The Checkride And Beyond

When your Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) or Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) shares some knowledge or experience, it may help you pass the practical test (checkride). Of course, if that’s all it does it wouldn’t have long-lasting value. What would help you more is information that both helps you pass the exam and permanently enhances your knowledge base and improves your aeronautical decision-making skills. Now you are getting your money’s worth. 

The goal of this article series The Checkride and Beyond is to provide information to aid you for the life of your aviation career. Given that the exam is a practical test, and very different from the airman knowledge test, lifelong aviation lessons can only help you pass. Each article will explain how the discussion is relevant to the scenario-based check-ride.

One thing you may notice is that these articles will often reference air carrier aircraft accident reports. Why so much emphasis on air carrier operations? Simply put, that is where the data is. When a Cessna 172 crashes there is little public interest. When an air carrier accident occurs, the public demands a full investigation and mitigation of the associated hazards for future operations. Millions of dollars are spent to understand in great detail what happened and how to prevent it. Data systems like training records, flight data recorders (FDR), and Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVR) are mandated for air carrier aircraft. Given that, we can learn great lessons from our study of air carrier accidents.

Equally important, we learn from each other. Your feedback, frank and open discussion and requests for new subject matter help everyone achieve their aviation goals. Please leave a comment or suggestion for all to see and help us generate those discussions. And feel free to use the link to contact me with any questions or comments that aren’t public.

Dealing with Abnormals and Emergencies

Part I: Fly the Plane

During the climb, the pilot noticed that airspeed was bleeding off. He could not get more power to the engine even though the engine was still turning. The pilot performed an emergency checklist while attempting to maintain airspeed and altitude. He advanced the throttle forward, advanced mixture full-forward, turned the fuel pump on, and tried both left and right fuel tanks. He decided to initiate a descent to an altitude where he could see the ground and get out of the clouds. The pilot continued with emergency checklists, including selecting the fullest tank, activating the auxiliary fuel pump, and the ignition switch stayed on. However, he was unable to get an increase in engine power. The engine remained at 2,500 RPM, and it did not increase, decrease, or surge during the emergency period. Upon exiting the clouds, the pilot slowed the descent down and evaluated the options he had for an emergency landing. He realized that he was over a neighborhood and needed to stretch the flight path out to a more suitable location to avoid people and structures. The pilot made the decision to land in a field at the end of Canyon Lake, knowing that if he came up short, he could opt for the lake. He made a call to approach letting them know that he would be making an emergency landing on a field. The pilot realized that the flight would not make the field due to tall trees on the bank, and he decided to fly to the left and land on the water. The pilot picked a spot in the lake that was clear of boats and trees. Upon reaching a few feet above the water, the pilot “killed the motor,” flared to bleed off speed, and kept the airplane’s nose up. The landing gear was intentionally retracted. The pilot and passenger subsequently swam to the shore once the airplane stopped in the lake.

Would you be ready if this happened to you? Although you can’t totally prepare for every contingency, you can develop skills and philosophies to deal with a wide variety of abnormal or emergency situations. The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) is a good place to start to develop your toolbox.

For example, the Private Pilot ACS requires a demonstration of the following skills to successfully complete the Emergency Approach and Landing task:

* Establish and maintain the recommended best glide airspeed

* Configure the airplane in accordance with the POH/AFM and existing conditions

* Select a suitable landing area considering altitude, wind, terrain, obstructions, and available glide distance

* Plan and follow a flight path to the selected landing area considering altitude, wind, terrain, and obstructions

* Prepare for landing as specified by the evaluator

* Complete the appropriate checklist

Typically, your instructor will simulate the engine failure throughout your training at a variety of altitudes and locations. Learning and demonstrating each skill is important but the combined task requires an understanding and application of an overarching philosophy that is so obvious (or should be) that it is easy to miss. The consequences can result in a practical test failure or much worse.

It is difficult to imagine that three experienced professional pilots and a jump seating maintenance specialist could become so preoccupied with the burned-out nose landing gear lightbulbs that they failed to notice the airplane descending towards the swamps just West of the Miami international airport. The crew of the Eastern Air Lines L-1011 (operating as flight 401) was so distracted by their attempts to verify that the nose gear was extended that they failed to simply Fly the Airplane! 

