Inflight Student Pilot Blog (Mayday Mayday)
Student Pilot: 12.5 Hours
Mayday, mayday! Let’s hope those are words I never need to use in my years as a private pilot, but nonetheless, as a pilot, it is my responsibility to be ready for an emergency if one does happen, especially if carrying passengers. CFI Drew and I spent a lesson dedicated to diagnosing and responding to emergencies as in addition to potentially being lifesaving, emergencies are also a skill I will be tested on at the checkride. Emergencies can of course come in all types and severities, but the ones we worked on initially were focused on engine failures, fires, and electrical/radio issues. It quickly became apparent that like most other aspects of flight training, the goal of emergencies practice was to prepare the student pilot to have good reflexes and decision making in the event of a real emergency by using repetition. From now on in my training, I am told I should expect to have a simulated “emergency” pop up at any time and be able to respond to it. As I was reading more about emergencies, I found an interesting three-step way (all ending in “-ate” by the way) to think about the process of responding to an emergency (this is also applicable to almost every other phase of flight):
- Aviate – Fly the plane! It is always your responsibility as pilot in command to control the airplane. If your engine fails that is a serious emergency. But, if you put 100% of your focus in to troubleshooting with your head down and put your plane in to an unrecoverable stall and spin then you’ve taken a serious emergency and just turned it into a likely fatal one. That sounds like a less than ideal situation to me… While maintaining control, the next step (in an engine failure scenario) is to pitch for best glide speed, which will provide you with the most forward distance of travel for your plane while in a power off glide (my Cessna 172 trainer’s best glide speed is ~65 KIAS). Generally, a 172 will glide about 1.5 nautical miles per 1,000 ft of altitude, so you have some time and distance to work with. It is up to the pilot to make the best use of that time and distance.
- Navigate – When the plane is under control and at best glide speed, your next goal is to identify and pick an appropriate landing spot. Of course, your plan for landing should reflect the severity of the emergency being experienced. My plan would be quite different for a complete engine failure versus something like an electrical failure. If your engine fails, you pick a nearby airport, field, or road to try to get the plane down safely. If it is an electrical failure and the plane is still flying (for now), you probably aren’t going to ditch the plane in the nearest field, but rather are going to find a nearby airport to land at and get the problem resolved on the ground. If your passenger ate Taco Bell and is having stomach issues… well there is nothing in the manual for that, but best judgment would probably say not to crash land in a field.
- Communicate – While still keeping focus on steps #1 and #2, now you start to communicate. Again, your level and type of communication will vary depending on your emergency, but it is best practice to alert others to your emergency and to use any available resources both within and outside of the cockpit. The universal emergency radiofrequency is 121.5, which is monitored by ATC, other airplanes, and emergency services. You can also declare an emergency to ATC on the standard tower frequency. By declaring an emergency, you are given the right of way over all other aircraft, and if closest to a tower-controlled airport you will be given priority to land. You should also use your transponder to alert others to your position by squawking an emergency frequency (7700 – general emergency; 7600 – comms failure; 7500 – hijacking). If you need to use 7500 as a private pilot you might want to find new family/friends to fly with! Emergencies are a high pilot workload event, so don’t forget to use outside resources in an emergency situation if able. A passenger can help you read through a checklist even if they don’t know the first thing about aviation. ATC can provide navigational guidance or other resources to help alleviate some of the workload.
- ‘Checklist-ate’ (bonus) – OK, I made this one up. But, it is still a reminder to use your emergency checklists when and if able to help troubleshoot the problem. It is easy to remember all the different things to check that could be causing the problem when on the ground, but in a real emergency situation you may need the checklist to jog your memory to check something as simple as the fuel selector valve, or that your primer came unlocked and is flooding the engine.
Planes are more reliable than ever and are constantly being inspected to prevent emergencies from arising, but even so I am still fully expecting to encounter some sort of emergency in my days as a pilot. I just hope it isn’t a serious one, and if it is that my emergency training will take hold and I will handle it. Like buying life insurance, I’ll prepare for the worst but if it isn’t ever needed then that is just fine by me.
