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Practicing for Judgment Day

By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

'Second nature,' as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is 'an acquired personal disposition, tendency, or habit so long practiced as to seem innate.'

Flying has become second nature for some aviators because, thanks to years of practice, the related skills are imprinted on their brain and muscles. These aces simply act and react without giving it much thought.

But how many general aviation pilots can honestly claim that handling perhaps the biggest in-flight challenge of all'emergencies'is second nature to them? Not many, I suspect.

Little wonder. For one thing, major emergencies rarely occur, such that years or even decades may pass after flight training before GA pilots are possibly put to the real-life test.

For another, there's no requirement that we routinely practice emergencies. So unless we take on that responsibility ourselves, emergency skills won't ever feel innate'especially under pressure, when second nature is most essential.

'Physically practicing procedures will help in making them reflexive under stress,' Dr. David Jones, an aerospace psychiatrist and former editor of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, recently told Aviation Safety magazine. 'Actually going through the motions will give the pilot a kind of kinesthetic memory, in the same way that one learns to shoot a basketball through practice. The muscles know how to do things that can't be put into words'if they're shown how.'

In short, buffed emergency skills are far more likely than rusty skills to get you through the crunch on Judgment Day, whether it's a total power loss at altitude, a stall, or a type of emergency that wasn't even covered in flight training.

Bob Meyers, a retired United Airlines captain and avid private pilot, argues that one-quarter of our time aloft'either one-fourth of each flight or every fourth flight'should be spent on emergency drills so we remain proficient.

This doesn't mean you have to head out over the practice zone alone, palms sweating and pulse pounding, to bone up on those dreaded stalls. Consider bringing along an instructor for comfort and back up in the event a simulated emergency becomes real. And whether you're paired with an instructor or flying solo, always leave yourself an out in case something does go wrong.

Preflight planning and preparation for such procedures is especially important. So, before the flight, it's a good idea to review printed materials and maybe summarize the procedures on a sheet or 3-by-5-inch card for quick reference aloft.

Finally, you can practice emergency procedures risk-free, in front of your computer, by purchasing an interactive CD-ROM or learn more by taking advantage of commercially available books, videocassettes, and audiotapes. 

About six months after I passed the check ride, I asked my former instructor if he'd be willing to give me additional in-flight emergency training. He seemed skeptical at first; after all, wasn't I a freshly minted pilot who had recently run the gauntlet?

I explained that, based on my reading, there were all kinds of potential emergencies beyond the scope of flight training. Some were cited in the Pilot's Operating Handbook, but I hadn't practiced them, and others weren't mentioned in the POH. How would I respond in the air if one of those situations actually arose?

Our two hours aloft were the most informative and interesting ever! Among other simulated instrument outages, I navigated and turned using the wet compass only and landed at the appropriate speed with the airspeed indicator covered. In simulated control-surface glitches, the instructor also had me perform a number of maneuvers'including flying the pattern'first without using the rudder, then without using the elevator, and then without using the ailerons. We also simulated a flat-tire landing.

This experience boosted my confidence that I could handle a greater variety of emergencies, and prompted me to begin planning additional refresher sessions.

Practice won't ever make me perfect, of course. But I do believe it will bring me a lot closer to that elusive goal.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif.