For some, the very thought of even getting into a small single-engine plane pales in comparison to trusting the huge host of variables that allows the plane to take off, much less land. When a car breaks down, it merely rolls to a stop and usually everyone is no worse for wear; worst-case scenario, it catches fire and burns to the ground. Think of all the things that have gone wrong with your car this year and now think of those things happening when your car is 5,000 feet in the air.
When a plane breaks down, the best you can hope for is in the skill of the pilot to get it started again. A small aircraft is designed to fly and will glide without power for a very long time before gravity inevitably prevails. At 5,000 feet, you have a couple of miles of glide time, which gives you the most time to either solve whatever problem has come to pass or to come to terms with it.
But what if the pilot is out of commission? What if nobody’s available to fly the plane except for you? In August, a Florida man took over the controls of a small plane carrying his family when the pilot collapsed at the controls. To make matters worse, the plane was running out of fuel. He was able to stay calm, radio for help, and competently (albeit, with a few bumps) land the plane. If you’re ever in this situation, follow these three steps: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
Knowing the basics about an airplane (how it flies, what the controls do) is essential if you plan to take a ride in one, as one day, your life could depend on it. Before you take off, ask the pilot to give you a tour of the instrument panel and controls, what each one means or does, and how to read it. There is a duplicate set of controls (column and pedals) on your side of the plane for just this reason, but the foremost important thing to remember is to stay calm. Yelling and screaming won’t help the situation, as only cool headedness and thoughtful decisions will. Take a few breaths, and relax.
Make sure the pilot hasn’t slumped over onto the control column; grab it and hold it steady. Remember that planes like to fly, sometimes too well. Unless your engine is out, the default setting for the plane is to climb. As speed is added from the throttle, lift will increase, and the plane will rise. Add power, speed increases; as speed increases, the plane climbs. Counter intuitive to common sense is that if you push the control column down to nose the plane down (while trying to reduce altitude), speed will increase, and the plane will want to climb, instead.
Pilots use the trim controls to keep the plane as “hands-free” as possible, rather like the cruise control of a car. When you take over the controls, the plane will continue to do whatever it is the pilot set it up to do. You’ll have to change that. Whatever you want the plane to do now—turn, ascend, descend—primarily use the outside horizon and the steering column to gently stabilize the plane. No sudden, jerky movements.
Know where you are, where you came from, and where you are going. If you are descending or ascending, heading into a desert or directly out to sea, you need to change the direction, speed, and attitude of the plane to make it optimal. Head back to the airport of origin or head toward another that is closer? Are you headed toward a major airport or a busy traffic altitude? You need to buy some time, as it is less about the instruments and the situation and more about keeping the plane aloft in the right direction as long as possible until it is time to land. Altitude and airspeed are paramount.
“WHEN YOU SAY THE WORD “EMERGENCY” IT WILL GAIN THE FULL ATTENTION OF NOT ONLY AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL, BUT OF ALL THE PILOTS IN THE AREA THAT MIGHT BE MONITORING THE GUARD CHANNEL.”
Most every general aviation airplane has a transponder, a beacon like device that lets the various Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) know who you are and where you are on their radar screen. It isn’t a big deal if you’re in a sparse area, but when the screen is cluttered with hundreds of flights, it is easy to go unnoticed. Every flight is given a unique four-digit number, but now is the time to switch the transponder number to 7700, alerting the ATC that there is an emergency.
If you are not already wearing your own, put on the pilot’s headset and find the radio controls to change the frequency to 121.5 to contact Air Traffic Control (ATC). Press the button on the control column and clearly announce, “I have an emergency.” Emergency is the critical word. When you say the word “emergency” it will gain the full attention of not only Air Traffic Control, but of all the pilots in the area that might be monitoring the guard channel.
State your name, what happened, and that you have very little knowledge on how to land a plane. If you know the call sign of the airplane you’re in (always written on the dashboard and starts with the letter N), say that as well. It might take a moment or two to respond, but the people at ATC are very skilled at showing you how to land a plane. Communication with them is the utmost importance, but you have to pay attention to what they say and do exactly as they tell you. The first thing they’ll ask is where are you.
As you are contacting ATC, look at the instruments. Start with the airspeed indicator and then the altitude indicator (always in the top center position on older planes). This will tell you whether the plane is pitched up or down, or if it is banking one way or another (so will the turn coordinator). The heading indicator will tell you which direction you are headed, based on a compass bearing.
Notice the airspeed (in knots or mph). Though it is human nature to try to slow down or stop the situation by “applying the brakes,” don’t let the air speed fall below 70 knots, otherwise you’ll stall the airplane. Notice the green area on the airspeed indicator; keep the needle within that green area.
The ATC, hopefully by now, will have found a competent pilot to brief you on the things you will need to do to safely land the plane. It is your job to listen to them and make sure you are doing exactly what they say.
LANDING THE PLANE
Landing a plane is about controlling your altitude. Reduce speed by slightly pulling back on the throttle (the lever in the center of the instrument panel); this will allow the plane to descend. If the plane is going too fast, use the throttle lever again to slow it down a little more, and if the plane has dropped below that 70-knot threshold, increase the throttle slightly. Use the control column’s wheel to line up the plane’s windshield with the center of the landing strip. Never mind the pedals for now.
The landing strip should always be steady in the windshield, and you should be aiming the nose of the plane at the beginning of the tarmac. While the plane is slowly descending, pull back slightly on the column to raise the nose of the plane. This way, the rear wheels will touch down first and it slows the plane even more. When the plane is only a few feet off of the ground, pull back the throttle to idle (toward you) and slowly push the column away from you. Once the back wheels are on the ground, gently and evenly apply the foot brakes on the tops of both of the pedals.
Once on the ground, allow the plane to come to a stop, and if you know how to shut it down (reducing the fuel/air mixture will do the trick), do so. If not, stay in the plane until you are instructed how to shut it down (with the engine running, the plane can still pull forward). Help is either on its way or already there waiting for you.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.