“Crash-Proof Piloting” – Always Ready!

Ready for anything!
All three occupants luckily escaped with minor injuries…

To be safe, every pilot needs more frequent and realistic training to cope with engine-out emergencies.  This process of “crash-proofing” assures every pilot has the skills and is psychologically ready, to safely return to earth from any phase of every flight. This seems axiomatic but is amazingly rare. In training, once the initial fear of flight diminishes, we assume the power is going to always be there (or we would be continually terrified). Reawakening a little concern and suspicion is essential for safety; “Where would I land right now?” (Engine failure is the third most common cause of fatal accidents)

The easiest return is from altitude, where time and energy are available. But as you can see from the accident stats, many pilots fail this test even when great fields are readily available. The first problem is psychological – overcoming the startle response and lock-up when the “simulation becomes real.” Fear inoculation and actual emergency practice are necessary to handle any emergency. Since you cannot “surprise yourself,” get a good CFI for some “shock and awe” training . This builds reflexive learning that will be available to the pilot under serious stress – the difference between target shooting and real combat. Getting time in a real glider (or even a rating) is highly recommended for power pilots. Practicing field selection and glide control embeds “implicit learning” – subconscious/automatic – that operates even during emergency situations.

Know Your Power-Off Glide Attitude

To become “crash-proof,” you must find and memorize your power-off glide attitude and trim immediately (often while running your “immediate action” checklist from memory). Get comfortable with this glide “look and feel” and be able to achieve it immediately (from Vy climb you have only about three seconds to get there).  Once there, it is essential to trim or you squander precious moments chasing a misbehaving aircraft. From 1000 feet you have only ~2 minutes and you will be on the ground…hopefully in a big field. This is one chance (no replay) and failure is not an option.

In most piston planes putting the wing cord level with the horizon while looking out at the wing, will give you the best glide within 5 knots. Then practice flying the plane from an abeam position in the pattern to the runway in a glide. Manage the flare and landing power off and remember to aim toward the middle of the field initially.

In every emergency, we want to allow a margin for “partial pilot incapacitation” from a shaky, nervous performance. And remember, your plane is not going to roll far on a rough surface and we absolutely do not want to miss the field. Once that landing spot is assured on a stabilized final, optimize the approach with flaps and/or a slip to pick the best touchdown point (only when stabilized on a final). Again practice in a glider getting precise glide control is very valuable. Energy management is the key.

Go Directly to Your Best Landing Option

Many pilots pick a field and then fail to even get close to it due to the erroneous “big pattern procedure.” If you are high (and that is a good thing) you will need to dissipate altitude. A common error is to make an incredibly wide pattern to your chosen field. This just about never works. You are setting yourself up for failure with a totally new and unfamiliar sight picture, unknown wind with obstacles. Additionally, you will not have an opportunity to examine your landing area carefully for the most suitable touchdown point (crucial for survival).

Go directly to your chosen landing site and lose your altitude overhead in a spiral (“high key” in glider speak). This technique allows you to survey the field carefully and select the best touchdown spot. This also allows you to set up abeam your touchdown point with a familiar picture (~1000 agl). Other important items have to be handled simultaneously (seat belts tight, door cracked, emergency call for response). Shut-down the engine (mixture/mags/fuel off) once you pass the abeam (low key) position. YOu do not want a surge of power that may ruin your approach. Wait with the master if your flaps are electric.

Pick Your Touchdown in the Center!

We are all trained to land on the end of a runway, but in an emergency, aim toward the middle of the field initially, and add drag (flaps slip) once you have a stable final glide and can see what the wind and obstacles are doing. This parallax cue (obstacle moving up or down at a stable approach speed) is a technique you should be familiar with. Once the aim point is stable, add drag to optimize your touchdown (why they teach that 180 power off to commercial pilots). Remember your “roll out” will probably be very short in vegetation and a flip-over is likely if the surface is rough (tighten those belts).

Rod Machado Graphic🙏

The touchdown point is critical to survival. The goal is to dissipate your flight energy over the longest ground roll possible. Your plane is designed to absorb a 9G impact. The slower your groundspeed on touchdown and the longer the rollout, the greater your chances of survival.

Practice (Dual) Frequently

Once all these basics are in place, it is essential to practice assiduously to build solid reflexive (automatic) patterning. You need to be able to perform an emergency landing accurately and comfortably from anywhere in the pattern. Dual instruction is critical to diagnose errors and also provides the element of surprise.  This skill is a huge confidence-builder and all these abilities transfer to normal patterns and make any pilot much sharper for the days when emergencies are “canceled for today.”

Good resources are the emergency training video from AOPA: Engine Failure from Trouble to Touchdown. This is an excellent program worth watching several times. A classic non-nonsense book is How To Crash an Airplane (and Survive!) by crash investigator Mick Wilson. Kai Gertsen’s classic “Off Airport Landings” is FREE in the SAFE library (he has 169 successful off-airport landings).  Energy management is essential. Actual time spent in a glider is also very valuable for all kinds of reasons. Practicing glides all the way from altitude to landing “for real” focuses the mind and embeds airspeed and pattern control. Remember though, glide ratio and flight attitude will be dramatically different in a draggy piston plane. Fly safe out there, and be ready to land safely from any part of every flight!

Join SAFE and get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) This supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

6 thoughts on ““Crash-Proof Piloting” – Always Ready!”

  1. The main subject accident of this article is an accident that a longtime friend of mine was killed in. I did his last flight review months before the accident. He was a skilled pilot, but unfortunately the Maule isn’t known for its gliding performance. He did manage to save the life of his passenger (nephew). I find it a little offensive that this accident was used as an example. Aviation is a small world, and someone is bound to recognize this fairly recent accident.

    1. So sorry for you Tom and in no way did I intend to impugn the skill of your friend. So many times luck (or lack thereof) is the determining factor. For every pilot, engine failure is a critical emergency with very little time to do everything perfectly. W all need better technique (and more recent practice) to have the best chance of survival. I am glad your nephew survived!

      1. There are probably a few other pilots in the Seattle area that will recognize the photo. The “game over” thing turning the fatal accident into kind of a “meme” was kind of tasteless, then the full multi-page report link. There are plenty of accidents that could be found that are more dated and less familiar, this just hit too close to home. It was his own nephew that survived the crash – they found his body leaning over him to protect him from hitting the panel just before impact. It’s unknown if that was his intent or not, but just the facts from the accident.

      2. That was featured in another national safety blog last week. I am working right now to rewrite and rescrape that so it disappears from the internet.

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