Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Aviation’s “Little” Emergencies

How to handle those in-flight problems that aren’t necessarily life threatening

And most of the time, there was no logical reason for concern. The cardinal rule in any emergency is to always FLY THE AIRPLANE. A door that comes open in flight is usually all hat and no cattle. I've had perhaps a half-dozen door pops in 50 years of flying, and none of them have been anything more than an inconvenience. And yes, most of them have been my own fault.

Most often, the door can be closed in flight by reducing speed to approach, inducing a medium right bank (for a right door) and adding left rudder for a slip to minimize airflow on the right side of the fuselage; then, slamming the door shut when suction is at a minimum.

Granted, one of my open doors was on a used 55 Baron I was ferrying to Australia, and the right-seat tank made it tough to fly the airplane and shut the door at the same time. (The autopilot was inop.) The safest course was to return to Santa Barbara for a delicate overweight landing. Tricky but not necessarily all that dangerous.

There's usually no aerodynamic effect of a door pop other than a slight drag increase. A few airplanes react more adversely, but none become inherently uncontrollable. Still, more drag could be significant on a long flight, and the increased noise level could drive you nuts, but other than that, there's usually no real emergency.

Alternators generally don't last as long as engines, and for that reason, failures are more common than we'd like. They're not much fun, but again, they're not usually a cause for major alarm in VFR conditions, even in a single. An alternator failure in the soup at night is especially troubling and may force you to modify your destination to the nearest airport, but if you're smart enough to power down everything you can do without and rely on backups, you should overcome.

A battery that's in reasonable condition will usually last for at least a half hour, much longer if you get truly serious about reducing electrical load. Keep in mind that some airplanes employ two batteries, and when you exhaust one, you can switch to the second electrical power supply.

I hedge my bets on a night flight by always carrying a backup Icom portable VHF radio, a portable Garmin 296 GPS and a wide-span miner's or camp light that I can strap to my forehead in case all else fails. All three of these items use AA batteries, and I always carry a dozen or so backup batteries, just in case. Theoretically, you could shut down everything except the transponder and maintain enough electrical reserve to run what you'd need for the approach.

COM failure is another problem that isn't a real emergency but can be perplexing. After you've tried every possible combination of headset in both pilot and copilot positions, hand mic in both plugs, checked to see if audio works through the speakers (remember them?), the obvious easiest solution is to land at a nearby uncontrolled airport.


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