We can define flying the airplane using two steps. First, fly the airplane in the desired state (level, climbing, etc.). Second, make the airplane go where you want to initially go. For example, if you had an indication that your alternator was no longer charging the battery, it is important to maintain control of the aircraft and, at least initially, continue navigating on your route for the moment. This is especially true in instrument conditions to maintain separation from terrain and other aircraft. Flying the airplane may seem like the ultimate “Duh!” statement but there are many accidents like Eastern 401 demonstrating how distractions can cause pilots to forget such an elementary task. Looking again at the skills required in the ACS listed above you can see how they have directly rooted in the Fly the Airplane philosophy without obviously stating so.

The next time you encounter a simulated or actual abnormal or emergency issue, start with the two-step Fly the Airplane plan and the rest of the required skills will more easily follow. Regardless of the scenario you are faced with, you will likely perform better, with more confidence, and greatly increase the safety of your flight. 

Part II: Follow the Emergency Procedure, If You Have One

One skill you are required to demonstrate for many practical tests is the use of appropriate checklists, during emergency operations. There is a lot more to that skill than just reading a laminated card out loud. It is important to understand that those checklists represent the manufacturer’s tested and approved procedures for your make and model aircraft. They should be followed as written and in a careful and methodical way to avoid errors. For example, performing an electrical system abnormal or emergency procedure out of order or with some of the steps skipped can create more problems than it solves. An offline alternator is not a great crisis but a pilot-induced electrical fire while airborne is a serious matter. 

When something unusual and significant happens in flight it can cause the sympathetic nervous system to release adrenaline into your body. This is a natural biological response that is beneficial to our fight or flight survival instinct but can hinder our ability to use checklists and operate in a calm and thoughtful way. You are not likely to avoid the adrenaline dump through flight training but you can use techniques to mitigate the impact on your performance.

The first technique you can use to avoid the impact of adrenaline is to start with the subject of Part I of this article. Fly the Airplane! That gives you a simple but important task to focus on and it is the most important function necessary to deal properly with abnormal and emergency scenarios. Next, you can figuratively “sit on your hands.” Of course, don’t literally sit on your hands during a practical exam because the examiner will not be impressed. However, take a moment to pause before you start grabbing knobs, dials, and switches. Take a deep breath and evaluate what the problem is. Then you are better prepared to give some of your attention to each checklist item. You must continue to fly the airplane so make sure you don’t put the checklist in front of your face and make completing it to become the top priority. It is NEVER more important than flying the airplane. Finally, if your checklist procedures get interrupted you may need to start over again from the top unless you are able to mark your progress with reasonable certainty. Remember that the standard says to “complete the appropriate checklist.” For example, the engine failure checklist isn’t appropriate for use immediately after takeoff. And if the demands of a failure at a higher altitude do not allow you an opportunity to use a checklist then the same theory applies. It is only appropriate when you can use it while maintaining aircraft control and navigation as your first priority. 

What if there is no approved procedure for the anomaly I am facing? For example, what if you hear a “pop” and notice the strobe light circuit breaker has popped? What then? If there is no approved procedure do not make one up. Do not perform inflight troubleshooting that has not been tested and approved. 

On January 31, 2000, about 1621 Pacific standard time, Alaska Airlines, Inc., flight 261, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83, N963AS, crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 2.7 miles north of Anacapa Island, California. The 2 pilots, 3 cabin crewmembers, and 83 passengers on board were killed, and the airplane was destroyed by impact forces. Flight 261 departed Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for San Francisco International Airport, California. Shortly after takeoff, the Trimmable Horizontal Stabilizer (THS) stopped moving and the crew was unable to trim the pitch forces of the aircraft. Rather than return to land at Puerto Vallarta (or numerous airports between their departure point and the Los Angeles area) the crew contacted the Alaska Airlines maintenance department and began a long process of inflight troubleshooting. Neither the crew nor the maintenance department could fully understand the reason for the system failure but working together they tried a series of steps to free the stuck THS. Details about those steps can be found in the NTSB report linked below.3 About two hours and twenty minutes after the initial failure occurred, the trim system catastrophically failed and the aircraft began a final dive into the ocean. 

