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.

This website is reader-supported, which means we may be paid when you visit links to partner or featured sites, or by advertising on the site. For more information please read my Privacy Policy and Terms of Use

“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.

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.

Emergency Prioritisation and decision making models

It’s a pilot’s worst nightmare – dealing with an emergency. They occur sporadically, but when they do, quickly a pilot will be carefully scrutinized over the next few minutes.

Former US Airways captain Sully Sullenburger had about 20,000 flight hours before he lost both engines during takeoff due to flying into a flock of birds. Captain Sullenburger had no option but to ditch the aircraft on the Hudson River in the New York City metropolitan area. Capt. Sully Sullenberger Recounts Landing on Hudson River – ABC News.

What could have been one of the biggest aviation catastrophes in aviation history instead resulted in a remarkable zero casualty emergency water ditching. Everyone knows of Sully’s heroics, but it reminds the flying community that this can happen to anyone anytime.

Whether you have just 20 flight hours or 20,000, a pilot will be evaluated by how they respond to an emergency in just a few critical minutes. How does a pilot prepare for an emergency?

Remember, during this whole process, we have two overarching principles we use: our standard ANCA prioritisation, and our GADIE decision making model. we use these, and apply our lessons learnt in previous emergency handling training to the situation we find ourselves in to achieve the safest outcome.

ANCA prioritisation model

  • Aviate – Fly the plane, trim (or engage autopilot if appropriate), and complete the Boldface emergency initial actions procedures (the bolded font items in the emergency checklist which you need to memorise)
  • Navigate – Turn the aircraft onto a safe heading (such as toward the closest divert, airfield runway or safe terrain)
  • Communicate – Inform ATC or other aircraft of your emergency to obtain priority, emergency services or information – Don’t be afraid to tell ATC to “Standby” if they talk a lot and distract you
  • Administrate – Complete the checklist further actions or further troubleshooting and planning.

GADIE decision making model

Decision making model for more complex emergencies: I personally like to use “GADIE” but there are other models – pick one that works for you, your crew, aircraft and operations.

  • Gather: Gather information – this could be physical (i.e. nose pitching down or side-slip sensation), visual (i.e. attitude), Instrumentation (i.e. warning panel illumination or engine instrumentation), aural (warning bells), smells (burning/fire). Depending on the nature of the emergency you may have significant time to gather information – including asking other crew members what they see. For example an aircraft with a gear unsafe indication may even fly a deliberate low approach and overshoot and ask Air Traffic Control or an observer on the ground to look at the position of their landing gear. However you may not have much time at all such as with an engine failure or fire which needs immediate boldface actions. Gather information to answer the question ‘What can we tell is happening to the aircraft?’
  • Analyse: Review and analyse the situation using the information you have gathered – for example a loss of thrust, burning smell, low oil pressure and high oil temperature, and oil smears on the windscreen are all strong indications of an engine failure and potential engine fire in a single engine piston aircraft. You need to analyse and diagnose the situation. In this case, the symptoms are quite obvious so the analysis is quick. Answer the question – ‘what has happened?’
  • Decide: Using the analysis, decide on the appropriate course of action. In a multi-crew environment, good Crew Resource Management (CRM) would usually involve asking other crew members for their input and what they would do, before you as the Pilot in Command make the final decision on what checklist further actions to prioritize and how to manage the flight – i.e. in the case of an engine fire you may elect to shut down an engine and divert to the nearest airfield to land as soon as possible. Answer: ‘What am I going to do?’
  • Implement: Once you have decided on a course of action, you need to implement the plan – physically carry out the relevant checklist actions (extended or further actions) and proceed as per your decision i.e. continue to destination or divert to land as soon as practicable or land as soon as possible.
  • Evaluate: As you go, continue to monitor and evaluate the situation and your plan. For example, if you have a non time critical emergency and your checklist recommends you to land as soon as practicable, a deterioration of the situation could lead to time critical emergency that requires you to land as soon as possible, so you may have to change the plan depending on the nature of the emergency and any deterioriation.
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

Emergency example – engine fire in a twin-turbine

For example in a twin engine turboprop aircraft departing an airfield. You are the Pilot Flying (PF) climbing out passing 5,000ft in VMC through controlled airspace and feel the plane shake – you feel an immediate loss of thrust, pitch down and yaw to the right and you hear an ACAWS warning ‘Bing’ and flash on the instrument panel.

Aviate: You immediately simultaneously apply left rudder, set the attitude to a slight nose up, select full power on both engines and trim the pitch and rudder controls to maintain a gentle climb. The PM calls out the ‘number 2 engine failure’ ACAWS caution that has illuminated, and you acknowledge their call out.

