Emergency or Just A Nail Biter?

by Harold Green

As aircraft performance and avionics technology forge ahead, we are confronted with training challenges to ensure that both new and experienced pilots can keep up with both airplanes and avionics as they change. As an added concern, today there is a mix of old and new technologies, which can lead to confusion on the part of the pilot when the two do not agree. The result is that we need to upgrade emergency training to keep up with the demands of today’s reality. This discussion presents some background and some suggested means of achieving this change. Later, articles will deal with other common training issues in advanced aircraft. By no means are the suggestions herein the whole story. Without a doubt many instructors and students are already using these and other techniques.

For purposes of our discussion, a “nail biter” is considered to be any situation which causes a great deal of concern on the part of the pilot, but which the pilot eventually corrects. Nail biters can be the basis for a good hangar-flying story.

During initial training, we practice emergencies until we are totally sick of them. There are old standbys like engine out, cockpit fire, electrical fire, loss of electrical power, loss of control functions, loss of flight gauges, loss of vacuum, and just about anything else an imaginative, and perhaps, in the student’s mind, sadistic instructor can dream up. Besides being required by the FAA, these are good to do because among other things, practicing them results in rote memorization, both intellectual and muscle. Corrective actions become instinctive requiring no thought or analysis to accomplish.

Have you ever lost an engine in cruise because you forgot to switch fuel tanks? From experience, when this happens, most pilots will automatically switch fuel tanks, and the engine is running again before they even have time to think about what happened. Only afterward is the pilot aware of why the engine(s) quit.

The results of this type of training are obviously good and, where appropriate, maintain a place in the overall scenario of training. These early training emergencies are usually assumed to be sudden, catastrophic and total.

For example, the engine quits totally, rather than just losing power either partially or gradually. In actuality, sudden failures are the exception, not the rule.

By far the more frequent occurrence is a gradual change in condition, which goes unnoticed until drastic action is encountered. If recognized early, corrective action could be taken and, at most, there would be a nail biter, but if allowed to progress, a genuine emergency can result.

One of the critical problems is pilot overload when working in this advanced environment.

As pilots move up the airplane and rating food chain, emergency training takes on different and more complex forms. Systems, including aircraft, avionics, and automation, all offer potential emergencies. In short, the more goodies we have, the more likely and the more complex the failures will be.

These failures require a deeper understanding of cause and more levels of activity, both mental and tactile, involving multiple steps of recovery. Most importantly, at this stage intellectual analysis becomes critical. No longer will a simple set of steps activated in a rote manner suffice. It becomes necessary to analyze several possible causes and choose reactions accordingly. In addition, some failures can be subtle.

The advent of technically advanced avionics systems has brought the complex world to what used to be non-complex aircraft.

In order to cope with these situations, significant training is required than in less equipped/simpler aircraft.

The airlines and military have long recognized the need for extensive additional training and have invested significantly in simulators, staff, and training time. Alas, such facilities are generally not available to most of us. Therefore, we need to find ways to compensate.

This discussion suggests some possible ways to increase effectiveness of emergency training in technically advanced aircraft. Due to the high quality of avionics and the level of redundancy involved, one of the biggest issues a pilot faces today is simply overload. Initially this is a nail biter, but due to potential errors, it can become an emergency of the first order.

One of the greatest issues confronting pilots today is the need to accomplish multiple avionics entry steps rapidly and without error. A simple thing like changing an instrument approach used to be a matter of selecting a new chart from the approach book and setting two or three frequencies in a set of knobs whose function never changes. With advanced avionics, that’s no longer the case.

Now, with GPS, it is necessary to locate the approach, select the transition to the approach and/or select vectors for navigation. In order to do this, a multiplicity of entries must be made using buttons, which change purpose depending on what function is being accomplished. Further, the buttons to accomplish this are placed close enough together so that in turbulence there is a good chance of an input error. Even when done without error, it is necessary to check the autopilot to make sure it is still in the proper mode after any change. When all of this takes place in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) with approach control providing headings, altitudes, traffic advisories, and clearances, pilot workload goes up exponentially. This situation is a nail biter and, if anything goes wrong under these circumstances, the pilot could easily fail to recognize the situation until it becomes a full-blown emergency. So, what is the answer? This article presents one of many possible approaches to achieve this goal.

First, and most obviously, the student must be thoroughly trained in the use of the equipment before using it solo in IMC. The student should be able to enter a flight plan, select an approach, load it, choose the transition appropriate to the location of the aircraft and the approach, and activate it when required – all while maintaining aircraft control, situational awareness, and communicating with air traffic control as necessary.

