by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine – August/September 2019 issue
Ever wonder how some folks remain calm when all those around them are in a panic? The old joke says, “If you are calm, when everyone else around you are panicking, then you probably don’t understand the situation.” Actually, the opposite is true when it comes to flying. When an emergency occurs, there are those who maintain a calm, professional analysis of the situation and take actions appropriate to eliminate or reduce the impact of the emergency.
Then again, there are those who tend to panic and, at least intellectually, run around in circles screaming, “The sky is falling.” It is definitely preferred to be in the calm, professional group for the simple reason that these folks have been shown statistically to have a much higher survival rate. I am not a psychologist, so the following is an amateur’s analysis based on a few years of observation and experience.
The question is, what makes the difference in performance? Is it because of personality or can anyone be trained to be the calm type? Let’s look at a couple of examples of the calm type.
A fairly recent and very famous example is U.S. Airways Flight 1549, “Miracle on the Hudson.” On January 15, 2009, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles landed their Airbus A320-214 safely in the Hudson River when Canada Geese were ingested into the plane’s engines. Their calm voices over the radio spoke volumes about their professionalism. They kept their cool, evaluated options, and chose the plan which was the least objectionable, and proceeded to execute it flawlessly. All onboard survived without any serious injuries.
A somewhat older example is the crash landing of a DC-10 (United Airlines Flight 232) on July 19, 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa. The aircraft was on a flight from Denver to Chicago when it suffered a catastrophic failure of its tail-mounted engine, which led to the loss of hydraulics due to a compressor disintegration, affecting many flight controls. Of the 296 passengers and crew onboard, 111 died and 185 survived. Those survivors owed their lives to the skill of the pilot, Captain Alfred Clair Haynes, who again, evaluated options, chose the least risky, then proceeded to execute the plan. In both cases a calm, though tense, analysis, coupled with skill and knowledge of the aircraft, produced remarkable results.
These examples were chosen because they received a high level of publicity. There are probably many others in military and general aviation which could be quoted, but to which the reader could not relate to, even if all of them were known.
There is one incident which received no publicity, but is amazing. The supervisor of the local control tower relayed this a few years ago. Apparently, a pilot took off in a Baron about 100 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), heading south to Dane County Regional Airport (KMSN), and shortly after takeoff, he lost all electrical power. He even lost the battery bus, so there was no communication nor navigational equipment.
The pilot proceeded to fly towards his destination, using the time planned for his flight, descended and broke out 3 miles south and landed. The example showed not only cool behavior, but also excellent flight planning.
The pilot knew what to do because he had completed a thorough job of flight planning, when to do it, and what his options were.
Three things apparently mark the cool ones: knowledge, practice and attitude or confidence. Further, these attributes tend to reinforce one another.
For example, knowledge developed from having studied enables practice of emergencies. Practice then reinforces the confidence required to develop a professional calm attitude when an emergency occurs.
Knowledge can be gained by studying the aircraft operator’s manual, commercial publications, membership in appropriate organizations, and discussion with other pilots about their experiences. Some good examples would be the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Organization (AOPA), and AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training magazines; the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA); and various aircraft type organizations, such as the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), Cessna Pilots Association, Piper owner organizations, and others. Another good source of information is the Joseph T. Nall Report published annually by AOPA. From these resources, one can learn experiences other pilots have encountered. After all, the cheapest experience you can gain is that which has been experienced by others.
Of course, there are the accidents caused by poor planning. This would include attempting to fly five hours on four hours of fuel, attempting to fly in weather beyond the pilot or aircraft’s capability, etc. We won’t address these accidents here, but such actions are still a significant cause of aviation deaths.
Preflight planning is careful, objective and thorough. When the pilot’s ego is involved, calm/objective analysis on the ground can be as difficult as when in the air, at least in part because the urgency is low and the ego is high.
There is one area which the pilot can practice very easily – the use of all equipment installed in his airplane.
The FAA expects you to be able to use all equipment installed in your airplane. If you have a functioning Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) in your airplane when you take your instrument check-ride, you can expect to prove that you know how to shoot an approach with it and how to track to a station. That is a good thing in terms of preparation. For purposes of disaster preparation, it is at least as useful to know how to get along without the equipment in your airplane.
When taking an instrument check-ride, you will be required to conduct partial panel operations. It is necessary to go one step further and decide what things you can do without and still control the plane and/or navigate.
For example, while you practice for total engine failure, you are more likely to encounter a partial power loss. What then? How do you fly with only 50 percent power? Or, how do you fly with a throttle that is stuck at cruise power? In this case, use all equipment installed in your airplane. Reducing power is the best way to do that by turning off and on the ignition or modulating the mixture.
Can you successfully execute a complex VOR approach with one VOR and no DME? In the event that you didn’t close the cabin door, what do you do? What do you do if the elevator becomes locked in place? These are just some questions you can ask yourself. You can think of many more things to challenge yourself on emergencies. Besides, practicing for these emergencies can be fun!
As further training, whenever you fly, ask yourself what could go wrong? In earlier years, it was the mantra that “You should fly from one emergency landing strip to another at all times.” When flying VFR, that is still a good idea. Even if it is never used, it is still a good idea.
Likewise, on takeoff or landing, it is good practice to automatically determine the liftoff or touchdown point and be prepared to react if those points are not met. This training can be critical if something happens. Usually, it is some instructor pulling the power, etc., but someday it could be real. Likewise, flying all instrument approaches with the intent to execute a missed approach, makes it safer when you must make a missed approach, and good practice if you don’t.
For those who do not operate under a mandated training program in which someone else plans your training, it behooves you to establish your own disaster response training program. You can do this by imagining that some element of the airplane has failed, and then figure out what to do about it. For example, the elevator has become locked in place. (The reason doesn’t matter at this point. It happened and we have to respond.)
Then the question is, can you control the pitch of the airplane with throttle and trim? Go up to altitude and see. It might be a good idea to have a friend along as a safety pilot.
NOTE: Depending on your airplane, some things are better left alone or tried in a simulator. The previous example is fine in your single-engine piston aircraft, but probably not a good idea in your Citation. It is also very germane during your next biennial flight review (BFR) to ask the instructor to be aggressive in simulated emergencies. You will probably find this to be fun and informative.
Then there is the reaction when something unplanned happens. The first reaction is probably disbelief that this can be happening to you. Then it is necessary to analyze the situation, accept the reality and react accordingly. Maybe it isn’t really an emergency, but a quick analysis will help determine that.
Then keep your analytical hat on and remember that the order of things is Aviate, Navigate and Communicate. Act accordingly, maintain calm, analyze logically, then decide what is the best course of action based on your knowledge, training and experience. Then, focus on the execution…proceed with the actions of your plan.
Maintain your mental focus, analyzing and tracking the situation to ensure the desired goal is achieved. When you communicate with others, either by voice in the plane or by radio, as best you can, maintain a normal voice volume and pattern. This will help you maintain a calm thought process. If you maintain that calm thought process, you are far more likely to survive than not.
There is every reason to believe that through training and practice, you can improve your coolness. In so doing, flying will be more enjoyable because you will be more relaxed, confident, and more aware of what is going on.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.