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Mayday!

Did your instructor ever pull the power on the upwind leg and then say: "OK, your engine just quit. What now?" Even as a student pilot, I knew that it wouldn't be a casual event on downwind at pattern altitude -- let alone at 250 AGL on the upwind leg. Needless to say, I do remember frantically scanning for some friendly real estate. Those taunting memories always bothered me. What would I do, if it actually quit?

Did your instructor ever pull the power on the upwind leg and then say: "OK, your engine just quit. What now?" Even as a student pilot, I knew that it wouldn't be a casual event on downwind at pattern altitude -- let alone at 250 AGL on the upwind leg. Needless to say, I do remember frantically scanning for some friendly real estate. Those taunting memories always bothered me. What would I do, if it actually quit?

UPWIND
Not too long ago, I got the idea of exploring this "hostile" realm of the ascent profile, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and using data specific to my home field. I credit much of the impetus to my taunting memories of observing simulated in-flight emergencies as though from a perspective other than my own. (As in "this can't be happening to me"...) Part also was due to my having had the benefit of buzzing around the pattern in an R22 -- much lower and slower than before -- and getting much more than fleeting glimpses at the environment around me. I guess another catalyst was seeing a reprinted article in one of those yellow FAA safety pamphlets, appropriately titled "Impossible Turn".

A LITTLE LOGIC
At any rate, I found that once I actually: 1) got topographic information from the local Park and Planning Commission ... 2) correlated those data with a few choice photographic perspectives of my airport environment ... and 3) used data from the POH's of the aircraft I fly ... I could actually optimize the relationship between my choices of what I could do if I lost the engine at any point in the ascent profile. The information was worth the trouble.

Why panic in the airplane, when I could "panic" now -- while I was still safely on the ground with plenty of time to derive the best course of action?

A LITTLE FILM
The following is offered for your information only. If this should actually ever happen to you, you will be the final arbiter of your fate. But perhaps this will help...

Click to Enlarge At many suburban airports, encroaching development has put a tourniquet around formerly burgeoning tracts of open land. Where there were fields aplenty for our fathers to glide to in our airplanes' forebears, tracts of subdivisions with bucolic names now occupy those same spaces. Here's a good example: my home field. This is a view of the only two open areas at the Southeast end of the runway at Montgomery Airpark, 20 miles or so North of Washington DC. There are annotated distances and magnetic directions from that end of the runway to the beginning of what I called "S1" and "S2", but their values are not important to most of you -- the fact that they can be known, is. As it happens, there have been some changes in the "S2" area (tree growth), and little change in "S1" during the intervening six or seven years since these photographs were taken.

A LITTLE FIGURING
My next step was to get topographical maps of all these areas from the local Parks and Planning Commission. They showed the micro-topography quite nicely. I apologize that the map is not oriented the same as the above photo.

Click to Enlarge This is an enlargement of a topographical map showing the open areas Southeast of KGAI. The dotted line distances (they're difficult to see, but again the actual values aren't the point here) represent what appeared to offer the optimal combination of forgiving gradient and maximal stopping distance. Low-level helicopter photographic data confirmed this information, also. The horizontal scale at the bottom represents 1000 feet (in 200 foot increments). The contour interval is five feet.

IMAGINING THE WORST...
Then I made a set of assumptions and actually quantified "windows of hope" (or lack thereof) showing where one would be relative to the field AND emergency landing sites at given times, as dictated by the performance profile of one of my flying club's 172s. I also did this with our other airplanes, which at the time included a 182 and a 210, and for jollies, I also did it for a J-3 Cub and an F-16. (Now those were interesting!) I made a few assumptions (see bottom of spreadsheet). You can get as specific with these numbers as you want, but again the most important thing to me is that I know just where I ought to point my nose if things ever get quiet before I get to pattern altitude at my home field.

