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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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An Alternative to Thinking in an Emergency

By John Lorenz

I read once that there is an average of one engine failure per 2000 hours of a pilot’s flight time. If true, then I’m over quota and I want a refund. The experience makes one into a believer in being prepared.

Unfortunately, the once-every-two-year Flight Reviews, where instructors pull the throttle and sit back smugly as if their own posteriors weren’t in the same sling, don’t really prepare us for an engine failure. When I ask GA pilots to practice a failure during a flight review, many respond in a haphazard fashion, checking random things like magnetos, the master switch, the oil pressure, maybe remembering the carb heat or fuel pump, but maybe not. We discuss and correct the mistakes, but if asked to do it again ten minutes later, it’s obvious that most pilots, repeating the same mistakes, haven’t internalized the discussion.

These pilots are relying on reasoning and logic to figure out what’s wrong and what to do about it. This wastes time, and more importantly, the ability to reason deserts us in an emergency. Inevitably these pilots worry about useless things, while forgetting two or three of the actions that might save the day. The stressed pilot can let the plane crash due to fuel starvation even though there is still fuel available in another tank. We shake our heads and wonder how this could happen, knowing we wouldn’t be so foolish ourselves, but the evidence suggests that any pilot can get stupid under stress.

The alternative to the unreliability of reason is a simplified procedure, practiced often enough that it becomes an automatic response. Sure, any aircraft you get into should have an emergency checklist, but who has the time to find and flip through it as the aircraft settles towards rough terrain? A written checklist in an emergency can be more of a distraction than an aid unless you’re at altitude and have the luxury of time.

There are several generalized mnemonics for the emergency procedure to follow after an engine failure. One is The Five F’s, but these are just guidelines. Rather than memorizing the mnemonic, which would involve later thinking (“What was the third F for?”), use them as guidelines to construct and memorize the actual procedure for the specific aircraft you fly, well before the event. For review, here are the Five F’s.

FLY - Establish best-glide airspeed, which occurs at an attitude where the wing is nearly parallel to the horizon, similar to the cruise attitude. Don’t make a major attitude change but hold the nose in that position and trim it there as the plane decelerates.

FIND - Save time by multi-tasking: while keeping the nose up as the plane slows, decide where to land. Then, by golly head for it. Many flustered pilots forget to do this.

FIX - Restart procedures are different for different airplanes, but there are only six or seven things, often less, that can be done in any small airplane to fix the situation. They can be covered with a smooth, 1-2-3 flow in most Cessnas: 1) one item on the floor: switch the fuel valve; 2) two items in the left corner of the panel: turn the mag switch left, right, back to both, then make sure the primer is in and locked; and 3) three items in the center of the panel: pull the carb heat on, go to full rich mixture, and jockey the throttle. For low-wing Pipers, the flow starts with the fuel valve by your knee, then goes horizontally across the dash, adding “fuel pump – on.” For fuel-injected engines, substitute fuel pump and alternate air for carburetor heat and primer. These are typically the ONLY things you need to check because they are the ONLY things you have control over from the cockpit. It would be wasted time to check the oil pressure since you can’t add oil in flight. Don’t bother with the master switch, it has no control over the engine. The prop will be windmilling unless the engine has had a catastrophic failure, so hitting the starter switch would be either redundant or useless, unless the prop is geared.

Actually manipulate the switches during practice so that you don’t get used to just touching them and wind up doing the same in a real emergency, but be careful: don’t turn the mags completely off, don’t pull the mixture out thinking it’s the carb heat, and make sure you switch to a tank that contains fuel. Be efficient but deliberate.

If and only if you have time,
(F)PHONE. Radio calls only hasten rescue, they won’t prevent a crash. Use 121.5 unless still in contact with someone, and squawk 7700.

If none of the six or so critical items restart the engine, it’s time to concentrate on putting the aircraft down. On
FINAL turn off the fuel valve and the electric system to reduce the chance of fire, tighten seat belts, and crack the door so you can still get out if the airframe bends. Remember that turning off the electric system will also kill electric gear and flaps, so don’t kill the master switch until you have the desired configuration.

When an engine stops, you don’t really care why, you just want it fixed. Don’t try to figure out the problem with logic and then devise a solution: rather, use a shortcut that quickly covers the entire but limited range of possible fixes. Practice this until you can do it by rote when the higher brain functions don’t work under the stress of an emergency.
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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