As pilots we are taught from early on that managing an emergency during our flying career is not a question of “If” but a question of “when”. We are meticulous in our preflight planning, preparation and use good maintenance procedures to ensure that we mitigate as much risk as we possibly can, but the rules of statistics dictate that we will eventually be met with some situation that is unplanned.
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
You have probably heard that expression before from a flight instructor or other aviation publication. It is a simple adage but it is one that helps keep our priorities when handling any situation, whether planned or unplanned.
- Aviate – Regardless of the inflight issue, the most important task of the pilot is to maintain positive control of the aircraft. You cannot allow distractions or handling of the emergency to pull you away from flying the airplane. The most common example that I will use from standard flight training is the in-flight engine failure. You are taught to run a checklist or flow to get the engine restarted, after you designate a landing site and slow the aircraft to best glide speed. Students will then shift their entire attention to the checklist and neglect flying the aircraft to the site or maintaining speed control. When they are finished with the checklist, they look up to find the field not where they left it and/or their airspeed off the mark.
- Navigate – Once we have positive control of the airplane, we can then take time to designate a path of where the airplane should be going. In my running example of the in-flight engine failure, once we maintain the desired airspeed and manage the situation, we then glide the aircraft to our determined off-field landing site. Use of a chart or navigational aid is a great tool, but not at the expense of flying the airplane.
- Communicate – The lowest item of priority that we should consider is dedicated time to communicate. This does not mean that communication is not important; just simply that aviate and navigate are more important. Communication can cover many items such as radio communications, but also crew communications or checklists can go in this spot.
Keep in mind that A.N.C. is just a rough guideline and not a literal checklist to follow. It does not apply to all circumstances and situations.
Is this an Emergency?
When we notice that something is not as it should be during a flight, the first item that the PIC needs to do is to determine the nature of the situation, i.e. Is this an Emergency? Determining if a true emergency exists will greatly affect how we handle the situation and how we respond. Let’s use an example to guide this situation. Assume for a moment that as we are flying along during a VFR clear day at cruise altitude and we detect flames coming out of the side of the cowling in our C-172. This is a true emergency. Any delay in response could negatively affect the outcome of the situation. In this case we would run the memory items called for in the C-172 POH and prepare for an off-field landing.
By contrast, let’s see what we would do is this circumstance; Same VFR clear day and we notice that the alternator has stopped working. Is this a true emergency? Unless you are in a unique set of circumstances, this is not an immediate emergency; it is an abnormal situation. If we do not respond in a timely fashion, then it could become an emergency. In the case of an abnormal situation, the best thing we can do is fly the airplane (aviate) and then consult the checklist or POH for the appropriate response. It is important to note that not responding from memory for an abnormal situation is key to prevent any mistakes in response that could make the situation worse.
Declaring an Emergency
If we have determined that we have an immediate emergency or an abnormal situation has degraded into an emergency, we need to respond accordingly. The most important thing is to respond to the needs of the emergency and not make the situation any worse by how we react. Once we have completed our list of priorities and we have sufficient time and capacity, we can then declare an emergency to ATC or other resource. Keep in mind that FAR 91.3 already gives us the authority to respond to the situation as needed to meet the needs of the emergency; you do not have to call on the radio to exercise this privilege. Calling on the radio will only give us access to additional resources and ATC priority; it will not solve the emergency for you. Sometimes that additional resource that ATC can provide or having ATC move traffic or provide a vector can be crucial to the safe outcome of the situation, so do not hesitate to declare the emergency when the time is right.
Preparing for the eventual situation that will come is part of every pilot’s responsibility. Your job is to make sure that you are proficient in your aircraft’s specific procedures, and to have a clear process in your mind to analyzing and handling any situation that comes your way. How do you achieve this level of precision and preparation? Study, prepare, and practice. Simulating these circumstances and having someone challenge you to new situations is key to building your aeronautical decision making skills to be up to the task when the situation calls.