Creating your own emergency procedures can be hazardous and probably unnecessary. Take the case of that strobe light circuit breaker. Lacking an approved procedure directing you to reset it, pushing it back in may cause a further electrical problem or even a fire. And for what? To get the strobe lights back? That represents a significant amount of risk for little possible gain. Therefore, use the approved checklists when it is appropriate and if it is not available then don’t make one up.

Part III: Develop and Execute a Plan

A study of Alaska Airlines flight 262 also points out a potential flaw with some emergency checklists. In the discussion about the crew’s decision to continue rather than to land as soon as practicable, the NTSB cited the lack of guidance to do so in the airline’s emergency procedures checklist and the possibility that the crew felt pressure to continue. Your procedures may also lack guidance about what to do after completing the checklist actions or what to do after determining there is no checklist for your situation. The best way to mitigate that is to include in your operating philosophy the need to develop and execute a plan.

Consider a scenario where you are operating in IMC conditions and you are two hours away from your destination. Your vacuum pump fails, rendering your standby attitude indicator useless. However, you are in a G-1000 equipped Cessna 172 and your digital system is fine. There is no checklist for a vacuum failure and you haven’t lost any capability to continue to your destination. Or have you?

Another example. While performing simulator recurrent training is a Pilatus PC-12, I failed the backup electrical generator and watched as both pilots worked the emergency checklist carefully. The last line indicated that “All electrical busses remain powered.” The primary generator was working fine so there was no loss of electrical equipment. Or was there?

If your training kicks in you will ask yourself, What is my plan now? That simple question should drive you to contemplate your situation in a detailed and thoughtful way. In those examples, it is true that you haven’t lost any immediate capability but you have lost critical pieces of redundancy. If your digital system failed during the next two hours or your primary generator drops off line you could be in deep trouble. Should you expose yourself and your passengers to hours of significant risk? Is the weather better 15 minutes behind me or ahead of me? In those examples, Cessna has no checklist and Pilatus led you to believe all was fine (This may have been corrected by now). The important questions may never get asked if you don’t make it a habit of developing a plan each time you experience an abnormal or emergency condition. Once you develop your plan (which may be to continue, divert, land immediately, etc.) all you need to do is execute it while continuing to evaluate your status.

In summary, dealing with abnormal or emergency situations requires you to have an overarching operational philosophy. Here, we considered the fundamental structure of your philosophy should include the following:

* Fly the Airplane!

* Use the appropriate checklists if available

* Don’t perform unapproved in-flight troubleshooting

* Develop and execute a plan

Using that philosophy (or one that you or your operator develops) requires practice and discipline. However, with most scenarios that you will encounter either during a practical test or in your flight operations such thinking will simplify the solutions and help you improve flight safety.

We learn from each other. Your feedback, frank and open discussion and requests for new subject matter help everyone achieve their aviation goals. Please leave a comment or suggestion for all to see and help us generate those discussions. And feel free to use the link to contact me with any questions or comments that aren’t public.

Think Safe. Act safe. Stay safe.

-Safety Chip

1 United States, National Transportation Safety Board. (2020). Aircraft accident report (preliminary): Cessna 210, N210HH, New Braunfels, TX, 4/28/2020, retrieved from https://ntsb.gov/_layouts/ntsb.aviation/Results.aspx?queryId=78a7d083-597c-44a3-8d68-e0ed84b1a61f

2 United States, National Transportation Safety Board. (1973). Aircraft accident report NTSB-AAR-73-14: Eastern Air Lines, Inc., L-1011, N310EA, Miami, FL, 12/22/1972, retrieved from https://lessonslearned.faa.gov/L1011Everglades/Eastern%20401%20ntsb%20report.pdf

3 United States, National Transportation Safety Board. (2002). Aircraft accident report NTSB/AAR-02/01: Loss of Control and Impact with the Pacific Ocean Alaska Airlines Flight 261 McDonnell Douglas MD-83, N963AS About 2.7 Miles North of Anacapa Island, California January 31, 2000, retrieved from https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/AAR0201.pdf