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  • Writer's pictureThe Thrifty Pilot

PAN / MAYDAY / EMERGENCY – When things go wrong

In my short history of flying, I have had to declare an emergency twice. Once flying back from North Carolina (engine out situation) and the other while flying up the Hudson (800 feet off water and engine issues – again! With a different plane!!).

Through these experiences, I have become a better pilot. I learned that although I prided myself on being safe and pretty good at flying – emergency situations test you as a pilot.

“…Center Piper Warrior NXXX declaring an emergency, requesting immediate clearance…”

Through these experiences, I can give some pointers on how to assist in managing an emergency.

  • Remember and practice the four F’s

  • Fly the plane – just as it says, remember that you must maintain positive control of the aircraft to the best of your ability. Do what you need to do to remain in control of your plane. Don’t make the situation worse by giving up the controls because you have suddently became fixated on your GPS while possibly rolling/stalling/crashing the plane in the process.

  • Find a field – time is of the essence and you need to find a field. Don’t just pick the first piece of flat land you see! Know your planes abilities and best glide speed. Don’t get tunnel vision – this has happened to me in training. I would spot a nice flat field that has been recently harvested and I become excited to find a nice place to land. However, I am neglecting the large airfield to my 3 o’clock not more than a couple miles away!

  • Fix the problem – you would be surprised how many times an emergency can be diverted by simply fixing the problem! Did you hit your fuel selector to the off position? Did your friend use your mixture control as a place to hang his phone? Do you have some carb ice that can be corrected by the normal procedures? Sometimes what can seem like a disastrous situation can be fixed. Make sure you use your checklist to rule out the possibilities.

  • Frequency – know when to “call it”. Emergencies are scary, however determining a true emergency and when to transmit your intentions of declaring one over the radio can sometimes be difficult for pilots. The rule of thumb I use is, if I feel the situation is an emergency, it likely is! Don’t let your time waste away spending on an internal debate on whether something really is an emergency or it isn’t – if it gets to a “might be able to make it” situation it’s time to transmit.

  • Stay proficient in emergency procedures and basic emergency flying techniques.

  • This includes engine out scenarios, stalls, slow flight and any other situations you and your CFI can think up (within limits of course!)

  • Remember, in an emergency, you don’t have to land right at the start of the runway. If you are struggling for distance in your glide, don’t take the plane as far out with your downwind! We become programmed to land the same way, everytime. However, when you are a 172 with a 5,500-foot runway in front of you and fighting a strong headwind – get the plane down. Don’t focus on doing an amazing patterned entry.


  • Take your time

  • Yea, this is an odd one to put in the middle of an emergency situation, however, taking your time to go take a few extra seconds (dependent on scenario) will save your life. If you are 10,000 feet up, don’t just scream down to the closest airport. Think things through! It would be horrible to have an engine out situation, make it to an airport and have things go deadly because you forgot to put your gear down! Remember, you are a pilot – fly your plane!

  • Fly more!

  • One of the most effective ways to ensure a positive outcome in an emergency is to have the skills that come with experience. Fly your plane and know how it handles. Know what you can and cannot do with it. Yes, there are performance charts for almost every aspect of your plan, but if you have never felt the way you plan handles in these ranges it will put you at a disadvantage.

Personally, I feel that the primary mission of a pilot is to ensure the safety of your passengers and yourself – in that order. According to the FAA's Code of Federal Regulations Section 91.3 (b), "In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency." Part 135 and 121 components of the FARs have similar language to allow the pilot in command to do whatever it takes to address the emergency at hand. With this regulation is enables the pilot of an aircraft to do what is necessary to get the plane down safely without having to be concerned about other regulations. Concentrate on your situation. Ensure that every move you make is deliberate. Remember, you got this, you trained for this.

Like everything else I write, this comes from my own personal experiences. I am not an instructor and do not present myself as one in any way. I am leaning and will always be learning on how to fly safely and be a better pilot. Every emergency situation is different and there is no way to prepare for every senerio. However, If I can help someone down the line with my experiences - I feel accomplished in my mission.

Stay safe up there, we are all in this together!

More information can be found in this great article by Pia Bergqvist:

Great doc on glide characteristics from the FAA:

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