Jet engine fire

This last year has been tough.

Like some of you, I have throttled way back on my flying (OK, ripped it to idle actually) until the COVID-induced fog lifts. Looks like I’ll be another non-current pilot, anxious to re-introduce myself to the cockpit, safely and smartly, when the personal distractions subside a bit.

However, like a lot of you, I’ve also been taking advantage of the absolute deluge of Zoom-based hangar fly chats, virtual pilot get-togethers, IMC/VMC Club meetings, YouTube videos, online courses, classes, seminars, webinars… it is like being locked in a candy store full of free flying stuff!

There is an abundance of sources you can tune into, and learn all about the “Top 10 Things You Must Know” about the “Top Five Things That Every Pilot Must Remember” about the “Three Absolutely Essential Things You Must Master…” to be able to handle the “Number One Most Critical Thing Every Great Pilot Must Be Able to Do.”

…fly the plane?

Anyway, I want to address one of my favorite topics: in-flight emergencies. (I’m going to switch to using “EP” for brevity). Although EPs are one of the most common subjects discussed during these electronic gatherings, they deserve a much deeper dive than just the basic “Establish Best Glide Speed and Pick a Suitable Landing Spot” stuff.

I am always interested in polling groups to see who has had an actual, real-world, heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping, seat cushion-sucking EP; where, despite your supreme confidence and phenomenal piloting skills, the much-preferred Happy Ending wasn’t guaranteed until you stepped onto solid ground.

I am surprised, but happy, with the relatively low number of pilots that have had one: that’s a good thing. Experiencing a significant EP is not a square you must fill to be considered a “complete” pilot. Unless you fly taildraggers. In which case you are expected to join the “Those That Have and Those That Will” Ground Loop Club.

My emergencies

For some reason, I have had several major EPs in both my civilian and military flying activities. (Maybe that’s why no one wants to fly with me?) Fortunately, they have all ended well, so far.

A few of the more memorable ones, which I have no problem recalling in vivid detail, include:

Stopped engine

The engine quit – now what?

PA-28-140: Engine failure on takeoff, over water, with two students on board. I set up to ditch; then decided I could get back to the airport; we made it over the airport fence, but not quite to the runway.

PA-25-150: Engine failure while towing a glider, in the mountains. Luckily, it happened high enough that the glider and I could both get back to the grass airstrip. I had to slip to a landing with my head sticking out the left side window/door; the windshield was covered with oil.

I say “engine failure;” in both cases, an O-320 cylinder cracked around its base, and the engine kept thrashing itself at a low RPM until I pulled the throttle to idle; then it froze. I should maybe stay away from O-320s.

Continued VFR Flight into IMC #1: On my long commercial cross-country, not instrument rated yet. Over northern Florida, I was forced lower until I was committed to landing on a road. After pulling up to miss trees, power lines, and a traffic signal, I decided instead to climb up through the soup and declare an EP; I got vectored to the nearest airport (TLH), and then down through solid IMC to a 2-mile final (vis was right at 2 miles). Worked like magic. After landing, the only thing the controller said was, “Have a nice day.”

Continued VFR Flight into IMC #2: Now a CFI; flew cross country from Anchorage to Valdez in a Cessna 182. I took the inland route via Thompson Pass. Blasted off out of Merrill Field and was immediately scud running. It was just plain stupid in so many ways; never mind the details.

F-15A: Left engine (P&W F100) exploded/disintegrated/left the airplane, literally, during a high-G, basic fighter maneuver training sortie. Rained parts all over the New Mexico landscape. On landing, found the left engine bay was “vacant.” Shrapnel went through the bulkhead and damaged the right engine as well. It failed during shutdown.

F-15C: Rudder actuator failure, resulting in a rudder “hard over.” One rudder locked in a fully displaced “inboard” position; the other rudder tried to compensate to maintain directional control. Over East China Sea, 100 miles northwest of Okinawa. First (and still only) time that has ever happened in an F-15.

B-1B: Intense fumes in the cockpit; over the Pacific Ocean at night. Could not determine the source; turned out to be a disintegrating air conditioning unit.

I have also had a fair number of regular, run-of-the-mill EPs: various failed or degraded hydraulic/electric systems, nav and/or comm radio malfunctions, minor engine malfunctions (compressor stalls/stags, afterburner blowouts, bleed air overheats), flaps that wouldn’t do as commanded, hot brakes, failed brakes, high oil temps + low oil pressures, overheating avionics (ironically, due to icing conditions).

I have also had unlocked doors/canopy in-flight, bird strikes, bat strikes, lightning strikes, plugged up toilets, and a couple significant physiological episodes. Oh yeah, flew into a thunderstorm at night, in formation.

