Decision Training for Pilots — Emergency Readiness

Emergencies are rare but that does not mean it’s a good idea to be unprepared for them. Emergency possibilities offer an endless number of scenarios. Here are a few to get you thinking…

Research shows: Pilots that have seen a problem and been able to deal with it, will be more prepared to handle a similar problem the next time. Of course we hope you won’t have to survive a “first” emergency to better deal with a second of the same sort! Instead you and your instructor should “war game” the first emergency through simulations and what-if discussions. The experience gained in practice will help (exponentially) if and when you stumble into a similar event in the practical world.

Emergency training starts with the most basic flight lessons. In fact, you cannot legally fly an airplane on the first solo flight without thinking about and preparing for emergencies. The “First Solo” regulation is 61.87. This regulation outlines every item required of the student and instructor leading up to the first solo flight. FAR 61.87(d)(11) requires the student to handle “Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions.” And 61.87(d)(13) says you can’t solo until you have mastered “Approaches to a landing area with simulated engine malfunctions.

Likewise Private Pilot applicants must show evidence that they are proficient in emergency procedures in order to be eligible to take the checkride. The following is an excerpt from the Private Pilot Practical Test Standards that outlines what you must know and be able to do in order to become a Private Pilot:


REFERENCES: AC 61-21; Pilot’s Operating Handbook, FAA-Approved Airplane Flight Manual.
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to an emergency descent.
  2. Recognizes the urgency of an emergency descent.
  3. Establishes the recommended emergency descent configuration and airspeed, and maintains that airspeed, ±5 knots.
  4. Demonstrates orientation, division of attention, and proper planning.
  5. Follows the appropriate emergency checklist.


REFERENCES: AC 61-21; Pilot’s Operating Handbook, FAA-Approved Airplane Flight Manual.
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to emergency approach and landing procedures.
  2. Establishes and maintains the recommended best-glide attitude, configuration, and airspeed, ±10 knots.
  3. Selects a suitable emergency landing area within gliding distance.
  4. Plans and follows a flight pattern to the selected landing area considering altitude, wind, terrain, and obstructions.
  5. Attempts to determine the reason for the malfunction and makes the correction, if possible.
  6. Maintains positive control of the airplane at all times.
  7. Follows the appropriate emergency checklist.

In flight training these requirements are met in two ways. First is the simulated power loss. In this scenario, the engine fails and the airplane becomes a heavy glider. This scenario can be played out in an airport’s traffic pattern, in which case the pilot attempts to land on the actual runway with no power. It can also be simulated away from an airport, which requires the pilot to select a suitable field for landing. In either case, the pilot does have some time as the airplane glides down.

The second scenario is a bit more hazard filled. Fire in flight or some other emergency that requires the people in the airplane to get out as soon as possible. During the power loss scenario, the pilot has the luxury of time. Not much time, but most light airplanes will afford several minutes of gliding time from a cruise altitude. When the airplane is on fire there would be no time to allow a best glide. If the best glide will get the airplane to the ground in three minutes, but the airplane will be completely engulfed in flames in two minutes, then you don’t want best glide! With flames on your toes, you want to aim the airplane at the ground and get down as fast as the airplane will fall.

This is the Emergency Descent. Most airplane manufacturers will include in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook an emergency descent procedure, but you might test out various speeds and configurations yourself. I discovered that in the complex airplane that I teach Commercial Pilots and Flight Instructors in I can get a much faster rate of descent by putting the landing gear down, the propeller full forward, pushing the nose over to the yellow arc, and leaving the flaps up. This gets me down faster than with a slower airspeed and the flaps down. You might have to experiment as well. The goal is knowing how to get down fast — very fast — get on the ground, and run.

Emergency Thinking: The aircraft’s limits are published to ensure that the aircraft is capable of subsequent flights. If in reality subsequent flights do not appear likely, creative re-interpretations of the aircraft’s published limits may be warranted.

Other emergency scenarios are not so easy to simulate in flight. For these a “table-top” approach is the next best thing. Play the “what if” game. Ask yourself, “What if this happened?” Read some of the accident reports. Place yourself in a situation where troubleshooting is required. I hope you never face a true emergency, but wouldn’t it be better to face an emergency that you had already thought through?

Scenario: What if the throttle cable broke or worked loose? A pilot is flying home after a short cross-country flight. She enters the traffic pattern and begins the pre-landing checklist. When she pulls the throttle back to reduce power, the power does not reduce. She moves the throttle again only to discover that the RPMs are remaining constant at a cruise power setting. The engine is operating on its own with no apparent control from the throttle. What do you do now? Would you wait until on the downwind leg and then turn off the fuel selector valve? Would you pull the mixture control to cutoff and do a “dead stick” landing? Would you lean the mixture and reduce the power that way? Think it through…

Scenario: What if the engine started to run rough? A pilot levels off in a light airplane at 10,500 feet MSL. The pilot had never been this high in this airplane before, but this trip takes him across a mountain ridge. The airplane seemed more sluggish and slower than ever before. Then it happened. The engine missed and then repeatedly ran rough. What do you do now? Has the mixture been properly leaned for this altitude? Is the primer in and locked? Would you try applying carburetor heat? Think it through…

Scenario: What if the door popped open immediately after takeoff? A pilot is leaving on a long awaited vacation flight. He loads his family and all their luggage into the airplane and away they go. They must wait in line behind several other airplanes before it is their turn for takeoff, but finally they are number one. Runway lined up, full power, airspeed alive. The airplane gets light, then breaks ground. Bang! A sudden loud rush of wind, flapping papers, and kids yelling. The airplane yaws to one side. At first the sounds catch the pilot off guard and it takes a few second to realize that the door next to his wife is open. What do you do now? Do you continue climbout? Is there enough runway ahead to land? Can you get the door shut while in flight? What effect on airplane control will an open door have? Think it through…

These are just a few examples, but you could invent many more.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Emergencies really put pilot decision making to the test. The only good thing you can say about emergencies is that they readily lend themselves to scenario-based training. Emergency scenarios are great opportunities to practice decision-making. Again, I hope you never are faced with an actual emergency. But if something does happen, you will be better off if you already had played “what if.