Are you comfortable with a basic understanding, or do you feel that you need to have practiced one or two glides every so often? For an individual, what amount (if any) is a good number of practice engine out events to be considered practiced and proficient?
In the USA, the FAA mandates that we all do three takeoff and landings every 90 days to carry passengers. That is a currency to fly with others. They also ask us to do six instrument approaches every six months to retain our instrument currency. Do you think we should have a currency requirement for practice engine out situations?
We sure did in the USAF and in the F-16. We had to log 12 practice engine out patterns a year and we were considered out of currency if we went over 90 days without having done at least one practice engine out pattern. We also had an ejection seat! Yet we still had a modestly strong currency for these emergency procedures and practicing engine out patterns.
Interestingly, U-2 Dragon Lady pilots also carry a practice engine out pattern currency of 45 days. In the T-6 Texan II, the USAF’s foremost primary trainer aircraft, all of its instructor pilots are required to maintain a 60 day engine out practice currency. Even pilots of our newest fighter, the F-35, with its “new airplane smell” are required to do engine loss practice every 90 days, just like the F-16.
What are your thoughts on engine loss currency? When was the last time you practiced, and do you consider yourself ready and armed with the knowledge and skills to safely recover? As with most things in aviation, being current in engine out practice is much different from just knowing how to do it.
I hope you decide to build and implement your own training and practice regimen for engine loss events. If you are looking for more knowledge on how to do this, learn about your plane’s glide ratio, know the checklist procedures, develop a practice glide profile, and practice it! Good luck and fly safe!
Nate "Buster" Jaros
What is Engine Out? Relevant aviation topics, key safety techniques, war stories, and pilot tips from Fightersweep writer and the author of Engine Out Survival Tactics, Fighter Pilot Tactics for GA Engine Loss Emergencies.
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