All these were relatively easy to handle and, in general, not that exciting (except for the thunderstorm thing…), usually because there were systems redundancies, or other ways to mitigate any loss of capability.

USAF sim

Military pilots relentlessly train for emergencies—and it pays off.

The other factor that helped immensely is the US Air Force’s absolute obsession with safety, emergency procedures, and systems knowledge. We spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy focused on handling emergencies under peacetime and combat conditions. From the infamous daily “Stand Up” in undergraduate pilot training, where if you goofed up in handling an EP, you were grounded; to hundreds of hours in cockpit procedure trainers and full flight simulators; to briefing an EP before every training flight and combat mission. We also had monthly (and sometimes weekly) written tests where we had to recall the BOLD FACE steps for every applicable emergency procedure… verbatim… including punctuation.

Handling EPs

There are a billion things that might constitute an EP in your airplane. For all relatively modern airplanes, the manufacturers have addressed most major known malfunctions in the Emergency Procedures section of your plane’s AFM/POH. On the other hand, if you fly a 70-year-old tube and fabric antique, you’re probably on your own.

I think we can all agree that regardless of what you fly, there are some universally bad EPs. They’re the obvious ones that announce themselves with bright RED warning lights, maybe a big “X” across a blacked-out MFD/PFD screen, various tones and buzzers, possibly even a soothing, but monotone female voice chanting “Warning, Warning…” into your headset. These may also be accompanied by visceral stuff like violent shaking, loud noises, blinding smoke, choking fumes, cabin pressure fluctuations… maybe a sudden departure from controlled flight.

Ones that quickly come to mind: engine failures, primary flight control malfunctions, anything on fire, certain untimely catastrophic system failures (like electrical failures, at night, single pilot, in IMC), running out of gas. Combinations of all the above. Basically, all the stuff the FAA wants you to report.

How you handle these are relatively “black and white” (my words) in terms of the steps you need to take to, as the USAF taught me

  1. Maintain aircraft control
  2. Analyze the situation and take the proper action
  3. Land as soon as conditions permit

Seems simple enough. If you can fly the plane, accomplish all the applicable checklist(s), think clearly and objectively, and not panic, you have a rather good chance of getting down safely. Then if it is still not looking good, you can always eject.

(OK: Yes, I realize most of us can’t eject.)

Jet engine fire

Not all emergencies announce themselves with smoke and flames.

Then there are the “gray” ones. They can be insidious; they may not announce themselves with warning lights, strange sounds, or seat-of-the-pants sensations. Sometimes it is something that’s not quite right with the plane, but not addressed specifically in the Emergency Procedures section. Or it’s a situation that is not addressed at all, and the pilot is basing his/her reaction on their own knowledge, experience, and sometimes… luck.

The classic “my engine gauges are still in the green, but not where they usually are” scenario, often leads to a “let’s just press on and continue to monitor” decision. Things can deteriorate over time and distance, and if you don’t recognize the signs that your plane is getting sick, you can fly yourself out of options.

Ever had a bird strike? You heard and/or felt a “thump,” in your Cherokee, but it didn’t come through the windshield, so you pressed on. No big deal, right, I mean, how much damage could it do? Usually there is no detailed checklist for that, other than to stop what you’re doing, slow down, assess the damage and controllability, and land as soon as practical.

Land as Soon as Practical vs. Land as Soon as Possible… a great topic for another discussion.

Turns out it wedged itself into the gap between your Piper’s stabilator and fuselage; you don’t even notice it during your descent on the approach, but it will take a Herculean effort to salvage the flare. Maybe it punctured your nose wheel tire? Maybe it ricocheted off your main gear wheel pant and punctured your wing tank? Probably worth landing sooner than later to investigate, while you still have enough gas for some options.

I had an itty-bitty, 1 oz. “Big Brown” bat hit the extended flap on my F-15, at night, on short final. It put a hole through it as if it were a cannon shell.

Working as a team

In my experience, in all these situations, there is always room for a helping hand, whether it is other crewmen in the cockpit, a wingman in another plane, or an air traffic controller sitting in a facility on the ground. How you use them is the key to success; but you must get them involved first.

Ever coordinate an airborne “battle damage check” with another airplane? How about a slow speed tower fly by so they can look you over?

Which leads to another topic I would like to touch on: the decision to “Declare or Not Declare” an emergency with Air Traffic Control (ATC). This is a great conversation starter and usually leads to some heated exchanges.

I am not going to list all the possible advantages of declaring an EP with ATC. I really cannot think of any disadvantages. Some facilities may be able to help more than others. Whether they can help you at all depends on the dynamics affecting your flight. One thing they absolutely cannot do is fly your plane for you.

Tower controller

They are there to help—use them.

