By J. PUTMAN
Engine failure after takeoff is surely one of the most dreaded occurrences in aviation.
Whether you survive is dependent upon several factors.
Of course the pivotal issue in these situations is the amount of altitude available for maneuvering. Altitude and speed are invaluable resources, so preserving and maximizing them is of supreme importance.
If an engine failure does occur immediately — or nearly so — after takeoff, common wisdom dictates that a return to the runway is not recommended.
This, in turn, is based largely upon another assumption: That a pilot will not be able to do anything for the first five seconds after the engine cuts off due to the wave of shock and disbelief that temporarily immobilizes him or her.
To make matters worse, pilots will sometimes “freeze” with the airplane in climb attitude, bleeding off airspeed very rapidly. Attempting a turn at this point can easily result in the deadly stall-spin.
Why is the five-second freeze considered to be so intractable?
Our nervous systems are capable of responding very quickly. After all, when someone fires a gun in a restaurant or a crowd, does it take you five seconds to duck?
Remaining in climb attitude for five seconds without power will get you into trouble fairly quickly. Conventional wisdom says push the nose forward immediately, and for good reason. You are at best glide speed, or close to it, and are therefore in a better position to make your turn back (in relatively coordinated flight), assuming a turn back is a feasible option.
Avoid an aerodynamic stall no matter what. It’s healthier to fly into a telephone pole than stall and go straight into the ground, as such crashes are almost invariably fatal. As the great Bob Hoover once said, “Fly the plane as far into the crash as possible.”
So what exactly gets in the way of an immediate response?
There is something called the General Adaption Syndrome, outlined by Hungarian endocrinologist Han Selye, which describes the hard-wired response of vertebrate animals to a perceived threat to survival. Its more technical term is the Hypothalamic-Anterior Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.
The other component in this response involves a branch of the autonomic nervous system called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).
The combined activation of these two systems is known more commonly as the “Fight or Flight Response.” As the term implies, it is an automatic response, taking place below the cerebral cortex (the thinking brain.)
If you are faced with a threat to your survival, nature doesn’t want you to think it over too much. It was not designed for a comprehensive examination of the facts in such situations. This immediate and automatic survival response is designed to keep us alive and has done so quite efficiently, long before the development of the neocortex.
As such, when an extreme emergency arises, the thinking brain is generally left out of the transaction. This is why severe anxiety eclipses your capacity for rational thought.
It is a hard-wired shutdown, not a character flaw or personal weakness. The cut off of the neocortex during periods of intense fear is automatic and has kept us alive — in most circumstances.
The fight or flight system came online when we were still being chased by animal predators and has had plenty of time and opportunity to refine and hone itself. It is designed to propel us into action in the face of life threatening danger: You either run from the threat or disable it.
But humans are new to the world of flying. There is no pre-programmed, evolution-guided, automatic response to a power failure in a single engine airplane 300′ off the ground.
So we have to program ourselves.
In an emergency situation you either cut off thinking so you can act or you cut off fear so you can think. The idea is to keep fear below the fight/flight tripwire.
The best way to do that is to familiarize yourself with the worst case scenario by thinking it all the way through in as much nuance and detail as possible — repeatedly. Consider it a somewhat uncomfortable form of “mindfulness” training, but a necessary one.
The best thing to do is practice and practice some more, and not just in the air. Practice involves a great deal of mental rehearsal. For every hour spent in the air, spend two hours mentally reviewing the flight, imagining all possible scenarios.
This is what the Blue Angels do. They spend hours sitting in a quiet room with their eyes closed imaging the nuances of every move. They actually sit in formation, listening to the commands of the leader. It is almost a meditative exercise and is considered to be a crucial part of their training.
Through focused mental rehearsal, pilots are training their visual, proprioceptive and vestibular systems. In performing such exercises, the aircraft almost becomes an extension of your own body.
Mental rehearsal is key. Since an engine out occurrence is most likely to happen at your beloved home airport, examine what you can do if the unthinkable happens there. Mentally visualize the takeoff run and the surrounding area. What would you do if your engine failed at 50′, 100′, 200′, 300′, etc.
At 50 you might have enough runway to spare to land on it. At 100′ to 200′ maybe a few S turns can keep you at least inside the perimeter. Airport property is generally flat and sparse and emergency services are within easy reach.
The given here is that, even if you can’t make the runway, it is better to land on the airport grounds (almost anywhere inside the fence) than go plowing out into a densely populated neighborhood.
Above 300’, examine what is directly and indirectly in front of you. Be creative. What if you turn your crosswind at a lower altitude? In that way you will be closer to the airport property and will already have turned the first 90° back to the airport if a failure should occur.
Whether you attempt a turn-back or go straight ahead, retaining airspeed by keeping the nose down to offset the power loss is imperative. Practice steep turns in the extreme nose down position. Kind of scary, but a pretty good way to stay out of a stall in an emergency turn back.
Another thing to be aware of is that after you have turned to your selected landing area and the ground is getting uncomfortably close and your landing point is still uncomfortably far, there is a tendency to pull the nose up without even realizing it — until it’s too late. Find what your limitations are.
Practice turn-backs to the airport at altitude. And of course, if you are attempting to return to the runway from which you took off, the turn is not a mere 180°. You will likely end up turning through ~ 300° before you’re done.
In a PA-28 or a C-172, I can turn through 270°, remain in coordinated flight and lose around 400′. What’s my secret? I’m snug and secure at 4,000′ and I know when the power loss is coming. I am also comforted by the fact that engine power is there waiting for me whenever I want it back. As such, it is a relatively relaxed event, so relaxed, in fact, that my Sympathetic Nervous System does not step in the way of a smooth response to the power loss.
The real thing near the ground is something else again. The paralyzing shock wave of fear is not part of the transaction when you’re over the practice area. So practice should be intended to shave precious seconds from the shock-induced time lag from engine failure to pitching down.
Mastering the Sympathetic Nervous System is part of overcoming the intractable nature of the five-second freeze. I say this having never faced the “real thing” and so these are merely suggestions and ideas to examine.
We don’t want pilots who are overconfident about turning back to the runway. But we also don’t want them to robotically go straight ahead when it may be endangering others.
Going straight ahead may not be an option. It may make sense from an aviating standpoint. But the question is what’s in front of you? A mall? A school yard full of kids?
At a given airport, we have to make all these decisions ahead of time. A life-saving response is not something you can expect to throw together in a moment of crisis as you may be forced to do something that you are not fully prepared to do in order to protect people on the ground.
John Putman M.A., M.S., is a pilot, as well as a clinician and researcher in the field of electroencephalography (EEG), neuro-feedback and neuro-diagnostics. He is also an engineer and a psychotherapist. He is affiliated with The EEG Institute and the San Fernando Valley Mental Health Center in Los Angeles.