Presence of mind

The first time I took the aircraft controls away from a copilot, it was from a Marine Corps aircraft commander. He’d flown in Iraq. He’d balanced his Sikorsky CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter — a twin-rotored behemoth — off the edge of a San Francisco high-rise while troops “on exercises” stormed out the back.

Me? I’d gotten my private helicopter license less than three weeks earlier in a Robinson R-22, a runt of an aircraft — the same helicopter we were now flying along the LA coast.

I let him fly for a bit. He had thousands of hours in turbine helos. I had maybe 75 in reciprocating engine trainers. He’d battled bullets, sandstorms and the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard. I’d battled self-doubts.

But I, the newbie, nervous Nellie, was hyper-situationally aware. I saw our altitude decreasing despite no reduction in the throttle. I recognized it immediately as “settling with power,” a dangerous phenomenon, similar to stalling an airplane. If not corrected quickly, it will break a helicopter, and injure or kill its passengers.

Helicopter pilots are taught to avoid this condition at all costs. I would have expected him to recognize it, but clearly he didn’t. So I took the controls away from a decorated war hero.

“My controls,” I said, exerting power over the cyclic and collective. “Tell you what. Why don’t we just move over here and out of our own dirty rotor wash.”

He glared at me. I felt my palms get sweaty. He furrowed his brow and squinted at me. I felt my breathing get shallow. He sneered. I tried to explain, “I was just…”

“I know what you were just doing! You were saving our butts. I didn’t even notice we were settling until it was too late. Good job, rookie.”

Phew. That felt good, having the presence of mind to take corrective action. It felt even better to be acknowledged by a more experienced pilot. What felt the best was knowing that I had the presence of mind — even if only brought on by my wife’s warning: “If you die in a helicopter crash, I’m going to kick your ass.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the phrase “presence of mind” as “self-control so maintained in an emergency or in an embarrassing situation that one can say or do the right thing.”

Sometimes the difference between an incident and an accident is a pilot’s ability to think on the fly, to maintain self-control. Fortunately, my incident didn’t require a report to the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) to immortalize it. Until now, it has just been a fond memory I pull out at the pilot’s expense in front of his old Marine Corps buddies.

One pilot who did file a report — often known as a NASA report — suffered loss of engine power immediately after takeoff. After running through his aircraft’s immediate action items — checking the fuel pump, the mixture and the fuel valve position — he looked at the ignition. The key was missing and nowhere in sight.

The pilot notified ATC of his problem and requested to land on a runway NOTAM’ed closed and unusable. ATC called negative and put the pilot No. 2 behind an aircraft on a four-mile final to runway in use. The pilot, unable to maintain altitude, called negative on that and simultaneously declared an emergency with the intention of landing on the closed runway. He had the presence of mind to know that the closed and unusable runway was usable enough for his purposes. He landed without incident.

It turned out that a child riding up front had accidentally kicked the key out of the ignition. It’s possible the pilot wouldn’t have been around to tell the tale if he hadn’t overridden an ATC directive.

In another incident, a pilot was flying solo in a King Air 200 at flight level 240 when his windshield cracked. It obstructed his vision and presented a potentially dangerous physical hazard.

The King Air 200 Quick Reference Handbook’s emergency checklist for such an event has only two items: 1) if the outer panel cracks, no action is required; 2) if the inner panel cracks, “descend or maintain less than 4 PSI cabin differential within 10 minutes.” This particular pilot had the presence of mind to move from the left seat he was occupying to the empty right seat. He then ran his QRH checklist from the copilot seat.

Moving from the left to the right seat afforded that pilot an unobstructed view. It also offered him protection from flying glass shards had the cracked windshield failed inward during his emergency descent and landing. Sounds obvious when reading it, but ask yourself, would you have thought of it?

It takes a great deal more presence of mind to overcome an event rarely trained for in the general aviation world — runaway electric trim coupled with an autopilot that fails to turn off. This next NASA report reminds me of an old saying in aviation: “Fly the aircraft all the way to engine shut down.”