I am surprised at how reluctant some pilots are to declare an EP with ATC, as if some stigma is attached to saying the “E” word, that follows you around for the rest of your flying life. What I find more intriguing is some folks who are the most hesitant to declare one have never had an actual “real world” emergency. Yet.

My question: what informed your decision on when to declare an emergency with ATC, or more importantly, to NOT declare one? Was it just parroting a carry-over philosophy from your past CFI(s)? (Remember the Laws of Learning.) Is it based on your own bad experience with ATC, or maybe a story about another pilot’s situation? Maybe it was getting harassed at a hangar fly for being a wimp?

One of my favorite answers: “Well it depends… on how bad the EP is.” Obviously, my next question is, “Well, how bad does it have to be before they ‘fess up and declare?”

Their decision to declare an emergency is an easy one when it is one of the bad EPs; conversely, it’s the “gray” kind of EP that leads pilots to struggle with the “Do I or Don’t I” decision; and unfortunately, it’s often the “don’t declare” option that wins out.

So instead of unequivocally saying the E-word, they will describe their circumstances, with no apparent sense of urgency, to a controller who may or may not be a pilot, who does not understand how dire their circumstances really are. Then they expect that controller to help them come up with a Plan B.

One of my favorite winter flying EP scenarios is icing.

I recently heard a very experienced CFI tell a group of mixed-experience pilots, that he would not declare an emergency in a situation where his Part 23, light single-engine, non-FIKI airplane started to ice up, just to get priority for an instrument landing, even though approach control told him to “expect vectors through final for spacing” while he was still several miles and minutes away from getting on the ground.

His rationale: “Seems a little extreme to declare an emergency just for that;” so, he elected to trundle along unnecessarily, with possibly more ambushes waiting between him and the runway. His single caveat: “I can always negotiate with the controller when I get closer.”

My response: NUTS. Why not declare the emergency, so the controller can give you priority, expedite your arrival, limit any additional low altitude maneuvering, eliminate additional ATC amendments or delays, help prevent other distractions, minimize your exposure to the “elements,” and even give the tower a heads-up that your directional control might be a bit “iffy” on landing. They might even “roll the trucks” for you as a precaution. That’s OK; the CFR troops don’t mind the exercise.

So now a room, maybe half full of inexperienced pilots, thinks declaring an emergency is “a little extreme” in cases like this, but they don’t have the subjective judgment yet to know if/when that might be true.

Happy to argue! entertain other points of view?

In summary

  • Having time to deal with an EP is a luxury. I have seen EPs that were handled well and ended well, ones that were handled poorly and ended badly, and ones that were handled badly and ended tragically.
  • The amount of time spent addressing the EP, while airborne, was usually a major factor in the outcome. The accuracy in identifying, handling, mitigating, and “accommodating” the impacts of the EP was crucial. The availability of additional help, and how it was used or not, was also a player.
  • When is an EP not an EP? What does it cost to declare one with ATC? What might it cost if you don’t?
  • I am fairly sure the FAA would rather you declare one then end up not needing any help, than not declare one and end up in a smoking hole because they couldn’t help you. Or they did not understand how much help you really needed.
  • Finally, FAR Part 91.3 reminds us that: (a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft, and (b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
  • Never hesitate to exercise that authority.
  • Please remember, you can always laugh about it when you’re safely back on Earth, surrounded by family and friends, and it wasn’t as bad as you thought. The FAA won’t even send you a bill… probably.
48 replies
  1. Tom
    Tom says:

    I completely agree. I’m never flying with you. As far as to why wouldn’t you declare an emergency? Why not? It’s a bell that can be unrung if everything gets sorted out in the end.

    Reply
    • BJ High
      BJ High says:

      After 31 years teaching Ground School to the best corporate jet pilots in the world, I found that the old adage, “I’d rather die than look foolish”, does not apply to them. The professinals I know would declare if needed. If it is a problem departing the ski lodges that may inconvenience Boss’s family, when should that pressure be dealt with? When you interview for the job.

      Reply
  2. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Tom, your anecdote about icing captured the point perfectly. In my research into aerodynamic icing and the resulting accidents and incidents, the statement, “Seems a little extreme to declare an emergency just for that” is a recurring theme. This is partly due to the notion that icing effects are cumulative, and thus linear and predictable, which leads to the idea that they can be anticipated with accuracy.

