I would like to thank Matt and the rest of the team here at RemoveBeforeFlight for giving me this opportunity to contribute to this incredible world of aviation that we all have come to love; it’s great to be here. And as a military pilot, I hope to shed some light on a world of aviation that most civilian pilots probably don’t know a whole lot about, and offer my thoughts and experiences to the wealth of knowledge that exists on this blog.
For my first article, I’d like to talk about a relatively serious topic: inflight emergencies. Inflight emergencies, or IFE’s as some like to call them, really don’t have to be the death-defying, fear-riddled experiences that so many non-flyers assume they are. Most of us, even students, have encountered some kind of emergency in flight that may range from an inoperative radio to an engine fire. No matter what it is, all emergencies should be handled methodically and calmly; the latter being the key word. Many people have heard the phrase, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” And that’s what I’d like to focus on today.
The Air Force drills into its pilots from day one of pilot training the acronym “MATL”. It stands for “Maintain aircraft control, Analyze the situation, Take proper action, and Land as soon as conditions permit.” We are trained to use this during “Stand-Up” where the entire class is given a specific scenario with all the details we want ranging from weather conditions, to the weight of the aircraft, to what maneuver the aircraft may be performing at the moment the emergency occurs. Once given the scenario, a student is selected to physically stand at attention in front of the class, with his/her checklists, and bring the simulated emergency to a logical—and safe—conclusion, even if that means ejecting. It’s a very useful tool to simulate the stress a pilot would feel in a real-world emergency, and the MATL acronym is an even better tool to remind the pilot what his/her responsibilities are during that emergency.
While MATL may be an excellent training tool to teach young pilots, it is not the key to making it through an emergency. The pilot, or crew, must be calm, collected, and methodical. Remember, slow is smooth, smooth is fast. No matter what the emergency, no matter who the pilot, no matter what kind of aircraft; it is never necessary to rush. That’s how mistakes get made.
Now don’t get me wrong, does there need to be urgency? Of course. But that doesn’t mean one should unnecessarily hurry and get the plane on the ground as soon as possible; sometimes it may be better to stay airborne, depending on the situation. An example of this (and the idea for this article) came from a ride in the simulator I did recently where we were given an engine failure right after rotation (which isn’t really all that bad in a C-130 since we have 4 engines), but can be very startling nonetheless. It is very common to want to get the plane back on the runway as soon as possible, but it’s very easy to miss things that are essential to a safe landing (e.g. cargo, weight of the aircraft, atmospheric conditions, engine limitations, length and condition of the runway, airfield emergency response, and even pilot capability). For this particular emergency, we notified ATC and declared an emergency. ATC, the simulator instructor, started giving us radar vectors to shoot the ILS back to the field we just took off from. We realized that we needed more time, so we requested a holding pattern in order to get the dead engine secured, the proper checklists run, the aircraft safely configured, the approach set up, and the landing data calculated. Had we not held prior to the approach, we would have had to rush ourselves and put ourselves in a very dangerous situation where we could have rolled off the end of the runway, improperly secured the damaged engine, or just flew the plane in the ground from not taking care of the first priority: maintaining aircraft control.
A pilot’s first priority is to maintain positive control of the airplane. Don’t do anything else until you have proper control of what the airplane is doing. In the case of the emergency in the sim, our first priority was to continue the climb-out and just get away from the ground! It’s all about getting the aircraft in a safe position to momentarily take your attention away from flying it in order to accomplish the next step.
Once the aircraft is in a safe position and configuration, you’re second priority is to analyze the situation. What exactly is my aircraft doing/showing and why? This is where having a solid systems knowledge of your aircraft will pay huge dividends. Start from outside the aircraft. Did I hit a bird? Do I see flames or smoke of any kind? Is there structural damage? Then work your way inside. Is there smoke or fumes in the cockpit? Are my instruments showing me correct and sensible information? What are the engine gauges showing? How about the radio stack? Once you’ve looked over every “piece” of the aircraft you are in a good place to determine what the emergency is and what it entails.
Once the cause is determined, it is time for the pilot to take the proper action to rectify the situation. Sometimes the situation can be as easy as carburetor icing on a clear-and-a-million, VFR day where you’re only action is to pull the carburetor heat and wait. However, it could also be as complicated as having an electrical fire in IMC where it takes all sorts of troubleshooting to isolate the failed component.
Lastly, after the aircraft is in a safe position, you’ve determined the cause for the emergency, and done as much as you could to clean up the emergency, it is time to land the plane as conditions permit. If your plane is small like a Cessna or a Piper, you could easily revert to a highway in a no-power situation if you really needed to. As the airplanes get bigger and more complex, so do the requirements for landing, like runway length. You may need to burn fuel in order minimize the risk of you exploding when you land (e.g. landing gear up) or to allow you to land on a shorter runway (e.g. having to use emergency, versus normal, braking). Or you may have to divert to another airfield altogether due to weather or inadequate airfield capabilities.
Progressing from slow to smooth to fast when it comes to emergencies takes a lot of factors that develop over time such as systems knowledge, checklist knowledge, and most importantly experience. Never rushing yourself, taking your time, and methodically thinking through everything is the surest way to successfully bring any emergency to a safe and logical conclusion. The MATL acronym I just walked through goes a long way in developing that progression and those good habits because it gets your mind right and your priorities straight. No one ever wants to have an inflight emergency, especially one that could directly endanger your life like a fire. However, continuous and accurate training, along with a thorough knowledge of your systems and checklists, will help prepare you for even the most serious of emergency scenarios.
-Fly Safe, BRomanUSAF