On a slightly less life-threatening note, now comes the time in my training for the real test of my skills. Landings. I’ve observed landings several times so far and understand the basic process, but I’ll put it all together and start landing the plane on my own. Before we go full-on into landings, CFI Drew and I practice one more step that will likely be used several times during our landing practice, and that step is ‘go arounds’. Just like it sounds, a go around is the process of aborting a landing and safely returning to the traffic pattern for another landing attempt. Go arounds can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe an animal or an errant aircraft has wandered on to the runway, or more likely as a student pilot the final approach in to landing isn’t quite stabilized and is unsafe. A tip from wise CFI Drew is “if you are convincing yourself you can salvage a landing, it is probably best to go around”. If you read at all about aviation you have probably heard the term ‘Landing Expectancy’, or the slightly less technical term “get-there-itis”, which happens when a pilot is determined to reach their destination even if the conditions are dangerous. In the case of landings, this can happen on a flight with a poorly executed final approach to land and rather than go around, the pilot wants to just “get there” and try to salvage the landing to avoid having to take an extra five minutes to fly the traffic pattern again. I’m going to do my best to try to avoid get-there-itis as a pilot.
Everyone wants to be ‘a natural’ at something, meaning whatever thing you are working on just happens effortlessly and you can master it very quickly. After my first landing lesson, I am here to tell you that I am not a natural at landings. In fact, I’d venture to guess that 99% of student pilots are not naturals at landings. My first landings were not pretty, and that is IF we even got to the point of landing instead of doing a go-around. As my CFI, Drew didn’t let me get in a situation where we were going to have an unsafe landing, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have some hard landings. The concept of landings is not all that hard to understand, but executing is another ballgame. You have to be able to coordinate your airspeed, descent rate, longitudinal axis (bank), yaw axis (direction your nose is pointing), and timing and pitch of your round out, flare, and touch down to a high degree of accuracy in order to get a smooth and safe landing. That is a lot of things to coordinate even in the most ideal weather conditions, but layer in winds and other variables and it adds another level of difficulty. My next several lessons will be focused on landings so I plan to delve deeper into them in future posts, but the first landing lesson definitely wasn’t an uplifting experience. I’m told it almost never is for new pilots, but that landings always click for every student at some point, and once they do it becomes one of the more fun parts of flying. I just hope landings click for me before the wheels of the Cessna trainer click right off the plane.
Student Pilot Tip of the Week: Improving Radio Communications
My landing game might not be A+ quite yet, but I have taken some strides in the radio communications department. I am handling the majority of the radio communications and completing them with fewer errors than before. I’ll still say something really dumb/embarrassing over the radios from time to time, to which CFI Drew will respond with a loud laugh at my expense (in a mostly joking way), but overall I’m moving in the right direction. In case you are wondering, I will also get an occasional good laugh at CFI Drew’s expense when he messes something up to. Ask him about the time he forgot his headset and didn’t realize it until after we had already started the engine so we had to shut down and wait for him to go get it. I’ve digressed… but anyway, here are a few of my student pilot tips that I found helpful in getting up to speed on radio communications:
- net – A great free website (and app if you want to download it) that lets you listen in live to the two-way radio communications at airports around the world. I’ve made it a habit of listening to the live feed for KFCM on my ~30-minute drive to my lessons as a way to better learn ATC communications. Listening also has the added benefit of conveying the current active runways and understanding the current flow of the traffic patterns so you know what to expect during your lessons.
- Practice before you speak – In a pilot-initiated radio call, I usually try to practice what I plan to say in my head just to get the phrasing and information correct in my mind before keying the mic.
- Slow down – My instinct when starting was to try to speak quickly in order to sound like the other more experienced pilots. Efficiency is important, but slowing down your cadence will give your brain more time to process and speak accurately. You can always speed up communications as you get more proficient.
- Listen for understanding, not memorization – I made a lot of progress when I stopped trying to listen, memorize, and repeat verbatim what the controller said. Instead, I shifted my focus to comprehending what ATC just cleared me for or asked me to do, and then repeating the critical parts of the message back without trying to memorize everything word for word.
- Anticipate – Once you get a little experience with ATC, you quickly learn that radio comms follow a typical pattern and that the range of information conveyed is actually pretty limited. If you start to anticipate and ready yourself for calls before they come in, you will likely be better at catching and understanding them. However, anticipating and assuming are two different things, so make sure not to make assumptions about what you will be cleared to do that end up not being correct. If you make assumptions, your brain may continue to think your original assumption is correct even if your actual direction from ATC is something very different.
This does it for blog post #4 of the Inflight Student Pilot Blog. Until next time, live life in the left seat!
Disclaimer: This is a student pilot blog. While I strive for accuracy when communicating concepts or elements from my training, this blog should never be relied on as being 100% accurate. My experience as a student pilot may also differ from what others experience. Opinions expressed are my own, and do not reflect opinions of Inflight Pilot Training.