    But I believe the problem is also largely rooted in a culture of The Right Stuff. This is somewhat uniquely American, although not exclusively. That culture strongly disdains anything that might remotely resemble panic, hysteria, or any inability to comport one’s emotions. It is culturally very important to appear firmly disciplined in this regard, and words like “Mayday” and “Pan-pan” can be perceived as communicating a loss of such discipline. Neither feel like they have any linguistic relationship with a professional approach to procedure. Thus, we default to our preferred subtlties…”Houston, we have a problem…” Indeed, the very act of declaring an emergency, particularly for a less than black-and-white situation, can feel as an admission of poor planning, poor piloting, a lack of self-reliance, or the aforementioned collapse of emotional discipline. None of which is remotely true.

    Several years ago, shortly after departing DFW, I heard my no.4 flight attendant, at the back of the cabin, ask the no.1 flight attendant, at the front of the cabin, if she smelled a burning odor. The no. 1 said she did, and could see a haze in the air. Implicit in this was that they were still sitting down, no one was cooking anything, and neither of them knew what it was. The first officer was the flying pilot, and was still hand-flying; I simply told him, “You have the airplane and the radio. Turn the autopilot on. Declare an emergency and turn directly back to Dallas. I have the QRH and the interphone.” It turned out to be APU-ingested hydraulic fluid…bad enough, but not the inflight fire I had feared. Yet, one only needs to read the report on Air Canada 797, or Valujet 592, to appreciate the possibilities.

    As a case study in the use of such terminology, authority and professional execution, it is worth taking the nine minutes to watch the remarkable amateur video of ThompsonFly 253H, a 757 which ingested a goose at rotation from Manchester, UK in April of 2007.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KhZwsYtNDE

    Reply
    • Kim Hunter
      Kim Hunter says:

      Everyone can agree with Tom’s points and your comments.

      Mission pressure or complacency will introduce shades of gray into what should be a black and white decision. Ego plays less of a role in my experience.

      That said, icing is a hazard where (unlike vacuum failure, oil pressure drop or smoke in the cabin) gray areas do seem to exist. Trace icing in IMC is quite common near the freezing level. When encountered I’ll notify ATC, tell them I’ll report any changes and proceed. If the flight condition progresses to light icing – which doesn’t occur often – we work out a plan. Anything beyond light icing is an emergency in an unprotected airplane.

      I don’t claim this is the best, or even right, course of action. But I do believe the subject warrants further discussion. And who better to discuss it than one of the world’s experts on the subject.

      Reply
      • thomas curran
        thomas curran says:

        Thanks Kim;

        You’re right–lot’s of gray areas when it comes to icing–that’s why I get a bit animated when I hear about some of the “tactics, techniques, and procedures” folks employ to deal with it.

        Tom

        Reply
    • thomas curran
      thomas curran says:

      Steve,

      Thanks very much for your timely response and very fitting examples.
      Maybe hearing the recording of the United 777 pilot’s voice, when he lost the engine over Broomfield, will cause some folks to reconsider that “Right Stuff” culture.

      Tom

      Reply
      • RichR
        RichR says:

        Tom, slightly off thread…your thoughts on the BA747 some years back that shutdown an engine on climb out from LA and continued on to London (eventually landing at Shannon due to increased fuel burn at lower cruise)…I was expecting an outcry that I never heard…did I miss something?

        Reply
        • thomas curran
          thomas curran says:

          Rich,

          Ah yes, I assume you’re talking about the infamous BA Flight 268 from LAX to Heathrow in Feb 2005! Turns out, BA had done the SAME thing a couple years earlier on a flight from LAX to the UK. In fact, BA admitted they had made numerous long distance flights with an engine out.

          I was a bit TOO young to remember specific details, but there was plenty of reaction from the flying public, industry groups and regulators, including ICAO, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and the FAA.

          The FAA was mad because they contend it was not “airworthy”; but BA’s position was they were operating in accordance with their CAA regs.

          Bottom line: It was certified to fly on 3 engines, and procedures for continued flight on 3 engines were included in BA’s Ops Spec.

          However………

          I do vaguely remember my father’s reaction, who had been in the FAA, and in charge of the branch responsible for overseeing & certifying Boeing 747 power plant installations.

          I believe it was somewhere between “What the heck were they thinking” and “Well, at least it worked as advertised”!

          Reply
          • RichR
            RichR says:

            Yup. Stupid like that would have put me on the wrong end of a long green table…and I’d have agreed!

            Heck of a way to run an airline…

  3. Brian
    Brian says:

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing. I’m a low 100s hr private now working on my IR and will read just about anything related to aviation. My son is in the Air Force and is in his second phase of UPT about to fly the 38’s. He’s told me many times about the stand ups, BOLD FACE, and emergency procedures in the sim. Cudos to their prep. We actually chair flew over Zoom this winter and practiced a flat main tire and how I would handle it. He teaches me all the time. Reading your piece made me realize I need to do more work on how to handle EP’s. Thanks for the nudge.

