Plane & Pilot
Friday, February 1, 2008

When The Propeller Stops Propelling

Engine-out emergencies: Planning and training are your best defense

propeller openerThere aren’t many mechanical contrivances that are more reliable than an aircraft engine. At the same time, there aren’t too many mechanical contrivances upon which our physical well-being is so clearly dependent. The good news is that engine failures almost never happen. The operative word being “almost,” it has to happen only once to ruin your day. If you keep your wits about you, however, and you plan for the possibility of an engine failure, you greatly increase the probability that you’ll survive the unscheduled reunion of airplane with earth.
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En Route Failures
The specter of an engine failure hangs over every cross-country flight. Or at least it should. But it shouldn’t be a burden, just something to be considered and planned for.

The most obvious piece of planning is that every instant you’re in the air, part of your sightseeing should include “there’s one I can land on” thoughts (you literally fly from one emergency field to the next). Since you have altitude, your options are good and you can select fields or roads on either side and even behind you. Just keep track of them, and, as you pass one, find another up ahead.

If you have a choice between two equal sites and one is close to houses or roads and the other more remote, pick the one that’s closest to civilization: if you have to go down, try to do it with spectators who can help you.

When you identify possible landing sites, you should also develop a mental plan on how you’re going to approach them. Identify which direction the wind is blowing (dust, flags, water, etc.) and which direction you’ll approach. Then figure out how many turns or circles you’ll have to make (you do know how much altitude your airplane loses in a gliding 360-degree turn, don’t you?) to put yourself over the middle of the improvised runway with at least 500 to 1,000 feet of extra altitude. Once you’ve positively identified which direction the wind is blowing, you’ll have the option of turning either direction to set up an approach at your usual AGL altitude. This assumes you were cruising along high enough above the terrain that you have the altitude to make those kinds of decisions. Although flying along at a thousand feet is much better for sightseeing, if the engine quits, you have very little time and few options available.

Incidentally, this is when making power-off landings a part of your normal flying pays off. If you habitually make power-on landings, you’re basically on a test flight when the engine quits because you won’t know how far your airplane will glide or the actual effect of configuration changes. Using just a little power on an airplane greatly changes the glideslope and prevents you from developing references for power-off landings. Making power-off landings once in a while is good practice and could save your bacon somewhere down the road.

The goal is to make the emergency approach as close to normal as the situation will allow. Don’t let adrenaline talk you into doing something drastically different. This means flying a normal downwind, but with a slightly tighter base leg to guarantee that you’ll make it. For that reason, use a point about halfway down the field as your reference point. This offers the option of slipping to put the airplane closer to the end of the touchdown area and lets you drop over any obstacles. This is another area where the knowledge gained from making power-off landings and utilizing slips to fine-tune the touchdown point becomes a lifesaving skill.

Don’t try to put the airplane right on the end of the selected touchdown area for one simple reason: It’s far better to roll off the other end of a field at 10 to 15 mph than to land 20 feet short simply because you misjudged something or a gust dropped you.

There are about a million nuances we’ve had to skip over in this little discourse, but hopefully, we’ve hit all the high spots. However, if there’s one thought that you should remember about the subject, it’s that engine failures can, and do, happen and there’s simply no substitute for planning and practice.

Things To Remember
• Always fly the airplane first.
• Develop an emergency-ready mind-set.
• Always look for suitable landing sites.
• Say to yourself, “There’s one I can land on.”
• Know and understand your aircraft’s systems.
• Practice power-off landings.
• Have a plan and be ready to use it.
• Don’t forget to fly the airplane.


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