“Ready For Anything?!”

During any emergency, luck certainly plays a role,  but positive pilot action is the essential ingredient for success. Being alert and vigilant – having prebriefed the possible failure modes – enables successful performance by preventing panic. Psychologists call this “priming,” a mental rehearsal of all possibilities and a state of readiness. This prevents “startle” from incapacitating the pilot.  Considering all the possible outcomes *before* beginning any flight helps ensure a correct and rapid response. And during a dual flight, the CFI carries a lot of this responsibility. They are both the educator, but also (to varying degrees) in charge of safety and survival. Every CFI needs to be ready to handle the surprises illustrated below.

Here are two very similar accidents that highlight how essential CFI vigilance and proper action can be when an emergency occurs. Some details are unknown and I am not judging here. Please take a look and click on each to dig into the NTSB details. When things go bad, we will be put to the test. Being ready – primed and vigilant – usually determines the critical difference in the outcome.

“Priming” is the reason we do pre-takeoff briefings, it is the stoic attitude that assumes “things *will* go wrong. A pre-planned, fluid response should be briefed and ready to go (Code Yellow). Surprise and panic will cause startle and inappropriate action since our genetically programmed response seems to be to “pull away from the ground.” When power fails we need to be spring-loaded to “unload” (the “big push”) and keep the wings flying. Whatever we have available to us after that is better than spinning in out of control.

The fatal accident here was dual and it is entirely possible that the fairly experienced female CFI was overpowered by a panicking client (the size disparity is not clear from the documentation). Briefing emergencies (and priming) with the learner helps prevent panic in an emergency (as does a trusting relationship). But if survival becomes a “fight on the controls,” in an emergency, the CFI has to do whatever is necessary to regain control. A trick available to CFIs in most trainers is to use your foot (and the greater power of your leg) on the crossbar under the panel to force the yoke forward and reduce the angle of attack. I have twice overpowered a panicking student over-rotating the pitch (in a Cessna) by easing down the nose forcibly with my foot. When “discussion” fails, positive action is required. It is wise to practice this “CFI trick” and be ready.

"On take-off in a C-152, a student on a 'Discovery Flight' with 'long ago experience' kept pulling and over-rotated the nose (going incoherent and babbling as he pulled). The plane was beginning to mush at a couple hundred feet with the stall horn activating. I thought to myself 'this is how we die.' 

After verbally commanding a release and attempting to force down the nose with both arms, I put my foot on the control bar below the panel and eased down the pitch attitude while talking calmly to him. Once the horizon came back into view he became more reasonable and we continued the flight (practicing the 'exchange of controls' a few times...)"

SAFE is reviewing all accidents presented in the General Aviation News and offering suggestions to enable safer flying. (Subscribe here). Wishing you all happier flying than this! Get out on these beautiful spring days and enjoy some relief from the pandemic and winter weather – before the heat hits down south! See you at AirVenture in July; fly safely (and often)!


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Author: David St. George

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

4 thoughts on ““Ready For Anything?!””

  1. Great information!! Prebrief the desired outcomes and with a little practice it only takes a minute

  2. Lots of pilots handle engine failures with no need to report the event. New engine, maybe new prop, and perhaps a bandaid & possibly an adult beverage after the debrief. While the NTSB shows ‘system malfunction – powerplant’ and ‘system malfunction – other’ as consistent members of the top ten ‘Defining Events’ in every year since forever, only a small number of pilots bend metal… and a smaller number are seriously injured, or killed. It’s clear that proficient pilots can tilt the odds from not-so-rosey to maybe not-so-bad. I strongly agree that LUCK also plays a role in a no harm outcome. But SA, pre-planning, sound maintenance, and proficiency are what makes “accidents” relatively rare.

  3. Good Morning David.

    Not all training aircraft lend themselves to using your foot to overpower a startled student. The way I see it, the issue of startle response needs to be addressed. Is it possible to fix the student’s (or instructor’s) startle response in this scenario? I believe it is.

    All of my students and flight-review clients are required to participate in the “surprise pushover” maneuver. The maneuver is simple: climb to a safe altitude, configure the aircraft for maximum performance climb, typically at full power and at Vx, and then the instructor will pull the mixture/fuel control at some random time. The pilot must then push on the yoke to achieve the correct pitch angle for normal power-off glide. I prefer to use the mixture as it fully simulates engine failure and allows the pilot to maintain control of the throttle/power-lever, making the scenario more realistic.

    As we CFIs know, repetition is the key to changing the behavior from conscious competence to unconscious competence (reflexive response). My primary students get used to me doing this to them randomly on almost every flight, especially after they have configured the aircraft for climb.

    One thing we must remember is that repetition is key to making a behavior permanent. The pilot must practice this regularly so that the response remains reflexive. If this exercise is initiated into the student pilot’s training early on, well before solo, so that, should the unthinkable happen, the save-your-life UNLOAD/PUSH reflex will kick in rather than the startle-and-pull reflex.

    Thanks for another insightful message, David.

    1. Yes; this is a critical skill that must be embedded in every pilot (and practiced regularly)!

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