Handling In Flight Emergencies

Practicing in flight emergencies is rarely the same as real life situations, so preparedness is key, as well as a basic awareness of the factors that affect emergency handling.

Introduction to in flight emergencies

How do you prepare for your flying emergencies? Prior planning scenarios, pre-takeoff briefs, touch drills, hangar talk, reading accident reports, visualisation, memory games, lightning fast reactions, sitting on your hands, or just wait and see?

Reading through the Pilot Notes, you will always find the checklists to cover various emergencies. These checklists were developed by the manufacturers, their engineers and test pilots, to best handle the scenario given. Logic would have it that in the event of an emergency, the pilot opens the correct page and simply carries out the required actions, then all is well. Unfortunately, too many pilots have attempted this, without giving enough importance to the old “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate1priorities, and have inadvertently lost control and entered a much more dangerous region of flight. 

Loss of control in flight, and entering an Unusual Attitude, is a dangerous enough prospect on its own, let alone when in combination with other aircraft malfunctions. So remember to Aviate first, and continue to fly the aircraft safely under your command.

“The concept of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate has been taught in aviation training for decades, and it has been credited with helping pilots remain calm and focused in stressful situations. The phrase is especially important in emergency situations when quick decision-making and prioritization are essential to ensure the safety of the flight crew and passengers.”


Practicing emergency scenarios

If I was to go through every emergency list right now, not only would this be an incredibly long article, but it would be presumptuous that there was only one emergency occurring, that all aircraft behaved the same, and that all inflight conditions were standard. Real life emergency scenarios are rarely of such a textbook occurrence as when you practised them.  Your instructor would often wait until you had climbed out through 500 feet before pulling the power back to idle and announcing “Practice Engine Failure”, knowing that an easy nose down and 30 degree turn would point you into the Golf Course hole number Seven. Then he’d give you the power back at 200 feet and you’d climb away like nothing happened. 

Real life emergencies

Compare that to real life, where the door pops open distracting you, then the engine power coughs and reduces to about half, but continues running, and you are only at 200 feet and you are operating at another airfield without a nearby golf course, but simply houses and factories ahead. What do you do? First of all, retain control of the aircraft and push the nose down and maintain your best glide/climb speed, point to the best landing area and accept that you are most likely going to touch down very soon, and prepare for impact. Tell your passengers to brace, and if you have any time or mental capacity quickly go through your emergency checklist items from memory if you think it might be a simple issue.

But if a sign informs you that the engine has started disintegrating (Eg flaming oil spread over your windscreen), then reduce your checks to making the aircraft as safe as possible (shutting down before impact). Tighten your harnesses and lastly consider a fast Mayday call. This radio call is THE lowest priority, and should be left until last. Retain control of the aircraft, touch down wings level with a minimum rate of descent. Remember that the written checklists might not work under every situation, and consider pausing briefly after each action in case it makes it worse. It’s easier to turn something back off again if you are still touching the switch….

bird in aircraft wing, flight emergencies
Luckily for the pilot, this bird missed the windscreen but has impacted the wing impressively. Emergency considerations include landing flapless, and incrementing your threshold speed not only for that configuration – but also noting the wing is less efficient. Photo Credit: fodnews.com/news/page/4/2


Consideration should also be made about where or when you land. Some minor emergencies may be fine to continue to your original destination. However others may require that you land at a closer runway, or a much longer one, or one that has emergency services in close proximity. Other urgent issues may require you to land immediately, preferably on some flat land.  Approach and threshold speeds may need to be increased due to landing at a higher weight, inability to use flaps, wind gusts or airframe damage. Undercarriage issues may even require you to land on one side of the runway, rather than the centreline.

With an inability to lower the landing gear, it’s often preferable to land on a hard tarmac runway, than on a dirt or grass runway – to prevent parts ‘digging in’ and possibly flipping the aircraft.

