If faced with an engine failure, remember your ABCs

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It was Fulghum who authored the New York Times bestseller, All I Really Need to know I Learned in Kindergarten. The simple and beloved creed has guided many in their personal and professional lives and offers a valuable lesson in efficiency and effectiveness. Its wisdom has been applied to everything from home life to business dealings and has its place on the flight deck as well.

When an emergency strikes, seconds matter. Indecision is the enemy and reduces your options and likelihood of a positive outcome. My advice is not to say one can’t alter plans in a dynamic situation such as an engine failure; however, the new choice should be obvious as evaluating any new plan will cost precious time.

While complete engine failures are not common, the stakes are high which is why pilots train extensively for such occurrences and why they get evaluated as part of a checkride. If faced with an engine failure, or training for your next engine failure with your instructor, act quick and decisively by remembering what you learned in kindergarten – your ABCs.

A – Airspeed. Establish best glide speed. Do it quickly. If you can gain precious altitude in the process of slowing to your best glide speed even better. Altitude affords us more options and perhaps an opportunity for some trouble shooting. Trim for your best glide speed so that your focus can quickly shift to B (best glide) and be strict in your adherence to speed. There are many options to lose altitude quickly, but nothing you can do in an engine failure to gain it back.

B – Best place to land. Pilots should always be considering adequate landing locations so maybe some of your work is done. If not, scan the entire area around you for preferably, an airport, but if not, a location that will best ensure your successful outcome – ideally, a flat, open field absent obvious approach obstructions such as trees, powerlines or structures. Remember, your best landing location could be behind you so don’t ignore natural blind spots in your search. If you’re flying with a GPS navigator or charting app, familiarize yourself with the emergency functions to assist in locating an emergency landing area.

As basic as it sounds, pilots can become paralyzed or reluctant to accept the dire circumstances. An obstacle that can be overcome through good training. But don’t delay or move on to our next checklist item until the aircraft if flying toward your landing area at best glide speed.

C – Checklist. Your aircraft checklist includes memory items. Needless to say, if a manufacturer has identified an item as being so critically important it should be committed to memory even as seconds matter, not only should the items be rehearsed, but a flow around the flight deck should also be committed to memory to increase your lowlihood of accomplishing these items. In a low altitude situation such as just after takeoff, you me fortunate to even make it through the memory items.

An emergency at altitude, could offer a window to consult a written checklist. This will offer a double check of the appropriate memory items and allow you to explore other potential causes for the failure in an attempt to regain power.

There are some universal elements of the emergency, engine failure checklist some of which are covered by our ABC checklist.

  • Best glide – establish best glide
  • Landing site – identify your best site AND fly towards that site
  • Fuel – switch tanks (if able), check fuel shutoff, enrichen the mixture
  • Master – if executing a landing, ensure electric is off to reduce fire risk

ATC controller

D – Declare.  Declare an emergency. If unable to raise Air Traffic Control, provide as many details of your location as possible so that help can be provided. Even if speaking openly on the local frequency or emergency frequency, another aircraft may hear the transmission and be able to call for additional ground assistance.

In the case of ATC, you could ask or even be provided with information on available landing locations. Take extreme caution in the natural tendency to second guess your chosen landing location. Only if absolutely sure you can make a better location for landing, should your original plan be altered. As a matter of standard course, ATC may ask certain questions such as the nature of your emergency, fuel on board and number of souls on board. Don’t feel pressured to respond. Your first obligation is to maintain positive control and FLY THE AIRPLANE. Navigation comes next in the hierarchy of pilot duties and a distant third is communication. In other words, you’re in charge as the PIC. Respond only if able and don’t hesitate to ask for information you may need.

E – Execute. Continue flying the airplane throughout the approach and landing. If time is available to maneuver, consider wind direction, slope of the chosen field and any obstacles. When compromises must be made, opt for the wind and obstacle combination that permits additional margin for error on your final approach.

Positive control is essential throughout so that you can minimize damage to the cabin structure which will increase your odds at escaping injury free. Don’t become obsessed of fixated on salvaging the aircraft itself – only the cabin structure.

Flaps are recommended if they can be deployed so that you can minimize your forward speed. Minimum forward speed lessens the severity of the deceleration process. Avoid low level, aggressive maneuvering and minimize sink rate.

Much of what we have discussed relates to complete engine failure at altitude. In the case of an engine failure after takeoff, options are greatly reduced. It is usually NOT advisable to turn back to the runway, but instead, to select a landing location directly in front or slightly left or right of your flight path.

The decision to continue straight ahead versus turning back is often difficult to make due to the variables involved such as wind direction and altitude lost in the turn which can be affected even further by other atmospheric conditions, technique, and reaction time. If you’ve not trained for a simulated engine failure with a return to the airport, this would be a valuable exercise so that you can make more informed decisions about what altitude you would need to reach before considering a return to the airport.

No matter the event and no matter the circumstances, these fundamental aviation principles apply:

    • Aviate
    • Navigate
    • Communicate
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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I actually had an engine failure on take-off. Fortunately it occurred at 1200′, when the G-1000 chimed ‘ECU A FAIL’ almost immediately followed by ‘ECU B FAIL’. Although the engine was still running, I could not maintain altitude, so I immediately declared an emergency, and turned back. I was amazed afterwards at how calm I remained as the training kicked in, and I made the smoothest greased landing ever. The only thing I did differently was to wait until I was sure of making the runway before applying full flaps. All the while I could hear the voice of my instructor saying “First fly the damn plane!”

  2. Dec 26th, late afternoon coming out of KPDK I sustained partial engine failure. I immediately declared and Atlanta departure said the nearest airport was Lawrenceville about 5 miles to the north. The controllers in the tower cleared me for any runway. Even though it was a busy day in the pattern, I landed downwind with no incident. The guys in the tower that evening were OUTSTANDING, even asking on final if i saw ‘three green”.
    Also, my long time instructor Dan Emin is to be thanked-“fly the airplane’.

  3. At no point in your procedures did I notice a mention of or reference to carb heat. A power failure can be related to carburetor icing or blockage of the intake. In either case application of carb heat could alleviate the problem. All though I don’t see it mentioned much these days this application should be done promptly. The source of your carb heat in most cases is the engine exhaust heat and as soon as the engine stops the heat production stops as well. Consequently in some short time , especially in cooler/cold weather , carb heat will become minimal or nonexistent.

  4. Great article, simply distilling the basic necessities of handling the problem to a successful conclusion. One request: please, please, please edit the next article. Too many typos, wrong words for the context, misplaced and extraneous commas, etc.

  5. Great article and a useful acronym. However (my two cents), we should be spring-loaded (and practiced) for a cockpit check: Switch tanks, adjust the mixture (too rich or too lean can reduce engine power and create roughness), carb heat on, boost pump on (if equipped), and other actions as appropriate for the aircraft (memory items). Then go into ABCDE and fly the airplane. Thanks again for a thoughtful article.

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