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Surviving an Engine Failure


Preparing for emergencies is the best way to survive them. And while many pilots may find the protocol of practicing for emergency situations stressful in themselves, think of the stress of not being prepared if you’re forced into an emergency with which you actually have to deal. The middle of an emergency is not the time to wish you’d practiced for it before it started.


Engine failure is one of those threats for which one can fairly easily prepare. Statistically, over thirty percent of such failures owe their cause to mechanical reasons, (such as improper maintenance, oil starvation, carburettor ice, etc.). Over fifty percent of failures are fuel

starvation issues, (such as fuel mismanagement, debris or corrosion in the fuel system, failure to secure a fuel tank cap, switching to an empty tank, etc.). Paradoxically, simulated engine failure exercises make up a portion of the remaining reasons as to why dead engines

put aircraft into “real” unintended emergencies.


Common themes run through the analyses of engine failure incidents. Failure of pilots to follow memory items, and to confirm and verify emergency action items, is one of those themes. “Not knowing one’s aircraft” is another theme. Poor pre-flight planning, however, may the biggest theme of all. It’s estimated that almost eighty percent of engine failures are the result of pilot mistakes and oversights.


Using a checklist is one of the most effective ways to handle an engine failure. And, taken a step further, committing the items within that checklist to memory can make the handling of that emergency as effective as cockpit procedures can be.


Have memory action items rehearsed. A for airspeed: pick the correct best glide speed. B for best field: chose it and go for it. C for cockpit: know where everything is that you need to check in the cockpit. D for declare: broadcast that you have an emergency. E for ELT: know where it is, and how to activate it if necessary. F for fly the airplane: you’re now a glider pilot, so stay calm and think as glider pilots do. G for get ready to get out: if the landing doesn’t go according to plan, have a plan to vacate the cockpit as quickly as you can once you’re on the ground.


When the engine quits, chose and establish an airspeed. Do you want your prop windmilling or stationary? (Windmilling props create more drag than stationary props.) Pick the correct speed for the conditions: you want minimum descent rate, maximum range, and minimum turn rates to keep altitude loss during manoeuvring to a minimum.


When scouting for your best option for an emergency landing, home in quickly on the best general area, then select the best field within that area.


Plan your approach, visualizing it as if it is an approach you’d do for any “normal” landing. Know that landing on a road is not always the better option to a field. While alert motorists can usually get out of your way, unseen power lines are there to stay, and can rip the wings off your airplane, or entangle it like an angry octopus, just when you think you’re about to make it safely onto the ground.


Always remember that altitude is your friend. You’ll have more time, from higher up, to complete the items in your emergency checklist. You’ll better see more landing options. You’ll have better radio coverage. But remember that, if your engine is sputtering, “Direct To” on your GPS may not be such a good idea if there’s higher elevation in your way.


Practice and prepare. Before you take off, remind yourself of your options in case of an engine failure, be it on take off or en route. Know the capabilities of your aircraft, should its engine shut itself off. Practice engine failure drills so that if you need them, you can execute them like unconscious conditioned responses.


And, never forget what all pilots are taught: aviate, navigate, and then communicate. Worry about your skin first, your aircraft second, and any possible enforcement third.


There’s always time to do things right; but there’s seldom time to do things over.