Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

First 500 Feet, Part I: Engine Failure!

What to do when the worst thing happens at the worst moment

500 ftEngine 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.
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500 ft
Every single time the throttle goes forward, author Budd Davisson asks himself, “What if it quits now?” until he’s on the downwind leg and safe.
And on the subject of making a 180, we should all go up and play the “Can I or can’t I make it?” game. Climb up to 2,000 feet AGL and make-believe that’s your runway altitude. Initiate a full-power, best-rate climb. Then, at 2,500 feet, kill the power, pitch the nose down into a glide and start a turn back toward where your runway would have been. You want to maximize your gliding distance and efficiency, so work hard to hold the POH best glide speed and keep the ball centered. Don’t make the turn so extreme it’ll kill altitude. Depending on the plane, 45 degrees is probably too much. Now wait and see if you make the 180 degrees before you hit 2,000 feet again. If you do, try the turn at 2,400 feet. If not, try it at 2,600 feet and so on. You’ll learn a lot about your airplane doing this exercise.

Next, to convince yourself that the POH glide speed is the right number, try the same thing 5 mph faster—then 5 mph slower. You’ll see that it takes more altitude to make the turn if you’re on either side of the POH speed.

Once you decide how much altitude it takes to get turned around, promise yourself two things: First, you’re not going to try it unless you have at least twice that altitude to make up for adrenaline-induced flying errors; second, you’re not going to try it regardless.

Also, don’t forget the distance to the runway—you may get turned around and still not be able to reach it. The more wind there is on takeoff, the better your chances, but it’s a gamble you probably shouldn’t take.

I’ve said that part of planning is to make it a habit to look for landing spots as you take off. As soon as you’re high enough, seek out fields/streets straight ahead, then look off to the sides, continually changing your selection as the altitude increases. At your home airport, however, you should have already developed an entire menu of roads, streets and fields encircling the airport (each one should be perfect for an engine failure at different points in your climb out). Once you have them picked out, hop in your car and drive around each looking for wires, unseen obstacles and generally getting a feeling for what you’ll see if you ever have to land there. You’ll be surprised how much different things look from the air once you’ve inspected them on the ground.

In urban areas, notice the way housing developments are designed. As a normal rule, developments are built in big squares with lines of houses within the square facing one another. Those houses are on interior roads and have a lot of cars parked in front of them. The individual developments are bordered by low-traffic connecting roads that seldom have cars parked on them, making them preferable for emergency landings.

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