    Reply
    • Tom Curran
      Tom Curran says:

      Brian,

      My pleasure, and thank you for the kind words! My only goal is to make folks think. Best of luck in your piloting endeavors; and congratulations to your son on an outstanding career choice! He’ll love flying the 38 (I did UPT at Laughlin AFB), and whatever his follow-on “major weapon system” ends up being. This is a great time to be in the USAF. The new CSAF, Gen CQ Brown, is an absolutely phenomenal leader; your son will be in good hands!

      Tom

      Reply
  4. RichR
    RichR says:

    Thx for teaching and setting the right example. Even if you’re “wrong” you’re still alive to argue the point…“right” and dead is not the goal. There’s a follow on to the cavalier “better to die than to look bad” which is “but you can do both”.

    The only time I didn’t pop the emergency flag was on an immediate return with tower, I directed and got the runway I wanted…if I didn’t I would have. Tower was not that experienced and I chose that route to avoid additional conversation while busy flying the airplane…if the freq had been congested that may have altered my thinking. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone choosing otherwise.

    Reply
    • thomas curran
      thomas curran says:

      Thanks Rich.

      As a side note to your story, I think it catches some pilots off guard when they declare an emergency with ATC for the first time…and the response is a deluge of questions; nature of the emergency, number of souls on board, how much gas…etc.
      As much as you may want & need their help, “Stand By” may be the right answer while you sort stuff out. Don’t let it jeopardize your priorities, which are still to “aviate, navigate, communicate…”

      Tom

      Reply
      • RichR
        RichR says:

        Thx Tom, and as you implied, taking charge of the situation is key. ATC is a valuable addition to your CRM team, but just as you did in your example, the PIC needs to define the plan and direct the team…for anyone that can’t or hasn’t thought through that possibility, perhaps they’re not ready to be PIC.

        Reply
  5. John Brown
    John Brown says:

    The AIM 6-1-2 sums it up. The last paragraph is key. All of us pay taxes and those fees are used to pay the fine men and women of ATC. Why in gods green earth would you NOT want to get help!!! Alive and dealing with paperwork is far far better than dead and your family dealing with paperwork!!!

    6-1-2 Emergency Condition- Request Assistance Immediately
    An emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition as defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary. Pilots do not hesitate to declare an emergency when they are faced with distress conditions such as fire, mechanical failure, or structural damage. However, some are reluctant to report an urgency condition when they encounter situations which may not be immediately perilous, but are potentially catastrophic. An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about position, fuel endurance, weather, or any other condition that could adversely affect flight safety. This is the time to ask for help, not after the situation has developed into a distress condition.

    Pilots who become apprehensive for their safety for any reason should request assistance immediately. Ready and willing help is available in the form of radio, radar, direction finding stations and other aircraft. Delay has caused accidents and cost lives. Safety is not a luxury! Take action!

    Reply
    • thomas curran
      thomas curran says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for pointing out all the above: Amazing how much good gouge is ‘hidden’ in the AIM! A lot more of us should read a lot more of it.

      Tom

      Reply
  6. Greg Curtis
    Greg Curtis says:

    Liked your article, Tom, and it was great to read about another AF IP’s experiences.

    The biggest problem I have found since flying in the civilian world after retiring from active duty is pilots declaring an EMERGENCY. The teachers of this problem are the civilian IPs that discuss emergency procedures and ALWAYS use the term “the E word” as if you would be shouting profanity over the radio. And when I mention this problem to them, they are afraid the FAA will come after them to make them report on their EP thus producing an investigation to a violation. Like you, I have had numerous EPs (most of them in the B52-G) and have never had to give a report. The FAA is probably so busy with accident investigations, they are happy that we have safely landed the plane so why ask to do more paperwork.

    My student pilots get challenged quite a bit with EPs and when they have had a problem, they have thanked me because that prior challenge made their odd situation comfortable to handle. Constantly querying them on systems knowledge has benefitted them in knowing when to call it quits before the problem gets them into “tight cheek” situations and they need to declare an emergency. Thankfully, none has had malfunctions serious enough in their minds to declare the emergency, yet.

    I consider it my responsibility to return to the tax payer all that time and effort they put into me to fly and fight for our country by teaching new pilots how to safely learn to fly. Reading your article tells me you like doing it also.

    Reply
    • Tom Curran
      Tom Curran says:

      Hey Greg;

      Thanks for your input; I’ve encountered that exact “E-word” thing. Part of my motivation to write this in the first place. When I’ve pointed that out as a silly habit that they may want to break, they gleefully point out that I still call “Gear Down” (only sometimes…)
      in a fixed-gear single.

      I was also thinking about going into the concept/role of the SOF in our military flying, but it was already getting too long.

