Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

911- what’s your emergency?

by | Dec 11, 2023 | In the News

(or, just fly the plane)

By David Brody
Originally published in the North Star Monthly

Aviation offers a unique stage for an emergency insofar as, despite the profound stress and anxiety, the pilot has no choice but to nevertheless work the problem. Doing nothing, or collapsing in a puddle of fear, is a luxury one doesn’t have in the air. Act or die, it’s that simple. There’s no pulling over to the side of the road to sort it out.

It is said that one can train for emergencies in flight but this is only partly true. During flight instruction we practice procedures for a variety of emergencies: engine failure in flight, cockpit fire, spin recovery, just to name a few. But that which one cannot train for is the shock of being suddenly and unexpectedly presented with a crisis. Studies have shown that it will take on average about 3 seconds for the very fact of an emergency to even register to a pilot, but the great mystery, the moment of moments, is what takes place between the recognition of an emergency and the call to action. Startle, that inescapable surge of confusion and adrenaline, can be prelude to mastery and success – or disaster.

On the one hand we have the magnificent example of Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”), the heroic captain of the famed Miracle on the Hudson. Dual engine failure at 2000 feet over one of the most densely populated spots on the planet – as Sully himself said, no one had ever trained for such a contingency. Yet somehow he was able to maintain focus and then, when all other options had been exhausted, make the only choice left — a decision to do what had never been done, or even contemplated, and safely land the stricken plane on the river.

But then there is the tragic tale of ColganAir flight 3407 into Buffalo. On final approach the captain failed to monitor his decaying airspeed and with the plane dangerously close to stalling an automatic safety feature kicked in – the control yoke started to shake to get the pilot’s attention and warn of the danger. From the cockpit recordings it is clear that the captain was startled — and then proceeded to do exactly what he been trained not to do: he pulled back on the yoke, sending the plane to the very brink. At this point a secondary fail-safe mechanism came into play as the yoke triggered to automatically push itself forward. Unbelievably, infuriatingly, the captain actively resisted this movement, continuing to pull back even harder, thereby forcing the plane into a low altitude spin from which recovery was not possible, and resulting in the death of all on board. During these 30 seconds of harrowing terror all the captain had to do at any point – something a pilot learns from almost the first day of training — was to push the yoke forward an inch or so and the plane would have resumed normal flight. Listening to the transcript of the flight’s final agony one can’t help but want to shout into the cockpit – just push forward!

What is that that Sully had that the other captain lacked? Surely some of it must relate to experience, training, education… but still there is an inscrutable factor, some variable of temperament and character, by which one veers from a startled panic — to command. Something best described, in Tom Wolfe’s immortal phrase, as the right stuff.

Not long ago I myself faced an emergency in the air and I would rate my performance as at best a muddle. Obviously I got my plane back on the ground, and certainly that counts for something, but it was a close thing and it’s honestly hard to say how large a role luck may have played; it seems it could have gone either way.

For the sense of the story I will need to briefly describe what it means for a plane to stall. Not an engine failure, but a situation in which the plane will suddenly and abruptly lose all lift – and start to fall. In normal flight a plane’s wings are tilted up slightly with respect to the direction of motion through the air (next time you’re at the airport note the slight upward incline of the wing relative to the fuselage) and in order to reduce speed during flight this so-called angle of attack can be increased further by pitching the nose of the aircraft up, resulting in a sort of gentle aerial “wheelie”. However, if this angle should increase beyond some 17 or 18 degrees the wing will “stall”, meaning it will abruptly cease producing lift. In general aviation we are not usually able to measure this angle directly but instead rely on the airspeed to give us an indirect gauge – the slower the speed the closer to the stall, and each aircraft will have its own unique stall speed. An important number to know! In my plane the stall speed is 70 mph.

With that much as background: I went out to the airport a few months ago to buzz around a bit as I like to say, just to keep myself in practice. All was normal on the pre-flight inspection, I taxied to the end of the runway – and then full throttle. Rolling down the runway there are two key numbers to watch – oil pressure and airspeed. Oil pressure was “in the green” and the airspeed was rising properly. At 50 mph I pitched up slightly to place the plane in takeoff attitude and after continued acceleration it lifted off normally. After liftoff the first thing to check is the airspeed in order to fine tune the plane’s pitch for a climb out at 90 mph, its most efficient rate of climb, and I was stunned to see the airspeed still at 50. All experience cried out that an airspeed of 50 would indicate the plane was in a stall so I instinctively shoved the nose down but was horrified to see only minimal effect. I couldn’t fathom what was happening. At first I vaguely, and not entirely logically, considered that perhaps this must be some sort of engine failure and quickly checked that I hadn’t somehow inadvertently closed the throttle or shut off the fuel flow. In the meantime, but without the fact or its significance fully registering, I could hear the engine thrumming right along, but every glance at the airspeed indicator shot me through with the same terror of a stall. And bear in mind this was all happening no more than 25-50 feet off the ground so there wasn’t a lot of room to push the nose down – or to think. With a swirling sense of unreality – this can’t be happening – the training nevertheless kicked in and I began to search for a place to put down for a forced landing.

At some point in this process – it is very difficult to describe or even recall fully the chaotic and frantic workings of the mind in such a moment – I seemed to realize that even though something was obviously very wrong I nevertheless, somehow, was still flying and as best I could I switched my focus to trying to make a turn back to the airfield.

To make a proper approach and landing one normally starts at 1000 feet above the ground so I continued to try to climb but at the same time was unable to ignore the stubborn indication of a critically low airspeed. This resulted in a chaotic, oscillating, porpoise-like flight path in which I alternately battled between the need for altitude and the imperative to keep the nose down to avoid a stall.

Through several minutes of continuing confusion and alarm I managed to limp back towards the runway and it registered that, despite the ongoing strain of uncertainty, I was making headway, and in taking it this far the odds of survival seemed to now be shifting in my favor. I ended up coming in high and long, and considered a so-called go around to try again, but I was quite sure I’d had enough for the day (!) and determined, no matter what, to make the landing on the first try. I touched down well past midfield, but with hard braking was able to come to a stop just before the end of the runway. Whew!

Later, from the comfort of my living room, I was able to deduce that the problem could only have been some sort of instrument failure and that the plane itself must have been flying properly all along. This too was the view of my hangar mates. Perhaps the reader might think this would somehow have been obvious at the time, but all I can say is that in a “low and slow” situation in the air, and with alarms blaring and the ground staring up at you, nothing is obvious except the pounding need for immediate action.

After an inspection in the shop, it turned out the problem was, of all things, that a bug had crawled into the tube that is used to measure airspeed! It evidently was only partially blocking the channel as I rolled down the runway, allowing the airspeed indicator to show at least some increase. However as the plane accelerated the increasing blast of the air presumably drove the thing in further causing a total obstruction, and at this point the indicator would have frozen. Which is exactly what happened.

And so it transpires that it was more my reaction to a faulty reading that created the danger, and not a true aerodynamic emergency. But under the circumstances perhaps a forgivable lapse.

The black humor in aviation circles states that a good landing is any landing you can walk away from, and I guess this would apply here. But another precept is that, no matter what the emergency or difficulty, first and always one must fly the plane.

I believe I learned my lesson.