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 ftIf the engine actually quits, the first few seconds are critical: You’re nose-high in the climb and will burn speed immediately, so get the nose down. At the same time, hit the boost pump and change tanks. The yoke is going forward while you’re preparing to get the pump and change tanks. Changing tanks has priority, but not by much. In some airplanes, you have to change hands on the yoke to get the fuel pump; if that’s the case, get the selector first, as that’s most often the problem, then hit the pump.

As the nose is going down, start picking out your landing options. If there’s any runway in front of you, go for it! It’s much better to roll off the end of the runway at 20 mph than to try landing off-airport. Slip hard, get flaps down and maintain speed, but don’t push so hard that you get too much speed and float. Also, don’t pull and kill speed. Fly the airplane! This is where practicing nose-attitude control counts. Fly the windshield, not the panel.

If you’re going off-airport, do as little maneuvering as possible because every turn costs altitude. Pick out the least cluttered spot ahead, paying particular attention to wires, trees, etc., in your way. Look for the lowest spot in the obstacles, plan on going through the notch and maintain a normal approach speed! If there’s time, shut the fuel off and unlock the door, but don’t take your attention off the approach. And don’t be afraid to duck under wires. As you clear the obstacles, slip it hard and pop the flaps up just before you touch to deposit the airplane firmly. Then steer around obstacles, if possible. When the plane comes to a halt, bail out immediately. If it’s upside down, don’t automatically release your seat belt. Put a hand on the ceiling to cushion your fall, then let the belt go and get out.

The most important aspect of this discussion is to agree that procedures won’t go smoothly without practice. If an engine actually quits, you won’t be able to think, so practice on the ground and run drills until your legs are shaking from adrenaline.

The primary action items (which pretty much happen simultaneously) are:
• Pitch—Put the nose down ASAP.
• Look—Select a landing place.
• Switch—Change fuel tanks ASAP.
• Pump—Switch on the fuel pump, if it’s not already on.

Most of all, assume the engine may quit on every takeoff, and be prepared to fly the airplane in a normal manner until you’re on the ground, one way or the other. As the saying goes, “Fly the airplane all the way into the crash.” It’s a cliché, but a true one.

[Stay tuned! In a future issue, Budd Davisson will deliver his next installment of “The First 500 Feet.”]

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