Emergencies: The Voices of Experience


Surviving emergencies depends on you knowing your airplane. Memorize the procedures listed in the pilot’s operating manual. Then practice, practice, practice to foster quick thinking and fast, correct responses. You cannot anticipate every scenario, but you can develop reliable procedures and the attitude of continuing to fly the airplane, no matter what. The minute you give up in a low level environment, you are doomed, and a threat to the people around you. Things happen fast and you have a responsibility to protect the folks who come to see us fly.

Wayne Handley

Engine Failures: I teach a 270 overhead approach. I use 1,500 feet for the Extra and the Pitts S-2. If you are going cross country, first of all you are not going to know exactly what your altitude is AGL. But I practice this at 1500 feet and I’ve developed an eye for what the altitude looks like and I can comfortably do a 270. I use a 270, rather than the 360 they taught us in the Navy because I can more accurately determine when I am over the point of intended landing flying across the runway, rather than going up it. So I fly over this point of intended landing, do a 270 degree turn, trim it so I am at my optimum glide speed because I do not want to get fast. In the technique I am going to describe, I do not want to get fast.

When I fly over the point of intended landing, my first turn, as I start, that’s a little tighter than the rest of it because I want to get in a position, relative to the wing, where I can see something recognizable down there close to that point of intended landing. Then I elongate like a downwind and then I am flying my turn out there as I am turning through 90 degrees and around.

And the reason I don’t want to be fast is because I intentionally want to be high. Then I work the slip down. If it looks like I am going to be low, I take the slip out. If I am high, I slip it more aggressively and, then, just in a couple of tries, you can get dead accurate with that technique. So I work on that for a total engine failure.

I talk people through that procedure and encourage them to practice it. The other thing I talk about is the way our aerobatic governors and counterweights are set up to go to coarse pitch, instead of fine pitch. I want people to practice that technique with the prop control pulled all the way out so they can see how much better the airplane glides and how much less drag there is.

Fire: The thing I want people to think about is, if you have a fire develop in your airplane, you can get higher, to bail out, quicker than you can land and get out of it, in most all cases. Now, what is underneath you? You’re responsible, if there is a city, an air show crowd, houses, or whatever, they’ve got to be your number one priority. You cannot sacrifice them and their safety for your ass. So it’s a double edge sword.

A number of years ago, an aerobatic pilot had a counterweight on his prop go. Shook the shit out of the airplane, and he was too low to bail out. I don’t know if he jerked the throttle back, but he was in the landing pattern when a fuel line broke, or something. Fuel in the airplane got loose, and there was some ignition, somehow, whether it was a backfire or whether he turned the master switch off, which would cause a spark itself, or whatever. But he caught on fire and he died. He didn’t have any feet to work with when he got on the ground and the plane got upside down and he died the next day.

Before this accident, we didn’t think much about Nomex, but — after it — we all got Nomex, and were very religious about it on Sundays. But, in practice on Thursdays, we are out there in our Levis and tee shirts. But for show, when somebody was looking, we had our Nomex on.

If you are out in the boondocks, where chances of the airplane not impacting anything of value, most times, you can get up and out. Say you are at 700-800 feet and a fire breaks out, you can zoom the airplane. I’m thinking, if I don’t have a rate of descent and I can get out of the airplane at 1000 feet, I’ve got plenty of time to open a parachute.

Communications failure: I don’t spend much time worrying about that since it is briefed at every air show.

Disorientation at an air show where you have cross runways: it is real easy to have happen. You do some kind of tumbling maneuver and pick up the wrong runway when you come out. At Battle Creek, you are flying the show line over one runway and there is a 90 degree cross runway.  The audience is in a big V shape coming back out towards the main runway. And someone — I forgot who it was — did some kind of octafluger [made-up maneuver name] and pulled out of it and was headed right into the V of the audience. There was no graceful way out of that one, but I think I was some place like Terre Haute on practice day and the audience and blue tents were all on my left and I did a tumble and recovered and flew out of and there was nothing over there but trees. Where’d everybody go?

David Martin

I practice — not just air shows, but if the engine quits here, if the engine quits there — a lot. I do it a lot in my tumbles. The great thing about the tumbles that I do is that, when the power comes off, they will quit tumbling. It is not like you need the power to recover. I try to think of the worst place in my air show, if the engine quit, what I am going to do? Then I practice that. Of course, not at air show altitude, but 1,000 feet or higher. I think of the worst thing that can happen engine-wise, distraction-wise, with that thought, then see what happens.

I know in my airplane, the best way to recover. I also did that when I was flying the Bucker Jungmeister. Of course, it is very power limited. I was doing a lot of stuff at the very minimum speed because I had to. So I practiced in it differently. In the CAP, if the engine quits on top of a loop, [it’s not a] big deal. In a Jungmeister, if the engine quits at the top of a loop, it’s at 500 feet. The top of a loop is really low and, in the Jungmeister, I am doing them on the deck. It’s going to be different. What is it going to do? So, when I fly air shows, that is what I think about and I practice that. And I kind of try to practice the worst scenario of what happens.