      (I’m gonna spare you any Buff vs. Bone ribbing!)

      Tom

      Reply
  7. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I certainly don’t have the number of emergencies you described, Tom, nor the hours in which to get them, but in about 2900 hours and some 49 years of flying, I’ve had a few. The only one I can recall that could have developed into an emergency but I didn’t declare was the beginnings of some ice in a Cutlass RG at 14,000’ approaching Dunoir VOR, on the way into Jackson, WY. At the time, there wasn’t a tower, so IFR arrivals were handled by Salt Lake Center. As soon as the rime ice began to form, I called Center and advised that I was collecting very light rime ice and needed to be cleared for the approach as soon as possible. He responded that I would be number 4 for the approach. I knew that all 3 were twins with much better ice-carrying capability than I had, so I said something like “negative, I need to be cleared for the approach now. A 172 can’t carry much ice.” He asked if I was declaring an emergency, to which I responded “not at this time, but if you don’t clear me for the approach now, I will”. He then cleared me and had the other three airplanes hold in some fashion—that was 25 years ago, so I don’t recall that detail.

    In retrospect, if I’d declared right away, it would have saved some conversation, although it wouldn’t have changed anything else. The approach was uneventful, and by the time I broke out, much of the ice had sublimated so that the airplane was wet by the time I taxied in. Nonetheless, treating it like a learning moment, the only other emergency I’ve had since then, I immediately declared.

    Reply
  8. Neil
    Neil says:

    Awesome Tom thanks for telling it like it should be. Why not declare it thankfully , unlike yourself , I have only had a few near ones but two are the kind you want to land now and laugh later. I finally went out to do my commercial pilots flight test in the trusty 182 I have been flying in since day one. We only got ten minutes into the test and were holding waiting to overfly the city and it was something is just not right but my experience meant I couldn’t place the problem but you are right it was in my gut it was wrong and I had just told my examiner I wanted to land because the plane didn’t feel right and as you said the gauges were all in the green. Thankfully he was the CFI for the school nd said he was giving me a couple more minutes before he declared it for me he then asked what I wanted to do declare not declare return to my original airport ten minutes away or land at the international airport as an emergency two minutes away less if I declared and then I realised what it was it was excess vibration from the engine so I declared and was priority eased the engine as much as I could on approach but landed fine with the trucks alongside and shut it down and was towed off the taxiway. Anyway the outcome was a really good ending a taxi ride back to my car and positive affirmations from my CFI. Oh yes the plane was examined and found that after it’s last 100 hourly there was an oil leak the oil contaminated the Engine mount rubbers had broken down leaving the engine holding on with the bolts and so the vibration. The mechanic believed the bolts had minutes to failure. Anyway I am an advocate for declaring what’s the worst that will happen you get to go home or take off again. Thanks for your tales I would fly with you anytime.

    Reply
  9. Joe DIckey
    Joe DIckey says:

    Great article!!
    I’ve only had 3 total engine failures and a radio catch fire in 4800+ hours. Called ANC (I was IFR at 6K in the mud) departure for a steer once and they were wonderful. They asked if I wanted to declare and I told them they were doing just what I needed so nope. Landed down wind at Soldotna, AK and was met by a fire truck who towed me to parking spot. Never heard another word about the situation. Would I tell a student to declare…YES!

    Engine failures were all broken internal parts. Should I have declared…two of them were off airport with no radio contact possible. One was a beach landing and one was on a dirt road. Radio fire was on takeoff at an airport under the BWI Class B turned around and landed downwind and could have dug out the handheld and tried to declare but I was on the ground before I could have contacted anyone so not appropriate to attempt declaring in that case.

    Agree, most cases you should declare but the golden rule of fly the airplane dictates action in my mind.

    Reply
  10. George Polos
    George Polos says:

    Thanks Tom. Terrific article. Totally agree. I love to practice EP scenarios. I have not let COVID stop me from flying. I am 75 and flying a 74 year old Ercoupe. Having a great time. Just me and the open sky / mountains of East Tennessee. Safe flying.