Navigate: You continue to fly the aircraft visually in a gentle climb as you build up some airspeed on your assigned climb-out heading which is clear of any terrain and you take a quick breath.

Gather: You notice a loss of performance, lots of left rudder (your left leg working hard, and your right leg is “dead” and a “dead right leg = dead right engine”). A quick glance inside to the ACAWS panel shows the ‘Number 2 engine failure caution illuminated, and the engine instruments on number 2 show zero thrust. You ask the PM to look out to the wing and they say they see that the number 2 propeller has auto feathered. You see there is cloud deck above you around 7000ft.

Analyse: You promptly analyze the engine 2 failure and associated propeller auto feather

Decide: You decide you need to run the engine failure Boldface procedure to contain the failed engine and prevent further deterioration, and want to remain VMC to troubleshoot

Communicate: you tell your PM to declare a Pan to ATC and request to enter a holding pattern at 6,000ft to complete your checklist items PM :Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Alpha-Bravo-Charlie engine failure request maintain at 6000ft and holding pattern for troubleshoot. ATC: ‘A-B-C maintain 6,000ft and hold as required” PM: ‘Maintining 6000ft hold as required”

Aviate/Navigate: You level off at 6,000ft and enter a left hand holding pattern (turning away from the dead engine). You reduce thrust and trim the aircraft to maintain level flight.

Implement: You run the engine failure boldface procedure – PF: “Crew engine shutdown, Number 2 engine, number 2 firehandle” PM: (touches handle) PF: (checks correct fire handle for engine 2 is touched) “Confirmed” PM: (pulls handle 2) “Pulled” PF: “Agent – Not required” PM: “Not required” PF: “Engine Start switch – Stop” PM: “Stop”

Administrate: You decide to complete the checklist further actions and ask the PM to get out the Quick Reference Handbook to complete the engine failure shutdown checklist. PM opens the QRH to the correct page and calls ready. PF calls “Engine shutdown checklist” and you both work through the final non time critical emergency items (boost pumps, fuel pumps etc).

The checklist suggests that you land as soon as practicable, and after a brief discussion about what to do next, you decide to return to the departure field and direct the PM to get the ATIS and inform ATC of your intention to return for a visual approach. You call for the approach checklist and you and the PM complete the approach checks

Evaluate: The situation is contained and now no longer time-critical. You have plenty of fuel as you only just departed, and you have completed the checklist proceedure and all administration. You are just waiting for ATC clearance to return to the field

Suddenly the Fire warning panel illuminates red and the firebell begins ringing.

Aviate (BOLDFACE): PF: “Crew engine shutdown, Number 2 engine, number 2 firehandle” PM: (touches handle) PF: (checks correct fire handle for engine 2 is touched) “Confirmed” PM “Already Pulled” PF: “Agent – Discharge” PM: (Twists firehandle to discharge firebottle) “Discharged” PF: (seeing that the fire panel light has extinguished and the bell silenced) “Fire extinguished”

Navigate: PF immediately turns towards airfield and begins descent

Communicate: PM “Mayday Mayday Mayday, Alpha-Bravo-Charlie Engine Fire returning to Airport for immediate landing request emergency services, Two-Zero Persons on Board ” ATC: Alpha Bravo Charlie you are cleared visual approach all runways available, wind 100/5 knots” PM: Alpha Bravo Charlie cleared visual approach”

You fly a visual approach, joining a 3 mile final at 1000ft where you call for the landing checklist and lower the gear, landing without incident. You Taxi off the runway and notice smoke from the right hand engine nacelle/cowling, so request fire services and complete the emergency egress checklist – shutting down the aircraft and evacuating.

Additional emergency tips

I asked one of our Pilots David kollins for some more tips when it came to emergencies, and this is what he said

Continue to fly the airplane

Loud alarms, erroneous indications, strange noises, and psychological pressures happen in a matter of seconds during an emergency. You must not allow yourself to be flustered, and continue to fly the aircraft, trim to hands off (where possible). It has been said that the longer you can continue to fly an aircraft through an accident, the safer it becomes and the more likely you will survive.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute conducted a study where they simulated the “Impossible Turn” back to the departure runway after suffering a total engine failure immediately after takeoff. These trials included a three-second startle period considering the human factor before taking action on the aircraft controls.

