Nobody wants an emergency to happen while flying. But everyone should be prepared for one in case it does. Knowing what to do in case something goes wrong is fundamental to being a competent pilot. That competence is achieved through preparation. Emerging unscathed from emergencies comes down to one thing: being prepared. Here are a few reminders of things to do, to achieve that level of preparedness.
Check the equipment in your cockpit. Make sure the seatbelts are in good shape, and that they are properly bolted to the airframe’s structure. If seatbelts are old, replace them: some manufacturers recommend replacing seatbelts every ten years, even if their condition appears good.
Have the latest ELT in your aircraft. (These days, that means one with a 406 MHz beacon.) Also, carry a handheld radio with an antenna sufficient to maximise its use. Pack a SPOT Satellite Messenger in your flight bag, and a fully charged cell phone too: redundancy is excellent survival insurance in case you’re down and need to be found.
Have a survival kit in the airplane, and make sure it’s equipped with everything that could ever be required for survival. Surviving an accident is a blessing. Surviving an accident, but not the wait to be found, is a curse.
Before departing on your flight, plan the route carefully. Have a route that gives you gliding distance to airports along your way. And, if a direct route to your destination doesn’t give you that gliding distance, then plan a route that does. Always have an emergency field in mind; if it’s not an airport, always be aware of the landscape below you in case you need to get down – or are forced down – in a hurry.
Use VFR flight following along your entire route: immediate assistance will be there for you if you experience an emergency situation. And know your GPS too: should that emergency situation arise, you’ll know which keys to press on your GPS unit to obtain a track to the nearest airport. Plan your fuel carefully. And keep in mind that your airplane manufacturer’s performance charts are given for ideal conditions. In other words, when you determine your fuel burn based on the charts, give yourself a buffer by adding ten percent to your calculation. The same applies to your estimated speed en route: subtract five percent from the number you get from your cruise performance chart. Your flight is not likely to be as efficient, nor under the precise conditions, as that of the test pilot from whom those best chart values were derived.
Do just as the airlines do: brief your passengers before you take off. Tell them what you’ll do in the event of an emergency, and tell them what they should do too. Most importantly, tell them how to egress from the aircraft as quickly and efficiently as possible, in case you have to crash-land. If flying with other pilots as passengers, assign them explicit roles – for instance, pinpointing your location and making the radio mayday calls – to help reduce your workload as pilot-in-command.
If the engine quits, know what to do without even thinking about it. Establish your aircraft’s best glide and minimize its sink rate. Pick a field upon which to land (if getting to an airport is impossible), declare your emergency, and never stop flying your aircraft while troubleshooting the problem if you’re able.
Plan as if an emergency could happen on every given flight. It’s your greatest guarantee of a positive outcome in case something goes wrong while aloft.