Resist the temptation to return home, or to continue to your destination, purely for convenience – many an aviator has overflown suitable runways only to then force land or crash.

crash landing, aircraft on ground
Your aim is to preserve your life, that of your passengers and of people on the ground. Don’t risk any of those to save the aircraft. Touching down wings level with a minimum rate of descent in a controllable manner maximises your chances of safety.
Photo Credit: www.cleveland.com/3

Preparation for emergencies

Preparation for all emergencies is best done before each flight, with a quick mental reminder of your most vital actions that may be required, thoughts about diversion landing areas, and even possible survival gear/ emergency medical kit that should be carried in flight. Consider a verbal brief after your run up checks, describing how and why you might abort the takeoff, and how you might handle a partial loss of power after you’ve lifted off.  Nominate the ideal speed, and touch the controls, knobs and switches that you will need – to build in muscle memory: especially if you are in an unfamiliar aircraft. (You can read our article on Cockpit Familiarisation HERE). Figuring out how to change fuel tanks is much easier done on the ground, than trying to decipher the system in a low level engine stopped glide. 

Also be aware that your previous techniques may simply be wrong in your new type. Recently I had an engine pulled by my instructor after takeoff, and I mentally reverted to my first aircraft type (a high performance turboprop) and I attempted to pull back to convert ‘excess speed to height’. Unfortunately I was in a Nanchang and I had no excess speed (maybe I was tricked by kph instead of knots, or maybe I just stuffed up), and I quickly realised the error of my ways before pushing forwards on the stick. Embarrassment was the only casualty that day, but I learned my lesson.

Many homebuilt aircraft will have cockpits designed for their builders, and where you may have installed the fuel pump switch, another builder may have installed his Anti-Collision light switch. Do fully familiarise yourself.

crushed airplane, in flight emergency
Expect the unexpected. Not every scenario can proceed by the books. Your knowledge, experience and common sense will help you when you need it. 
Photo Credit: cdn.agilitycms.com/national-gallery/4

Radio calls

 Whilst radio calls are generally the lowest priority, never feel too proud to declare an emergency – even if you are 100% certain that you’ll probably be ok.  Announcing a PAN or MAYDAY will ensure that ATC are aware that you have issues that mean you probably can’t comply with normal procedures, and that your situation could possibly worsen without notice. At a major airport it’s likely the Fire Rescue team will abandon their TV, and will roll out the trucks to observe your arrival and render any assistance required. It’s better to have them and not need them, than to need them and not have them. Besides, it’s free.

 Emergencies that require fast, positive actions should be committed to memory. Situations such as Loss of Engine Power, Fire, Stalls or Loss of Control, all demand you to react correctly and quickly.

For more info on Distress and Urgency Procedures, you can visit the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website HERE: faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aim_html/chap6_section_3.html5

“The initial communication, and if considered necessary, any subsequent transmissions by an aircraft in distress should begin with the signal MAYDAY, preferably repeated three times. The signal PAN-PAN should be used in the same manner for an urgency condition.”


‘Sitting on Your Hands’

Not all emergencies require immediate actions, but will allow you time to carefully diagnose before decide what is best. ‘Sitting on your hands’ means to take time to analyse your problem and confirm with the use of checklists, whilst continuing to fly the aircraft. An autopilot6 can be your best friend in this situation. Examples of this may be Loss of Generator during Day VFR flight, or Failure of Undercarriage to Lower when you have plenty of fuel. The emergency may not even be yours, but another aircraft which may now close your destination airfield: requiring you to hold or divert.

in flight emergencies
Not all emergencies require immediate actions. Sometimes ‘sitting on your hands’ means to take your time, relax, and consider your situation.

 Reading Accident Reports are a great way of learning more about avoiding accidents, or minimising them. Check out the NTSB report page here:  


It’s also vital to communicate whether any medical assistance will be required, if there has been an in flight medical emergency. In flight medical emergencies and medical emergency calls do occur and it’s best practice to ensure any emergency medical equipment and medical kits required by company policy or other regulations is on board, and that all pilots and crew on board have first aid training and practice various scenarios as well.


As well as reminding yourself what is different about the aircraft, consider also the differences in the runway and surrounding areas, the terrain, the weather conditions, and even your own condition. Are you tired, stressed, hurried, hungry or generally not up to par? All of these factors will affect your emergency handling, and they should all be considered before starting the aircraft. It’s often better to admit that you need to delay your flight, and that getting home a day or two later is better than never returning home at all.

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Flying Instructor


Michael Jorgensen is a specialist formation instructor and Australia's premier air to air formation action photographer, based in Sydney, Australia. Jorgo has a wealth of experience, stemming from his career as a military fast jet pilot, and heavy air-to-air refuelling tanker pilot flying for both the New Zealand and British Air Forces. Find out more

Jorgo has 23 posts and counting. See all posts by Jorgo

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