Get the most out of the emergency checklist

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I recently gave a flight review to an experienced pilot who flies a modern Cessna single-engine airplane for recreation and transportation purposes. A topic we covered thoroughly was emergency procedures, since most pilots don’t encounter emergencies often over the course of normal flight operations. After retaining positive control of the airplane and accomplishing a few critical memory items (if necessary for the situation), your next course of action when something out of the ordinary happens with the airplane is to grab a checklist and follow the steps listed there.

Memory items are shown in bold in the factory Cessna checklist.
Memory items are shown in bold in the factory Cessna checklist.

Now before going further, let me clarify memory items — these are tasks you should have committed to memory at all times for that particular airplane model. For example, in a Cessna 172 when experiencing an engine fire in flight, you should, without delay, pull the mixture to idle cut off, turn off the fuel shutoff valve, verify the auxiliary fuel pump is turned off and then turn the electrical master switch off.

The intent here is to cut off all sources of fuel to the engine as soon as possible — pulling out a checklist after seeing flames would waste valuable time and allow the fire to further increase in intensity. Once those items are complete, then grab the checklist and follow the remaining steps for that scenario. You’ll find the memory items listed in bold in the POH, and many quick-reference checklists highlight memory items in yellow to help you quickly identify them.

The newer aircraft models, like the Cessna 172R, have a thorough listing of emergency checklist procedures. There are 18 separate emergency procedures for the 172R model. Most are cut and dry like engine failures, fires, icing and electrical system malfunctions. But like everything in life, emergency scenarios in the airplane aren’t always cut and dry. They may result from a combination of factors that will require you to run through several different emergency checklists.

For example, after finishing the Engine Fire in Flight checklist, you need to keep your brain working to think about what needs to happen next. You lost your engine and are now a glider, so you then need to look at the Emergency Landing without Engine Power checklist to prepare for and execute an off airport landing.

There are other situations that could occur that aren’t explicitly covered by the emergency checklist. One example that comes to mind is the partial loss of engine power. A quick glance at the checklist in the cockpit will list procedures for total engine failure, but nothing for partial-power loss. This is where your knowledge of the airplane systems will come into play to help you play detective and figure out what is happening.

The urgency of the situation depends on altitude, the amount of power loss, oil temp/pressure readings, and what type of terrain you are flying over. If you’re able to maintain altitude, common sense would tell you to find the nearest airport and start heading that way. If it looks like you’re still descending at best glide speed and are out of range of an airport, run the engine failure checklist which will get you thinking about and troubleshooting items related to fuel, induction air and ignition/magnetos.

You should be familiar with the content in the expanded emergency checklist at all times.
You should be familiar with the content in the amplified emergency checklist at all times.

If none of those checklist items work and you have time to further diagnose the situation before an off-field landing becomes necessary, grab the POH and refer to the Amplified Emergency Procedures section. This is just after the Emergency Procedures and contains helpful information on how to deal with additional abnormal scenarios. While this section was not designed for in-flight use, a quick glance may help you come up with a solution if time permits. For example, there is a section on Rough Engine Operation/Loss of Power that will prove very useful in this scenario. It will lead you to troubleshoot the magnetos, check for spark plug fouling, fuel-pump failure, excessive fuel vapor, fuel selector issues and low oil pressure.

The main takeaway here is don’t wait every two years for a flight review or an actual emergency to get your brain thinking about “what-if” scenarios. It’s normal throughout your training for your instructor to continually simulate emergencies with you in the airplane, but once you get your certificate you’ll find these events really don’t happen that often. Make it a point to review the POH every few months and also read the Amplified Emergency Procedures section for helpful narratives on troubleshooting techniques.

The opening paragraph to that section in the Cessna POH summarizes it best: this information should be reviewed prior to flying the airplane, as well as reviewed on a regular basis to keep pilot’s knowledge of procedures fresh.

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Bret is vice president and senior flight instructor for Sporty's Academy. In addition to Bret's teaching responsibilities, Bret leads Sporty's video production and app development team and serves as editor of the popular iPad Pilot News online journal. As an airline transport pilot, Bret is a senior captain in Sporty's corporate flight department.