Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Engine Loss: How Will You React?

When an aircraft engine loses power, the pilot’s initial response can mean the difference between life or death

Farm fields are great choices, even if there's a crop, because the crop can slow the aircraft. (Although sometimes faster than you'd prefer.) If you have a choice, land along the rows, not across. Watch for power lines and trees around fields.

Water is always an interesting option. If you fly an airplane with retractable gear, evaluate whether landing with the gear up or down is the right choice. The POH may weigh in on this topic. Judging the height above water for flaring can be an issue. It's sometimes better to hold a constant descent rate until touchdown. And, what about accessible life jackets? If you're landing in water, they may be necessary for survival, especially if anyone is injured.

Large parking lots can be a reasonable choice, especially on days when they aren't crowded. Keep in mind that, in addition to vehicles and people, they often have light poles scattered throughout and sometimes power lines around the periphery.
An engine loss will cause surprise and denial, so you need to be mentally prepared with a plan.
The most obvious choice is roads. When they work, they can be a lifesaver, but remember that there are cars, often traveling in the opposite direction, power lines paralleling many roads, overpasses, road dividers, etc. Freeways can be a good choice because they're wide, and traffic is going in one direction. But, they could be clogged with traffic; sometimes stop and go, or even completely stopped. Be aware of the traffic flow patterns before you choose a freeway. Examine the road ahead for overpasses, merging traffic lanes and anything else that might present a danger.

Should You Turn Back?
An engine failure after liftoff is one of flying's most time-critical emergencies. At some point during every takeoff engine failure discussion, the question always arises, "What about turning back to the airport?" Returning with an engine developing at least partial power can be a reasonable option. But, keep in mind that a partial power loss was caused by something, and that something might cause a complete power loss in the next second. If you don't know the cause of the problem and there's another safe place to land, that's probably the best choice. Besides, landing into the wind is almost always better than landing downwind. Having said that, a downwind landing on a 12,000-foot runway beats trying to land in a football field. Your response should be based upon the situation.

With a complete power loss, our question is better couched, "At what altitude and what methodology is a return achievable?" In addition to altitude, there are three other gating factors regarding whether to consider a return or not. The first two are: the maneuverability of the aircraft and the skill of the pilot. An air show performer in an Extra 300 or an experienced pilot in a high-performance glider could successfully manage a return from a significantly lower altitude than most pilots. If you can't match either of those aircraft or pilot capabilities, plan for a much more conservative altitude, and maneuver and periodically practice what you've learned. Or, maybe don't even attempt a return at all.

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