A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

JUNE 2005

A True Emergency

A critical situation is only an emergency to a person who thinks it is! An engine failure in an airplane flying at 5000' above the ground would be an emergency to a non flyer. The pilot however, would be scanning the ground below, looking for a safe place to land. And with 5000 feet of  altitude below him, he has something like 7 or 8 minutes to put an act together. Not an immediate emergency at all.

In my 25 years as an ambulance paramedic, I've responded to countless "emergencies".  When a caller who dials 911 thinks he has an emergency, an ambulance crew is dispatched with lights and sirens, speeding through the streets. When the crew arrives, 90% of the time they find no emergency, but someone who just thinks he is in serious trouble. This 90% can be verified by counting the number of responses with lights and sirens, and comparing them with the number of times the patient can be transported to the hospital without using the emergency equipment.  Anecdotally I would say it is nine times out of ten.

Of course I've seen my share of real emergencies, and an engine failure is not what I consider one of them.  My engine failure happened on a sunny, mild spring day while flying in the open cockpit of my Renegade.  I'd been sightseeing in the mountains near Harrison Lake, over the Hemlock Valley ski area to be exact. After spending some time at 5,000 feet, I was in a gentle descent on the return trip to the Langley airport.  The power was pulled back a bit, and the Rotax 503 seemed to like the lower RPM.  Things were smooth as I entered downwind into the circuit and was cleared number two for landing on 1-9, behind a Cherokee.

That's when it happened. It wasn't a complete failure, rather a stumbling, and loss of RPM. I switched tanks first (no carb heat control on the 2-stroke), and then worked the throttle in and out. The sputtering continued, the engine unable to "catch" and produce that smooth power I was comfortable with just seconds earlier.

My reaction was not what a they put on television shows. No fear, no panic, for this to me was not an emergency. Without a conscious thought, somewhere in my brain was the comfortable knowledge that there was an airport practically right below. That nanosecond reminder was certainly reassuring and allowed the mind to work elsewhere. Like on how to get the power back.

If not fear, then what? Anger! That's what. I was mad at that little airplane. After all the time, effort, money and labor I put into it, all I could think of was the damn thing had let me down! It up and quit on me!

Many hours of flying Cessna L-19 Bird dog tow planes for a glider operation had honed my skills at dead stick landings. Our procedures were get them up, then get back down a.s.a.p. for the next tow. Glider pilots aren't as patient as most of us. So it was always full flaps, power off descent and landings, one after the other. Dozens in a single day. I wasn't concerned about getting down in one piece.

I calmly informed the controller I would need priority landing. Just as calmly, he cleared me to land on 1-9. Since I was about midfield downwind, I informed him I would require priority on the grass crosswind strip as I'd lost power. Again he was calm, and said, "OK, cleared to land on the grass".

That rather annoyed me a bit more. No one else seemed to think I had an emergency. No trace of concern in his voice at all. Like this was an everyday occurrence. My moment of glory, I was about to survive an engine-out, and nobody cared.

I went ahead and landed on the grass strip, which was being used by the cadets practicing their soaring for the day. They were aware of my situation from the radio calls, but seemed just as nonchalant as several approached to offer assistance pushing me out of their way.

That done, they left, and I was alone beside the runway with my sick airplane. The non emergency was over. There were no fire trucks, no controller calling to see if I was all right. It was actually just... quiet.

But I was still mad at that Renegade. There was no adrenaline rush to cope with, no shaky knees, no deep breathing. I just needed to find out what went wrong. Float bowls were clean and the carbs seemed to function properly. Not much else to check really. After about 10 minutes, the 503 started and ran perfectly. I taxied back to my tie-down spot and left it for the day.

Although I suspect carb ice, I've never found what caused the problem.

So when is an engine failure a true emergency? Someone once said that an airplane is as safe as the ground it's flying over. Naturally, being over the mountains out of gliding distance to something flat and obstacle free, would create a very serious situation when that engine quits. Since my incident, more than ever, I make it a point to remain vigilant about landing spots.  It's good practice to make mental notes of such places as you fly your route. These days, I've come to rely on my Cessna with the Continental engine, but will not completely trust anything mechanical to the point of thinking there will never be a true emergency in the air.

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