“Twenty minutes into the flight, ATC told me to go to 8,000 feet. I was on autopilot — a G-1000 glass cockpit with a GFC-700 autopilot. I set us up for 8,000 feet, and we simply blew straight through it. I disengaged the autopilot to fly by hand and re-establish, but it wouldn’t disengage and I was still climbing. I attempted to disengage using the AP disconnect switch and I pulled the circuit breaker, but the autopilot would not disengage. I pushed with all my might against the yoke, and my copilot had her knees buried in the yoke just to get the aircraft to stop climbing. We reduced power and I came left as I called Mayday.” The pilot went on to declare an emergency.

“ATC asked if I wanted a closer airport, but I didn’t feel I had enough control of the aircraft to burn that much altitude. We worked our way back to my preferred airport, based on power reductions and slow, painful turns. Every time I tried to override the autopilot to the right, we shot straight up. I finally got the destination Tower on the radio and advised them of my situation.”

This pilot also told Tower of his decision to attempt a landing using only manual trim and power.

“We lined up on a long eight-mile final approach with direct headwinds and came in with no flaps and no real yoke control. We landed safely.”

I reckon those two pilots will be able to dine out on that story for the rest of their lives. At the airlines, we were drilled on just such types of runaway trim and autopilot failure emergencies. How often as a GA pilot have you even thought about such an event, much less “chair flown” that scenario in your head?

For some people, presence of mind comes naturally. For most of us though, it comes from physically or mentally practicing scenarios.

At the airlines, I flew for several months with a captain who would pepper me with non-QRH’ed worst-case scenarios he’d concocted. Every single leg. Of every single trip. It was a timed game. We’d have to noodle a solution to its best outcome before we began our descent checklist.

I encourage my students to rehearse unusual, as well as normal, scenarios in their heads when not flying. It keeps their brains engaged in aviation even when they’re on the ground.

Presence of mind also can come from mastery of your aircraft, and you don’t have to be a commercial pilot to achieve that. Thorough knowledge of your airplane’s systems and capabilities, no matter how simple they are, allows you to improvise a creative solution to a bad situation, should you ever find yourself in one.

Whenever I encounter members of the military, I thank them for their service. In this instance, I’d like to thank the pilots who submitted the three NASA reports above for sharing their stories. I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say learning how they handled their situations has made me a better pilot.


  1. Scott Allen says

    Jeffrey, GREAT article, and a significant display of grit on your part to take it away from the experienced 46-driver who was nonetheless an inexperienced R-22 driver. He’d apparently lost SA re: descent/power/airspeed relationships in an unfamiliar aircraft. Good thing to always quietly monitor your copilot, especially the great ones. Closest I ever came to making a hole in the water was with a good buddy and one of the finest pilots with whom I ever flew. He experienced vertigo at about fifty five feet (no typo) over the water— at night— under a solid overcast. It all worked out, but it was close; turned out he’d never experienced vertigo and believed (truly) that he was immune. There was no arrogance in the man whatsoever, he just thought he was immune to vertigo, but nobody is, that’s the way we’re hard-wirde in our inner ears. PS I was a ‘Phrog’ (CH-46E) guy myself in the Corps, can believe that if your co-pilot had encountered settling with power in a 46, he’d have been on it like velcro, but the 22 is, to say the least, a VERY different platform. A 22 is the most honest aircraft I’ve ever flown; does exactly what you tell it to; the one trick seemed to be avoiding telling it to kill you. Final detail, Progs, i.e., CH-46s (and also Army/Air Force Chinooks, CH-47s) were BoeingVertol (vice Sikorsky) products (hence the BV-107 type rating designator for the 46s.)

  2. J. S. says

    Excellent article. One should have chair flown, or have a canned response already in their head for most emergency situations. Troubleshooting a problem while one’s veins are shot full of adrenalin is usually not effective. I’ve seen a plane flown all the way to the crash with the fuel valve selecting an empty aux tank while the mains were full. How can this happen? When the engine fails, the fuel selector should be one of the first things the pilot checks and that should be a practiced and ingrained reaction. Despite my previous admonishments, the pilot hadn’t seen the need to practice for emergency scenarios, so when he needed it, he had no canned response and did practically everything wrong with one exception. The pilot kept control of the plane and flew it into the crash well enough to walk away from the wreck.

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