First 500 Feet, Part I: Engine Failure!
What to do when the worst thing happens at the worst moment
Engine failure on takeoff is every pilot’s worst nightmare, but there’s one basic rule that applies to all in-flight emergencies, regardless of the situation: Keep your cool (easier said than done) and fly the airplane. Having said that, the most important aspects of survival can be summed up in two words: mental preparation and training/practice. Okay, that’s four words, but you get the point.
Panic leads pilots to do stupid things because, in an emergency, we all want to be on the ground in the worst possible way. People get hurt because they do things with airplanes that they know full well not to do in any other situation. Usually, these things include either losing speed (trying to stretch a glide or reefing it around in a hard turn trying for the runway) or diving for the first visible open spot, runway or not, and floating into obstacles on the other side. Self-control leads to speed control, and that’s essential.
When talking about emergency procedures, it’s important for pilots to realize that every engine failure (assuming total power loss) is unique because every airplane and every circumstance is different. One thing, however, is absolutely the same: In entirely too many cases, the difference between survival and tragedy are the aforementioned important words: mental preparation and training/practice.
If there’s one thing that can be guaranteed when an engine quits, it’s that, as one of my friends says, “Your brain instantly dries up to the size of a pea and then rolls out your nose.” Initially, your usually quick mind goes through denial (“That didn’t really happen, did it?”), and then is suddenly awash in adrenaline, which makes thinking clearly a real chore. It’s at that point that procedures and training come to your rescue. If you’ve thought about this eventuality and planned hard for it, then when it finally happens, you’ll just have to apply all your practice to the situation. This doesn’t guarantee success; thinking that you’ll be able to instantaneously react correctly with no forethought, however, will almost always guarantee failure.