In deciding to go flying, we implicitly accept some level of risk. Those unfamiliar with today’s ag aviation industry often ask me how dangerous it must be. My response reflects that adage about flying not being inherently dangerous but very unforgiving of acts of carelessness or neglect.
I also add that part and parcel of the industry is learning how to successfully deal with critical emergencies, where success can be a literal lifesaver, and failure can mean a terrible day at the office. In modern terminology, risk management has become the blanket term used to answer the question of how to prepare for such an eventuality.
The focus is on developing good judgment and decision-making skills while considering the aircraft, pilot, environment, and operation. Here are some reminders, suggestions, and tips to help you stay cool when the heat is turned up and to keep your protective instincts in full readiness the next time you go flying.
Hitting the Books
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but an excellent first step is the obvious: educate yourself on what can go wrong and how to deal with the situation. That starts with digging into the Aircraft Flight Manual in depth, not only at the beginning of a season with recurrent training as most operators do, but with spot reviews during downtime due to a grumpy Mother Nature or other factors.
Ensure you are well versed in the Limitations, Normal Procedures, and Performance sections, but also make sure you know the Emergency Procedures cold by practicing them repeatedly on a static airplane on the ground. When things go south, you don’t want to search for the igniter switch. Even better, see If you can get a simulator checkout on type to rehearse emergencies in a realistic environment.
I remember one pilot who told me he didn’t pay much attention to the Flight Manual because, in his view, all aircraft handle more or less the same, and the best way to get to know the airplane is to hop in and fly it.
There is some truth to that statement, but it misses the point that the finer details of each aircraft may have some coffin corners that are not immediately apparent. There is also a world of difference between what potential problems can arise with a fixed-pitch Pawnee and today’s much larger and considerably more complex turbine aircraft.
The Educated Hands
Dealing with any emergency is not only a matter of academic knowledge of the aircraft systems, but it is also very much a function of what is known as muscle memory, the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired due to frequent repetition of that movement.
Some common examples are tying a shoe, typing, or throwing a baseball, where practice reduces the act to an almost autonomous nature. You don’t think about it; you do it.
When you first sit in the cockpit of a different type of aircraft than what you’ve previously flown, there is a learning period where you get used to different handling qualities, different instrument setups, and such. There is a feeling of awkwardness until the unfamiliar (where is that darn flap switch) becomes familiar, where your hands automatically reach for the right switch at the right time. This is particularly important when the heat gets cranked up.
Here’s one example of educated hands saving my bacon. I was working on a forestry spraying project with a group of Thrush S2Rs. The spray runs were often 15 or more miles long, and the terrain altitude varied considerably from the central blocks to sheer plateaus 800 feet higher.
On one of the runs, I leaned out the engine upon reaching the plateau. On the return run, I reduced power in descent to the lower block and pushed the throttle ahead upon leveling off. The engine sputtered and coughed, and I immediately pulled up and activated the emergency fuel pump, to no avail.
I remember thinking furiously what the problem could be! As my brain was wrestling with that situation, my left hand, seemingly of its own accord, pushed throttle and mixture full forward. I don’t recall actively thinking I should do that, but I had practiced simulated emergency engine failures on the ground that required the same throttle quadrant response. My ‘educated’ hand knew what to do, even if my brain panicked.
The first critical item to be followed in an emergency is to ensure you maintain positive control of the aircraft so that a bad situation doesn’t worsen. Remember that a zero-thrust aircraft slows down quickly, so any cranking or banking can get you really close to stalling before you know it.
One incident I investigated involved an engine failure at spray height, followed by jettisoning a full load in response. The pilot wasn’t fast enough to counteract the extreme pitch-up that came with such a procedure and had not practiced jettisons with a full water load. The aircraft subsequently stalled and dropped one wing, which contacted the ground, spinning the aircraft in a yaw so violently that the engine was found almost 100 feet from the main crash site.
Had the pilot (who emerged from the incident unscathed) been familiar enough with the aircraft response to a load jettison, he would have most likely landed in the field without further ado.
Make it a Learning Experience
After an emergency or abnormal situation, take the time to analyze what happened, and write down what you can remember about the entire situation from first indications to conclusion. And don’t sugarcoat things. It’s a time to be as objective as possible about how you handled the situation and what you wish you had done differently
Share the Wealth
Over the years, I have found an immense store of knowledge and experience in the ag aviation industry from pilots, mechanics, owners, and operators. Feel free to tap into their knowledge and be open to sharing yours whenever you can. An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure.