A practical guide for handling emergency situations as a pilot

Being able to fly an aircraft is an incredible feat of human ingenuity and takes talent to execute successfully. But like any complex endeavor, it comes with its share of challenges. From engine failures to severe weather conditions, pilots are trained to expect the unexpected and handle these situations efficiently. For pilots who face these issues while flying hundreds of miles in the air, it is essential to remember that for every problem, there is a solution.

In flight school, students are molded into competent pilots. And as pilots, your composure sets the tone for your crew and passengers. Your ability to think clearly and act decisively can differentiate between a well-handled situation and a crisis. During emergencies, staying calm and level-headed is crucial for the safety of everyone onboard. 

This article aims to give essential advice to pilots on handling various types of emergencies while flying an aircraft, as well as tips on what to do before and after each flight to properly manage such situations. Read on to learn more.

Before the flight

Pilots must complete pre-flight emergency procedures and inspections before the plane can even fly off the runway. These ensure that all systems and instruments are functioning as they should. Missing this step can result in avoidable emergencies, such as an in-flight hydraulic failure from a leak detected too late. A thorough review of weather forecasts for both the route and destination is also crucial, as flying into extreme conditions like storms can jeopardize the aircraft and its occupants through poor visibility and severe turbulence. 

If any faults, anomalies, or warnings are observed before take-off—including advisories from the control tower—pilots are advised to “abort the mission,” which entails canceling the take-off and safely returning the aircraft to a maintenance area. This precautionary measure, aimed at safeguarding the crew and passengers, mandates a comprehensive evaluation and potential repairs before resuming the flight.

Emergency situations in-flight

While there are various situations that can constitute an emergency, below are three common scenarios that every pilot must be prepared for.

Engine Failure

The protocol for handling engine failure depends on the type of aircraft one is piloting—whether a single-engine or multi-engine aircraft, as each has its own set of emergency procedures outlined in the aircraft manual. 

In single-engine planes, engine failure is a critical event that necessitates an immediate forced landing. The pilot must identify a suitable landing spot while attempting engine restart procedures through checks and adjustments. 

In contrast, the failure of a single engine in a multi-engine aircraft, although still severe, allows for temporary sustained flight using the remaining engine(s). Here, the pilot’s immediate priorities are stabilizing the aircraft—often by adjusting throttle settings and potentially feathering the failed engine’s propeller to reduce drag—and identifying the nearest suitable airport with adequate emergency facilities for a landing.

Medical Emergency Onboard

Handling a medical emergency in flight requires an immediate yet calculated response. The first step is assessing the severity of the medical condition, possibly consulting onboard medical professionals or telemedicine services. If the condition is deemed severe, the pilot may decide to divert the aircraft, a choice that involves considering the aircraft’s location, proximity to medical facilities, and remaining fuel. 

Coordination with air traffic control (ATC) and the airline’s operations center is necessary to identify the nearest suitable airport and execute an expedited landing. Diversion entails procedural adjustments like altering the flight path, notifying ATC, and preparing the cabin for a sudden landing, potentially including fuel dumping to achieve safe landing weight. Upon landing, medical assistance should be ready on the ground.

Fire Onboard

In the critical event of an onboard fire, a pilot must act according to the aircraft’s emergency procedures checklist. The type of fire—electrical, chemical, or otherwise—dictates the course of action. For electrical fires, isolate the affected circuit, shut off non-essential electrical systems, and use a specialized fire extinguisher like CO2 or Halon. For non-electrical fires, the type of extinguisher used should correspond to the fire class, and the cabin crew must quickly identify and locate the appropriate one. 

Post-extinguishing, adequate ventilation is vital to clear lingering fumes or smoke. Contact ATC immediately afterward, whether to inform them of a diversion for an emergency landing or to continue to the destination under stringent monitoring. Regardless of type or severity, all onboard fires require immediate landings for thorough inspections to ensure safety.

After the flight

Upon landing under emergency circumstances, a pilot must swiftly follow stringent procedures. For emergency landings at an alternate airport, the pilot’s first step is to contact the local control tower to provide situational details and receive subsequent guidance. The aircraft may then be directed to a designated area for inspection by specialized ground crew and mechanics, especially if engine or mechanical issues prompted the landing. The aircraft is cleared for future flights only after thorough evaluation and official approval from certified mechanics. 

In medical emergencies, the pilot needs to communicate the severity and nature of the condition to ATC before landing. This enables the timely mobilization of medical teams and, if necessary, specialized equipment. Advance communication is particularly crucial when a passenger’s health is at risk, as it expedites the availability of ambulances, paramedics, or specialized medical equipment on landing.

Takeaway

Navigating through emergencies demands a fusion of skill, training, and composure. This guide is designed to provide a thorough framework for how pilots can effectively manage emergencies before flight, during airborne operations, and after landing. Undoubtedly, the cornerstone for successfully weathering any crisis hinges on preparedness, maintaining a calm demeanor, and executing decisive actions.