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!