And there are some things you can’t practice, the things we really worry about, control failure, airplane failure. You can practice a little bit like small control failure, rudder failure or aileron or something, but I think the engine thing is the worst, the big deal.

Seatbelts seem to be a problem. Little stuff like that. You’ve got to be strapped in. If you are doing a ride, roll upside down and you are a little loose, no big deal. But if you are in an air show environment, it is a really big deal. I just can’t look at my airplane enough. I am always looking at it. What is that little problem that is going to sneak up that I have not thought about?

I’ve never had any serious emergencies. The CAP has that little faring at the bottom and I always thought, “I wonder if that thing gets a little loose if it would get the rudder to hang a little bit? It did that one time and it was on a competition flight and it was not any really big deal, but the rudder was definitely not fully functional.

You know, you can’t do it in the CAP because of the electric trim, but I’ve practiced in other airplanes like the Jungmeister, just landing with the trim. And you can do it in the Jungmeister. The Jungmeister has that good trim system. It is just a trim tab on the back of the elevator. It is not a servo trim. It’s just a trim, so it’s pretty easy in the Jungmeister. I think I used to do that in the Laser, also. That is one thing I don’t like about the CAP. The electrical trim is not fast enough for you to fly with it. It is a little slow.

I’ve been really lucky. I haven’t really had any serious emergencies. Not doing aerobatics. I’ve had so many failures, but not doing aerobatics. I try to think about practicing that. I practice more the things that I think are going to be the worst if they happen.

Warren Pietsch

In the war birds we sit down and talk about emergencies quite a bit. What am I going to do if the engine quits right here? What is the first thing you are going to do to get more performance out of the airplane?

In the war birds, because of the size of the propellers and the engines, the drag from the propellers in fine pitch versus coarse pitch is a big thing in those sized airplane. So, from the beginning of starting to train in them, if you have an engine failure you are looking to extend your glide. You want to pull the prop back. You can’t feather it, but at least you can steepen it up and increase your glide quite a bit.

So as we talk about doing aerobatic stuff, say, as you are doing a Cuban 8, just as you get to the vertical your engine quits for some reason, one of the things you can do to try to sustain that energy as much as possible is to pull the prop control back to the aft stop and try to keep some of that momentum. It will clean the propeller up and will give it an instantaneous surge because of the increase in pitch with the rotation. It will give you just a little more pull. And there is a discussion about practicing overhead approaches and simulated engine out procedures in the Mustang and stuff. I don’t think that the light airplane guys put as much emphasis into that.

Dale Snodgrass

The only thing in an emergency is that you have to know the airplane, know what to do and know what the procedures are to do after that. Make sure you know what they are.

We all live with what we call bold face, where you have every kind of key emergency in the airplane committed to memory and you actually physically write them down on a board. It says, “Okay, Fire in Flight, Engine Out Profile,” and you go through the procedures. There are like four steps that you need to have in your brain. This is what I am going to do.

Departure, loss of control, spin recovery technique, and so on; all this stuff is laid out. It’s in a form and we fill it out and then we review it before we go. On our team, we fill it out once a month and/or if we haven’t flown in two weeks, for whatever airplane we are going into. That is whether we are going to an air show or going to do something tactical. It is basically a three page event and that is all committed to memory. So a guy needs to understand the key things he is going to do in an airplane if an emergency happens. That is part A.

Then the other big thing to do is, if you have an emergency in an air show environment, or something happens to the airplane, what are you going to do? The first thing is, you would be surprised what a lot of people continue to press on with. So, we religiously brief that if anything happens, like for instance in a formation event, if a guy has an issue, he calls, “Knock it off,” and everybody acknowledges, “Knock it off,”   across the flight, on our frequency. So, one’s knocking off, two’s knocking off, three’s knocking off, four’s knocking off, five’s knocking off. Then we have specific places to go.

When I’m flying with the team, I go on the hot side, which is the crowd side at X altitude, the diamond goes behind the crowd at Y altitude. Then we already have contracts within the team where, if a guy has an issue, we have decided who is going to peel off and go and fly next to him and check him out. So you have all those kind of things.

But if you are a solo performer, you just say, “This is exactly what I am going to do.” Obviously, if I have an engine failure I am going to intercept my engine out profile, whatever that is.

So, what is your engine out profile? That is what I do in an emergency.

Bill Stein

The bailout and parachute considerations: here is what I heard Wayne Handley say, “The people who come to air shows today believe they are coming to a safe event. They did not knowingly accept additional risk in their life coming to the air show. You, the pilot, have accepted all of the additional risk in your life and in full. So I would be hard pressed to bailout and let my plane hit the crowd.”