...PLANNING TO MAKE BETTER OF IT
For instance, let's take a departure from runway 14: Based on POH data for one of the 172s, and my usual "best effort" Vy climb, I know I'll start running out of stopping room on the runway I just took off from once I get much above about 120 feet AGL. This is better remembered as about 660 MSL, which is what I'd really see on the altimeter. Once above 210 AGL (about 750' MSL), I could probably make S1 (which is a bit over 1000 feet from the other end of the runway), though I'd need a forward slip, not best glide, if I were near 800 MSL (260 AGL). Once at 820 MSL (about 280 AGL), I'd be able to make S2 (just over 1900 feet from the runway), which is just about runway heading, too. (You'll doubtless notice the "grey" areas on the spreadsheet. Those sobering segments represent intervals where I would be both too high to land on the remaining runway and too low to make it to the open S1 area.) However, in spite of the negatives, the point remains: Do your worrying now, so you can fly the airplane when you'd need it most, instead of going into auto-flail mode…makes sense, right?

Click to Enlarge Here is that spreadsheet. You can see that I had to make several assumptions.

From these personal efforts, the universal maxims:

ON ENGINE FAILURE...

TO BE "READY" FOR IT:

  1. MEMORIZE EMERGENCY CHECKLISTS; REVIEW PERIODICALLY
  2. KNOW BEST GLIDE SPEED (and what descent rate it gets you)
  3. DEVELOP GOOD "SIGHT PICTURE" IN BEST GLIDE
  4. PRACTICE "ENGINE OUTS" REGULARLY
  5. STUDY YOUR AIRPORT ENVIRONMENT
  6. LEARN WHAT GOOD LANDING SITES LOOK LIKE (SEASONALLY!)
  7. KNOW WIND VELOCITY AT EACH TAKEOFF
  8. DO A THOROUGH PREFLIGHT
  9. ALWAYS CLIMB OUT AT Vy (OR Vx IF APPLICABLE)
  10. PRACTICE "CALLOUTS" AT SAFE TURN-AROUND ALTITUDE -- BASICALLY, TPA
  11. REMEMBER, YOUR MSL READOUT IS NOT AGL!
  12. NEVER SUDDENLY REDUCE POWER
  13. PRACTICE FORWARD SLIPS
  14. KEEP YOUR PATTERN AS REASONABLY "TIGHT" AS TRAFFIC ALLOWS
  15. REMEMBER THE "CONSERVATIVE RESPONSE RULE": CHOOSE THE SAFEST ALTERNATIVE AND DO IT IN A TIMELY MANNER

...AND IF IT HAPPENS:

  1. ESTABLISH BEST GLIDE
  2. IF ENGINE SUDDENLY QUITS, CONSIDER TRADING EXCESS AIRSPEED FOR ALTITUDE OR MANEUVERABILITY
  3. FLY THE AIRPLANE! (POSITIVE CONTROL IS BIGGEST SURVIVABILITY FACTOR)
  4. IF LESS THAN 800' AGL DON'T TRY TO TURN BACK -- A "180" IS REALLY AT LEAST A "210"
  5. GO THROUGH EMERGENCY ENGINE-OUT PROCEDURE
  6. FLY THE AIRPLANE!
  7. GO THROUGH RESTART PROCEDURE, IF TIME PERMITS
  8. DON'T RESTART IF YOU SEE OIL, VIBRATION, FLAMES, ETC.
  9. FLY THE AIRPLANE!
  10. MAYDAY ON 121.5 (IF TIME PERMITS) -- "WHO, WHERE, WHAT YOU WANT"
  11. SQUAWK 7700 (IF TIME PERMITS)
  12. IF LANDING ASSURED, MINIMUM SINK SPEED BUYS A LITTLE MORE TIME
  13. FLY THE AIRPLANE!
  14. CONSIDER TERRAIN, OBSTACLES, WIND
  15. MAINTAIN POSITIONAL AWARENESS
  16. FLY THE AIRPLANE!
  17. USE APPENDAGES (WINGS, ETC.) TO ABSORB ENERGY -- IF CABIN STAYS OK, SO WILL YOU

GOOD PLANNING MAKES GOOD LUCK. I wish you both.

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