    Reply
  11. Gordon L. Dilmore
    Gordon L. Dilmore says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your article. Having “been there and done that” on February 21, 1974, I can only relate that declaring “Mayday” came very naturally when I realized that we needed help and I never regretted doing it –

    My account of that incident:

    Feb. 21, 1974 – Skaneateles, NY Aircraft Incident N6910W

    On 2/21/1974, my bride of one week and I, flying a rental Cherokee 140, departed from Monroe County Airport in Rochester, NY, enroute to Sturbridge, MA on a beautiful mid-winter day. About 40 minutes into the flight, the plane began to slowly lose power. Initially thinking ‘carb ice’ I responded accordingly by pulling carb heat only to have the engine backfire. When I canceled carb heat, the RPM did not return to normal as it should have. I decided that we needed to get on the ground to check things out. My new bride was navigating and advised that the closest airport, Skaneateles Muni., was to our left, about 12 miles away. I could see the lake and initiated a left turn to about where I figured the airport was located. As we rolled out of the turn, there was a loud noise from the engine, fairly violent vibration, and oil appeared on the windshield. We found out later that an oil leak had developed, resulting in the front two piston rods breaking. I throttled back, trimmed up for glide, and initiated a Mayday call on 121.5. Three FAA locations responded to my mayday radio call and I was able to communicate with the tower at Hancock Field in Syracuse. At this point I was hopeful that we had enough altitude to make it to the airport but, as the seconds passed, I realized that was not going to be possible. There were large farm fields to our left and I advised the tower that we were unable to reach the airport and that we were going to land in one of those fields. The controller advised that he had us on the approach radar and knew where we were. He advised that he had two aircraft looking for us, and to call the State Police if we could reach a phone after landing. One large field was particularly attractive to me, and I set up on it for a full flap, power-off landing. The area was snow-covered, and my main concern was the depth of the snow. We discussed what to do once we were on the ground. As we came around on the final approach, I notified the tower that I was shutting off the master. I played with the controls to bleed off as much speed as possible. As we touched down, I could tell that there was minimal snow on the ground. We rolled out, stopped, sat there for a minute, nervously giggling at each other. As we deplaned, two small aircraft showed up and circled ensuring that we were o.k. We walked back along our track and finally to the nearby farmhouse. A woman answered our knock and nearly fainted when she heard our story. She invited us in and made coffee for us while I got on the phone to the State Police. The trooper on the desk in Auburn said that they knew where we were, and a trooper would be there shortly. Before I finished my coffee, the NYSP cruiser pulled in the yard. After ensuring that we were o.k., the trooper drove his car into the field and right up to the plane. After he looked things over, he was able to contact the FAA/GADO office and they, in turn, released the plane from the site. The farmer had shown up by this time, driving his tractor. We chained the nose gear to his tractor, and he towed the plane out to his side yard where we parked it. After all was said and done, the trooper loaded our bags and us in his cruiser and carried us to the Auburn barracks. My Dad & Mom drove over from Rochester and retrieved us.

    Reply
  12. Marty
    Marty says:

    I recently experienced a small puff of smoke and the smell of an electrical fire in level flight at 9k in my Dakota over the Smokies. I immediately declared an emergency and ATC helped us get on the ground at AVL in less than 6 minutes. The fire trucks caught up to us as we rolled off onto the taxiway. We made quite the spectacle. In the end, it amounted to nothing. Just a burned out reostat controlling the position lights. I had to follow up with the FAA later to inform them of the mechanics diagnosis of the problem. Reasonable given that I had disrupted a major airport operation. That said, I have no regrets. Two years earlier I experienced a partial engine failure over the same mountains. ATC helped me down safely then as well. When something’s not right, it could be serious or, nothing at all. Assume the worse, declare immediately and make that determination on the ground.

    Reply
    • Tom Curran
      Tom Curran says:

      Hi Duncan:

      Yep, I seem to have had my fair share of emergencies.

      Although I’m not exactly proud of the way I handled a couple, I am glad to be here talking about them. Must be that clean living and lucky rabbit’s foot!

      I’m thinking my next article’s going to be called “The 20+/- Dumbest Things I’ve Done in an Airplane & Lived to Tell About”…

      Tom

      Reply
  13. joseph f craven
    joseph f craven says:

    Excellent article! You deserve kudos for writing it because I think it will have an impact on every pilot who reads it. I’m in 100% agreement with every point you made.

    Reply
  14. Jim Koehn
    Jim Koehn says:

    Great article and though I’ve only experienced two “real” emergencies during my six year naval aviation career. The most memorable was during a departure from NAS Miramar in an A-4; fine takeoff and then trying to join the outbound radial the aircraft would not make a left turn – jammed flight controls. With residential housing all around I made a wide right circling turn until a nearby F-4 joined on me; there was nothing that he saw amiss but it was very comforting to have new friend close by. After declaring an emergency the tower cleared the pattern and I made a relatively uneventful landing; turned out that was a crescent wrench jammed in the cables (old aircraft).

    Only other real emergency was flameout in an F-9 at FL390 during a cross-country to Andrews. I frozen fuel heater caused a period of heartburn!

    Reply
    • Tom Curran
      Tom Curran says:

      Mr. Koehn,

      That…is crazy! “Relatively uneventful”…yeah, I’ll bet! You are too modest!

      (If you could’ve only turned left instead, would they have changed your call sign to “NASCAR”?)

      Tom

      Reply
  15. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Just excellent information for any aviator! I’ve not had any EP’s to deal with in my 130 some hours, but have made a few dumb errors that I was able to overcome by taking stock and flying the plane. The old adage still applies of “better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground!” Tom, you certainly are an excellent resource for sharing these important points to all of us other aviators! Thank you!!

    Reply
  16. Nick Xidis
    Nick Xidis says:

    I’m not so sure the issue we don’t declare an emergency is fear or ego. I’m becoming more convinced that when we or ATC think about it, we so task saturated and survival focused that our higher level brain functions left the aircraft a while ago. We end up trying to evaluate subjective criteria in a situation where our brains can’t function that way. Somehow we need to make declaring an emergency a procedural step, not a subjective evaluation.

    Reply
  17. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    FINE article. I only had one emergency in my insignificant flying hours, and it was self-induced. Oil cap left off an O-300 in a C-172 will dump a lot of oil onto the belly, out of sight. A faint trickle on the top cowl put my eyes on the pressure gauge, at the bottom of the green and falling fast. Declaring an emergency was almost a reflex act. Fortunately, I had lots of altitude and was near a fine, unobstructed uncontrolled airport. Two aircraft in the pattern announced they would leave the area immediately and wished me luck. The power-off landing was uneventful and the engine saved. ATC wasn’t involved, but declaring got the airport cleared for me. Thank God for paper towels.

    Reply
  18. Tom Curran
    Tom Curran says:

    Hi Folks,

    I very much appreciate ALL the responses; it looks like the topic “struck a chord”.
    Some excellent points and great stories…and definitely a few ideas for future articles!

    Thanks for your time!
    Tom

    Reply
  19. Bill
    Bill says:

    Have you never heard of “Pan Pan Pan”??

    That would seem to be the answer to your primary objection as I understand it. When something isn’t yet an emergency (read imminently life threatening) but might be soon, Pan Pan Pan is the appropriate choice. Mayday MAY follow and if so the system is ready for it, but if not you’ve not cried wolf for nothing.

    Mind you, folks declare Pan Pan even less frequently than Mayday, so perhaps it’s not the best reply. You assertion that action be taken is well heeded and perfectly valid. I merely disagree with the level to which you’re suggesting action be taken. If you’re not sure you have an emergency you don’t; but you probably DO have a Pan Pan situation. Don’t hesitate. If things do “go south” it makes you look like a genius because you knew ahead of time. If they don’t get any worse you look like a safety conscious pilot – and everybody respects that.

    Reply
  20. Tom Curran
    Tom Curran says:

    Hi Bill:

    This would be a great topic to get a Controller’s opinion on.

    You have good points; I don’t disagree with them at all. I was going to go into this in the article, but I was already getting too long winded.

    I want to make sure we’re not confusing the act of “declaring an emergency”, with which words you need to say on the radio to get your point across.

    You’re correct, the terms “MAYDAY” and “PAN” do have very specific meanings that indicate to ATC (or other receivers) what your assessment of the situation is, at least initially.

    However, “MAYDAY” (indicating DISTRESS/immediate assistance required) and “PAN” (indicating URGENCY/uncertainty/alert) are both considered to be “Emergencies” (See Pilot/Controller Glossary).

    The goal is to get someone’s attention & let them know, unequivocally, that things aren’t quite right in your aircraft. Both words signal that you could probably use some help. If you think “PAN” is more appropriate, that’s fine. How you work together to resolve your issues after that is up to you.

    I believe ATC uses the terms “MAYDAY” and “PAN” to determine priorities if they have 2 or more emergency aircraft simultaneously.

    By the same token-do you have to actually transmit the words “MAYDAY” or “PAN”, x 3, to get ATC’s attention in the first place?

    Obviously not. I admit I’ve always followed the INFORMAL practice of only transmitting the words “MAYDAY” or “PAN”, if I’m not already in direct contact with a controller on an assigned frequency. In that case, I’m switching to a “Guard” frequency, 121.5 or 243, squawking appropriately, and basically broadcasting in the blind—realizing that my first contact may be with another aircraft.

    If I am already in contact with ATC, I’d inform that controller that I am an emergency aircraft and describe my issues. (I’ve never heard a controller ask if someone wanted to declare a ‘not quite an emergency’.) An exception would be if it’s an extremely congested frequency and I can’t get a word in edgewise, “MAYDAY” will get their immediate attention, silence everyone else on the frequency, and often get you a switch to your own private frequency. (Note: This is not the ICAO recommended procedure.)

    I highly recommend everyone read the AIM 6-3-1; Distress and Urgency Communications

    Thanks,
    Tom

    Reply

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