Consider that in the whole thing. You decided. You are flying the show. You are accepting the risk. These people are not. That is not how we are marketing. It is not, “Cheat death, come out to the air show,” right? And it shouldn’t really be, “Come watch the pilot cheat death at the air show.” But that is kind of how it is, some years more than others. But it really shouldn’t be, “Cheat death, come watch an air show.”

Stuctural failure: holy crap! Control failures in my airplane have been the most minor stuff. I have had to push out of tail slides twice instead of pulling out of them, because I had no back stick. And this is at air show altitudes. This is ten years ago. I was trying to figure out how to fly. And then you push up and climb up to 30,000 feet or something (laughs), roll upright. Okay? Am I bailing out? Then you try to figure out what is going on. Small pieces of plastic have kept me from being able to pull back on the control. So you tell people about it.

Your airplane has to be a sterile environment 100 percent of the time. Otherwise, it’s not. There are plenty of stories of things dropping out of pockets into the airplane and getting lost until they turn up in the controls. I can tell stories. I’ve got all these Red Baron stories, like, having a camera bouncing around and I grab it as it comes back by past me and I ask my passenger, “Have you got everything?” Oh yeah, I’m all good. “Well, here is your big ass camera that would be back in my controls.”

I had a problem with my Edge on a cross country and I was past Steamboat, past Hayden before Vernal, Utah. It’s pretty bumpy terrain there and it is pretty high and my engine stops. I think, “Holy Cow! My engine just stopped.” And full rich and all this stuff. And, after about 30 seconds, it starts back up and I’m climbing back up. “Holy crap!” I’m thinking. “What altitude am I getting out?” And it occurred to me that for all the great intent that I had on having a good bailout plan, I didn’t actually have a good bailout plan.

When I get out, my canopy is probably going to hit me, right? So what do I do about that? And it was the second time that my engine stopped and I am descending down to 2,500 feet above the ground, where I am finally going to get out of this thing, and it’s like, it is in fact, a bunch of right rudder. Then I jettison the canopy. Then I’m just going to pull it away from me, and stuff like that.

Even an upright, straight and level bailout, I didn’t have figured out after ten years of owning that airplane, until the engine stopped. So I talk to people. You think you know it, but you don’t. You’ve actually got to go through all that.

What happened is, there is an AN fitting that goes into the fuel pump. So the line goes from the fuel control selector valve to the fuel pump and from there up into the servo and that AN fitting was aluminum. It was so cracked and broke, and it was literally hanging by a thread. So sometimes it was aligned with the thing, so that enough gas was getting sucked in. At full rich, it was running and I climbed up to 14,000 feet and my engine would stop. Then I’d ride down to maybe 11,000, 10,000. Then it would start and I’d climb back up. This happened like eight times and I made it to Vernal. And when I landed on the runway, my engine stopped. That, whatever it was, two, three Gs plomping down on the ground was enough to break that off and it was spewing gas all over the exhaust, really.

I didn’t even figure out that I needed to turn off my fuel selector valve until like I actually understood. I’m looking at all this stuff and I’m thinking, “How can all this gas be coming out of my exhaust. My engine must be really broken.” Not, “Holy shit! I’m pouring gas on top of my exhaust.”

Bud Granley

Some people are adamant, and I should do more. But usually, when Ross and I practice, I am stuck in some places where I am low and I am just going to have to stick the nose down and hope for the best. I think most of the stuff we do is not quite as dangerous as the high alpha stuff, because — if you lose the engine there — it is just horrible.

It chanced to happen to me in a Yak 52. One time, it was just a tail slide and it just came backwards. It didn’t flop over. The 52 will do that. It will stay and go backwards a long time. If it is on its back it will stay on its back a long time, unless you wrestle it out. You want to wrestle it out when you are right there. Power on, have the controls back and then chop the power. If you are in a tail slide, have the stick back so it comes around right away. If you don’t do it right away, I mean, if you just leave the power on and just expect it to slop around, it might come back a very long ways.

One year at Abbotsford, it was low weather and nobody was flying, so they said, “Will you go fly?” And I added a little lomcevak  I had been practicing. I could always gain altitude, even doing it at a slow speed, like at 110 knots. I could always gain a couple hundred feet.  But this time, I recovered on my back and it just fell and fell. Jesus Christ. Then it came out and I was looking at the ground about 200 feet away. I said, “Be very careful.” And I reached down to get the flaps. And I pulled out and did not get any grass stains on the airplane. Then I came in and landed.

My reaching for the flaps was a good idea, but I didn’t really look and I discovered later that it wasn’t really the flap handle that I grabbed. I grabbed the friction handle. I didn’t have time to look. I only had basically from about 200 feet straight down to pull out. The friction handle for the throttle looks like the flaps and it is in about the same place. So I grabbed that and pulled it back.

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Deb Gary
Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.