Part of the key to this is observation of the old adage: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. When this can be done reasonably well while flying VFR, it is time to go under the hood or preferably in IMC. Once the student is comfortable in IMC with the same sequence as before, it is time to add some spice to life.

The purpose of the training scenario presented here is to create what could be a highly stressful situation, but with the advantage of an instructor at hand as a safety measure. Having an instructor in the right seat is far less stressful than when flying solo under the same circumstances. Therefore, the student experiences a higher workload than would be expected in reality.

Before beginning the flight, a sequence of approaches is provided to the student and this should include a second airport as well, if there is one close by…the closer the better! If a second airport within close distance is not available, then choose a sequence of approaches, which require extensive modification of avionics to transition from one to the other. After one or more approaches of the pre-defined sequence and with no advance warning, change the approach sequence and the airport as well.

Where I fly we are fortunate in that Middleton Municipal-Morey Field (C29) is only 9 miles from Dane County Regional Airport (KMSN) and, of course, we use Madison Approach Control. As a result, we can fly an approach, typically an ILS, to KMSN and then during the missed approach, transition immediately into a GPS approach to C29, producing a reasonably heavy workload on the student. This is particularly true since it usually involves changing from one approach frequency to another in addition to the need to change the destination airport, select and load an approach, then define and select a transition, while climbing to a new altitude, turning to an assigned heading and communicating with departure control. Further, things are close enough together that there is not a great deal of time until being cleared direct to an initial approach fix.

To add to the complexity, the initial altitude for the GPS approach is at a higher altitude than other types of approaches to either KMSN or C29, so invariably there is a concern about reaching approach altitude before the initial approach fix (IAF).

If the airplane is equipped with a coupled autopilot that was used for the preceding approach, it will usually drop out about this time and the student needs to be aware of this. All of this forces the student to react rapidly and accurately.

In the event the situation becomes more than the student can handle, the accepted procedure is to simply inform departure that more time is needed to get set up and request vectors away from the approach area. This is a classic case of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Early in training, most students cannot handle the complexity of this situation. As training progresses, students become successful in coping with this scenario and it is a very good way to determine if a student is ready for the instrument checkride.

This also makes a good task during an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC). Interestingly, the experienced pilot occasionally objects on the basis: “I never get in that situation, so I don’t need that kind of training.” It is amazing how often those with this attitude become chastened by reality. “The next time you schedule an emergency, please let me know.”

It is not unreasonable to ask what the proper sequence is for handling this situation. In general terms, it is necessary to do as much preflight set up as possible. Further, exact details depend on the equipment installed in the aircraft.

It is necessary for the student to access information in the most efficient manner possible as they are presented with a changing set of demands.

First, before leaving the ground for the training exercise, if there is more than one airport involved, use the flight plan, rather than the direct function. Then when changing airports, it is only necessary to access the flight plan menu and activate the “reverse flight plan” function or, depending on the situation, simply change to another destination already in the flight plan. This is far less work than entering a new destination character by character when it is time to move on.

Second, when changing approaches, particularly unanticipated changes, there is a preferred sequence of actions which will reduce pilot workload. The details are dependent on the type of equipment available. The purpose of this sequence is to provide the most information to the pilot with the least effort.

To do this, simply load the desired approach from the GPS. This will provide the outline of the approach and may load the frequency of the navigational aids if it is not a GPS approach. Then, as time permits, select the paper approach plates, unless the approach is displayed as part of the panel display. Third, wait for approach control to provide headings and/or clearances. Fourth, when cleared to a fix, select the fix and activate the approach. At each step the pilot should make sure the autopilot remains in the desired state.

Specific steps will vary depending on the equipment installed in the aircraft. In this scenario the full glass cockpit has a distinct advantage over the GPS-only system because the multi functional display and primary flight display (MFD/PFD) combination provides the maximum information to the pilot with the least amount of effort and attention distraction.

If students can handle this situation with aplomb, then they are pretty much armed for most situations. Note: When a student is REALLY good, the instructor can begin failing flight instruments. That’s easy if flying an aircraft with steam gauge flight instruments. You can always fail a directional gyro or an attitude indicator while all this is going on. The full glass cockpits have sufficient redundancy that require other techniques, but it still can be done. In any event, this type of training helps to prevent nail biters from becoming full-blown emergencies. Further, should a genuine old style emergency occur, the pilot would be able to react effectively while Aviating and Navigating. Future articles will examine other nail biter issues, which can arise with advanced systems.

While the emphasis in this discussion has been on the challenges technological advances present us, it is important not to lose sight of the benefits these advances offer. As time goes on and technological advances include more human factors, these advantages will be even more pronounced. The future, in so far as aircraft and avionics design, is indeed bright for general aviation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Email questions or comments to: harlgren@aol.com of call 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

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