After the startle period, they promptly turned and attempted to return to the runway to safely land the aircraft on the reciprocal end. Some aircraft made it back, however most did not (they promptly executed a Go-Around from the simulated procedure). This demonstrates the importance of an appropriate pre take-off safety brief including briefing EFATO “altitude gates” for landing straight ahead, left/right of the nose, and only then with sufficient altitude for your aircraft, the runways available and conditions of the day, a turnback gate. Further reading on turnbacks here – Reality Check: The Runway Behind You

A higher altitude (and airspeed) generally means more time; in the EFATO scenario, airspeed is equivalent to life, and altitude can be traded off for airspeed in a glide. When you have more altitude, you have more time to figure things out. Of course, sometimes you don’t have that and will need to act promptly (such as landing straight ahead in a low level EFATO).

Put your feelings aside and fly the airplane. Always fly the plane! Let alarms scream, and bells or whistles illuminate, but under no circumstance should you ever stop flying the aircraft.

Identifying emergencies: Gather, Review and Analyse information

With so much occurring in such a short amount of time, it’s necessary to identify your problem accurately. To avoid ‘Snaps’, it is best to ‘Sit on your hands’ for a few seconds whilst you try to Gather, Review and Analyse information to determine the nature of the emergency as a part of your ‘GADIE’ complex decision making model.

For example, in the cruise you hear a *BANG* sound followed by a reduction in engine noise, a nose down pitch and a right yawing tendency – all typical symptoms of an engine failure in a single engine aircraft. Your initial reactions should be firstly to Aviate: continue to fly the aircraft and to trim it into a stable glide attitude. Once in a stable glide, you can begin to identify the emergency by Gathering information – for example by looking out the windscreen around the cowling to look for evidence of fire or oil leaks, and check the engine instrument panel to observe oil pressure and temperature.

You then Review and Analyse the information you have gathered, in order to make a good decision.

In 2021 a cargo plane crashed after takeoff in Hawaii because the crew falsely identified which engine had failed in flight. This inaccurate assumption resulted in inadequate thrust to maintain a level flight to return to the airport and land. Unfortunately, what should have been an uneventful emergency resulted in a crash. DCA21FA174.aspx.

During this stressful emergency, it is necessary to apply a cross-check and verification method from all crew members before taking action. False identification of a problem can result in one irregularity turning into two or more. Take your time before you flip switches and shut systems components. Use all available resources when navigating a problem.

Decide and Implement: Execute a procedure

Problems can be classified into two different categories, abnormal and emergency. An abnormal condition is a problem that is not as urgent as an emergency and does not put the aircraft or people in immediate danger. An emergency, however, requires prompt actions to ensure flight safety and presents an immediate threat and will usually have an associated BOLDFACE action items which need to be committed to memory in order for you to immediately execute Emergency or Abnormal Situation | SKYbrary Aviation Safety 

Whatever the situation, it is vital to understand the airplane you fly and consult the aircraft operations and limitations handbook before flying it. An aircraft operations and limitations book will refer you to a checklist and procedures to execute if an abnormal or emergency occurs. Chapter 9: Flight Manuals and Other Documents.

An example of an emergency is an engine failure after take-off. A pilot should commit to memory the appropriate actions to take when the nature of the emergency is time-sensitive. After you first fly the airplane and enter a glide toward a suitable forced landing area, you should execute your boldface initial items checklist – for example in a light single-engine piston aircraft this usually consists of a quick flow to put the throttle, prop and mixture to full advance, boost pump on, check mags on both and fuel set to on – if no engine response then you typically shut everything off to contain the engine and prevent a fire on impact. Generally in an EFATO there is not any more time for checklists or advanced troubleshooting like you might get if an engine failure happened in the cruise (of course done after flying the aircraft and joining a forced landing pattern to a suitable landing area).

Consider the Post-Mortem

If time permits, consider the new challenges and obstacles at play. A good example is landing with inoperative flaps. How The 4 Types Of Aircraft Flaps Work Landing. Without operable flaps, the aircraft cannot fly a standard landing profile as prescribed in the aircraft operations and limitations handbook consisting of a practical approach speed and calculated landing distances. Landing without flaps requires a longer landing distance and higher approach speed. No-Flap Landings – Aviation Safety.  Knowing this information, if you intend to land at an airport with a shorter runway, you may be at risk of superseding the landing distance due to the aircraft’s new configuration.  This form of critical thinking comes from experience but is an attribute of many professional pilots. Considering the situation you are in. It’s always important to reevaluate your position and know the next move.

Emergencies are never fun but are always something to consider. Never be afraid to practice an emergency procedure with an instructor. Balked landings, engine failures, and fires are all procedures that should be memorized and executed frequently for a refresher of good habits and safety. Remember, it is not a race to handle the emergency. However, it is a race to identify the problem and correct it. While some troubles are more intense than others, it is essential always to stay ready. A ready pilot is a safe pilot.


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.

proaviationtips banner ad
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

You May Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *