In the unlikely event that you encounter an emergency like the one Sullenberger was faced with, there are a few things that need to be processed immediately and without hesitation to ward off a disaster.
Let’s first ask the question: when would a pilot face such an emergency?
To answer that question, one needs to know the contextual basis of the emergency. In this case it would be loss of engine power on takeoff. And that means when the pilot has barely raised the prop and cowling above 1000 feet of altitude and the engine gives up the ghost. Why is this an emergency of an extraordinary nature that needs its own value-based attention?
Easy answer is: it is based on the limit of time and aerodynamics for the required rapid response for safe outcome. In other words, there is very little time for the pilot to rummage through any procedure, in print or in digital format. In this case it is all about Emergency Procedural Memory.
Emergency Procedural Memory
There are seven components to this memorized ritual:
- Amplify lift. With the engine at rest and zero thrust attitude of the lazy rod-thrown-or-fuel-contaminated-or-fuel-starved-or-exhausted-engine can only be amplified by flying the aircraft at the aircraft-weight-based glide speed (max distance).
- Reduce drag. Similar to a twin engine where in case of loss of single-engine thrust, one needs to reduce drag by gear up (complex aircraft) and flaps up. By the way, full flaps induce more parasitic drag than the gear in flight. And if you have a constant speed propeller …PULL THE PROP all the way back to reduce further drag.
- Mixture: Full rich.
- Fuel on the fullest tank.
- Boost Pump ON (in case the engine driven pump has seen the ghost).
- Pull Alternate Air in case of icing or obstruction at the intake.
- Check both magnetos.
However, at cruise altitude, you have ample time to resolve the engine anomaly. If still unsuccessful in starting the engine, you need to set the aircraft down, with altitude and airspeed as your friendly angels.
So, getting back to the emergeny situation: Under the 0 to 1000 feet of gained altitude, the only option is to land straight ahead or perhaps shallow bank left and right to find a spot where there are no orphanages and school busses. Shallow banks mean less than 20 degrees. It is also a good mental checklist to rehearse such “WHAT IF” scenarios in your mind. And while the going’s good, take notice of both the departure and approach ends of any and all runways that you most encounter, including the home field surroundings. Know where you might be likely to settle safely with as little of bent metal as possible at the slowest possible speed, in case of silence.
There is a term called “The Impossible Turn.” Many people have spoken about it, written about it or YouTubed about it. Yet it remains the Achilles heel of the distracted and inexperienced pilot who wants to save the aircraft, bring it back to the airport scratch-less and defy the aerodynamic limits of the wings (in an engine out scenario, the aircraft essentially belongs to the insurance company, so your safety, the passengers’ safety and those on the ground is paramount).
In a Cessna with 7.4:1 glide ratio, it might be prudent to use 1000 minimum safe altitude to consider returning to the field. Remember that the Impossible Turn at 1000 feet becomes an Improbable Turn since it needs at least 240 degrees of turn to line up with the runway – with a tailwind to boot. Using a bit of mathematics (1091 * TAN of Bank Angle/ TAS in knots) the best rate of turn is about 9.9 degrees/second, which translates to a 45-degree bank angle with a 5-degree nose down attitude to maintain glide speed and have the least amount of altitude loss. (With 45–degree bank at 9.9 degrees/second, it takes an average time of 19 seconds and a loss of 400-500 feet in a 180 degree turn).
Loss of power on takeoff at 80 knots in most small GA aircraft leads to a decay of airspeed by 50% in 5-7 seconds and that is way below stall speed. Speeding up to 120 knots on takeoff might get you more distance, but will halve the altitude gain at the 30 seconds of elapsed time from takeoff and that becomes more detrimental to your health. Additionally, a 30-degree bank with zero thrust creates more drag than lift. If faced with this emergency, the most prudent course of action is:
- Push the nose down and unload the wings.
- Center the ball to reduce drag.
- If able: Mixture rich, switch tank and boost pump in one quick movement (since 90% of engine failures in GA aircraft are fuel related).
- And FLY THE AIRCRAFT all the way to the scene of the accident (Bob Hoover).
If you look at the #3 item in the “prudent course” discussion, I need to further accentuate the following: Next time you sit in your favorite cockpit, close your eyes and place your hands on the following knobs and switches:
- Mixture knob
- Propeller knob
- Throttle knob
- Fuel tank lever
- Boost pump switch
Identifying these landmarks in the blind (closed eyes) creates the comfort of an extraordinary experiential reference that comes into play when faced with an emergency. The brain goes into automatic mode and the hands perform the actions without hesitation (muscle memory).
So please practice the engine out scenario mentally as often as you must and practice in the blind every time you sit in the cockpit… the latter takes 5-7 seconds at most to hit all five landmarks. Do it religiously and often. Practice to refine and maintain your proficiency. Learn what works best for you as you practice with a qualified instructor. The Law of Primacy always remains in effect and abilities decay over time from disuse.
Safety is no accident.