Abnormal Operations

The pilots I know are comfortable with adapting to changes that require a minor alteration to the flight plan like an IFR re-route or vectors for traffic or weather that still allows the flight to get to the planned destination. But because we are goal oriented, catastrophic events that require completely abandoning the original plan and coming up with a brand new conclusion are much harder to accept, cope with and resolve. An engine failure is obvious and requires immediate attention. Other events are just as demanding but the need to drop the original plan and do something completely different is not always as obvious.

There are several reasons for this and the first is simply shock that the event happened. Next is simple denial and our resistance to change. Finally is the perception that it may be our fault and we feel a responsibility to rectify the situation or minimize the impact to atone for the perceived mistake.

A possible reason for many out of the envelope fatal ejections is that the pilot was trying to recover from a problem he or she may have thought they created and were responsible for. I lost a friend in F-4s in a low altitude ejection when he was hot dogging and attempted a loop at too low an altitude. He initiated the ejection in time for his back seater to eject but it was out of the envelope for the front seat. This is the kind of inertia we need to overcome when a major event occurs that requires a complete change of plans.

One thing seems to be that pilots with no military background are reluctant to declare an emergency when something goes wrong and they truly deserve priority handling. The other thing that happens when you declare an emergency is that there is an immediate role reversal. In normal ops we are used to following the clearance and directions of air traffic controllers and the controllers expect this. But once you declare an emergency the pilot-in-command takes control of the situation and the controllers ONLY job is to help the pilot of the emergency aircraft get it safely on the ground.

There was an American Airlines flight inbound to Dallas-Fort Worth that determined they were very low on fuel, declared an emergency and asked, rather than told the controller,  to land opposite direction of the current traffic flow. The tower controller denied the request and made them land with other traffic. This is completely wrong. Once the pilot declared the emergency the controller should have immediately cleared the aircraft for the requested landing without worrying about the disruption to the “normal” traffic flow. Both the pilot and tower controller failed to recognize the role reversal once the emergency was declared. When the controller denied the request the pilot should have rebuked the controller and said he was an emergency and had priority over all other traffic. In this case the aircraft landed without event but both the controller and the pilot were criticized for not understanding that the emergency should have been handled differently.

Some emergencies require thinking “outside the box”. A friend of mine was egressing a target in North Vietnam in his F-105 at 500+ knots when he got a gear door light indication in the cockpit. Bold face for this problem was to slow below gear lowering speed to prevent damage to the gear door. That’s what he did which allowed the AAA gunners on the ground to easily track, hit and shoot down his airplane. Peace time training taught him to do this and he didn’t fully assess the urgency and differences of a combat situation. After he ejected and was on the ground he had time, while evading the North Vietnamese and waiting for the rescue helicopter, to reflect on the fact it would have been better to lose the gear door rather than the airplane and expose himself to being captured.

Some time ago (March 29, 2015) a Van’s RV-6/8 demonstration team suffered a mid-air collision during an airshow and while the investigation is still in progress there are some important things for formation pilots to think about. This was a 10-ship operating as three or four elements entering an exiting show center at coordinated times. At the time of the midair the team had elements at opposite ends of the runway show line and another element out to re-enter later. The mishap element was a 3-ship with 1 & 2 flying straight and level while #3 did barrel rolls around them. On one of the barrel rolls the maneuvering aircraft contacted one of the aircraft in the fingertip formation. The collision caused the maneuvering aircraft to lose most of both propeller blades creating a no thrust condition requiring an immediate dead stick landing which the pilot did very well.

RV-6 damage

However, apparently no one in the flight called Knock-it-Off and neither did the air boss in the tower so the other elements continued with their part of the routine. Meanwhile, the pilot of the other aircraft involved in the midair decided to divert to an airfield 30 miles away without knowing the extent of damage to his airplane. The investigation will determine if there was a good reason to fly a damaged aircraft 30 miles rather than landing on the runway directly underneath.

Lessons we can take away from this right now while we wait for investigators to unravel the rest of the story:

Events like this require a Knock-it-Off call as soon as possible, remembering the priorities to aviate, navigate and communicate.

It doesn’t need to be someone in the flight to call Knock-it-Off.

Once someone calls Knock-it-Off you need to hit the reset button on the flight plan, regroup and do what the new situation dictates.

Deal with the reality of the situation not what you want it to be.

Never hesitate to declare an emergency. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declared an emergency but I can tell you I have never been asked to fill out a report (never). The FAA hates paperwork as much as we do.

You have to have a really good reason to overfly a usable runway with a sick airplane. The Marines proved this in San Diego when an F-18 had an engine failure and hydraulic problems in a training area off the coast. The pilot attempted to land back at MCAS Miramar to make it easier for maintenance to fix the jet. In the process the pilot over flew NAS North Island. Between North Island and Miramar (only 10 miles apart over populated areas) the airplane experienced total hydraulic failure and the pilot safely ejected. The airplane crashed killing two people and destroying three homes.

We don’t have all the facts yet for the accident with the RVs so don’t jump to conclusions but think how you lead flights and see if there’s anything here that can help you be a better leader or pilot.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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