The ABC’s of an Emergency

I don’t really fancy myself as a horror writer, but let’s see if I can scare you real quick.

It’s a beautiful day. 

The sun is shining, heating your face to a perfect 78 degrees Fahrenheit, a slight breeze offering the perfect complement to your day. 

To top it off, it’s blowing directly down runway 32, optimizing your takeoff for a nice day of practice. 

You pull out your notes from your last flight. Okay, you think. On my last flight, I needed to practice a bit more on S-turns and stalls. So, today I will exit the pattern to the north then head out to this wonderful little area where nobody seems to be flying and I can use the railroad tracks for S-turns. I can then start heading back and do a couple of power on stalls before entering the pattern and doing a couple of laps.

It’s an ambitious practice session, but you’re feeling optimistic today. 

You go through all your checks. Everything goes smoothly.

The take-off is beautiful. You get the butterflies in your stomach that can only come at the point of take-off. That beautiful transition really makes you feel something crazy happening. And it is! You’re flying!

Once in the air, your engine stops. You only just exited the pattern, and now you have a huge issue. 

With your adrenaline burning through your veins, you can’t think of what you’re supposed to do. You start looking for a place to land, but you freak out and don’t see anything. You’re going too fast. Your heart is racing. 

You black out…

Now, I know that’s not a good thing to think about, but you have to when you’re in an industry as complex as aviation. There are so many possibilities and if you mess up in an airplane it could mean the end for you and your passengers. 

This is why we practice what to do in an emergency. 

I was flying recently with my instructor and on my final lap of flying the pattern, he pulled power to idle and said, “You just lost your engine, what do you?”

It wasn’t fun for me and I panicked and just kind of froze. 

Luckily my instructor is awesome and walked me through the ABC’s of an emergency. Which inspired me to write out this exact blog so that I, and everyone that reads this, will be in constant remembrance of the ABC’s of an emergency.

Side note: when I say some of these things here, I’ll use a 1975 Cessna 172 as a reference because that’s what I train in and it’s what I know. I’ll keep saying it though, you need to know all this information for your specific airplane you’re flying.

A – Airspeed | Ask Us - Types of Airspeed
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The absolute first thing you should always do when you are experiencing an emergency is to pitch your aircraft to the best glide airspeed. 

In my Cessna (I don’t own the airplane, I’m only a student pilot still) that is 75 mph.

When I did this in my exercise, I had to pull back on the yoke to add drag and slow from 98 mph to 75 mph.

Honestly, I was still kind of working on autopilot. Because I knew what to do for the airspeed. This was the easy part. 

The reason you want to hit that optimal airspeed is because you want to be able to glide as far as possible. This happens because of the angle of attack. I could dig in really deep about angle of attack, but that’s a topic that can easily cover one or two blog posts. 

Shoot, maybe I will. 

I mean, I already kind of touched on the topic of when I talked about aerodynamics, but it can get even more in depth than that.

B – Best Place to Land

What is the name of the place where aircraft land and take off? - Quora
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This is where the intensity sets in with an actual emergency.

There’s the saying, every landing is mandatory, but taking off is optional. 

When you get to this part, you are experiencing one of the worst kinds of landings in all of aviation: an emergency landing.

But this is why we practice and study this stuff. 

Now that the airplane is gliding at it’s best speed to stay in the air as long as possible, you have to figure out your best place to set the airplane down. 

There is a lot of debate when it comes to this part, and honestly, there’s no right answer for the best place to land. But there is definitely a wrong answer.

When you are experiencing an emergency, there is always the initial thought of protecting yourself. The downside of this is that when you are in an airplane and trying to set it on the ground safely, you have a lot of other people and things to worry about. 

Some people will say that you always need to land in the best place to get the airplane down, which usually implies that it’s going to be a road. 

This is only sometimes the correct answer. I would say there are a few factors to think about if you are really considering landing on a road: How busy is it? Are there power lines around that flip the plane around? And are there fields or other unpopulated areas that would be safer for yourself and other people?

When I was doing the exercise, I was just doing a power off 180. That means, my best place to land was the runway, but I also looked at other places to land. There are tons of fields around my airport, so that would be good, but there is also a big road that’s not always busy. Sadly, that time I was flying it was kind of busy with people, so I would have floated a little further to find a good safe field nearby.

C – Checklist/Communicate

One checklist that works in every airplane - Student Pilot News
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This is something that will always come with more time. You should study the airplane’s checklists so many times. You need to be able to recite your checklist for every single emergency because you HAVE to be prepared. 

But that’s also why we practice with our CFI in the aircraft with us. That means we can have someone that knows what they’re doing in case something could potentially go wrong while we (the student pilot) takes time to pull out the checklist to go over it. 

Hopefully, after working through the checklist, you have at least a little extra time to communicate to the aircraft around you that you’re having issues. 

The goal is to be able to do everything to check and see if you can get your airplane to restart and land safely at an airport till you can get a good mechanic to fix whatever issue you had. 

When I did this for the exercise, the main point was do the power off 180, so we simply said “OK, we went through the checklist and it didn’t work. Now what?” 

So, I turned around and had to do a very hard slip to make it back down to the runway and land safely. 

Side Note #2: I really don’t like the feeling of a slip. It’s the whole equilibrium thing and everything feels off. But I also totally love doing that because it’s crazy and just feels like I did something SUPER cool.

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