Emergency Pilot

Though it seldom happens, a passed-out pilot may be passengers greatest fear. For frequent passengers, just a little training can make for a happy ending


Tucked in the darkest recesses of every passengers closet full of nightmares is the nagging worry that the pilot will somehow become incapacitated, leading the flight to doom and destruction on an impossibly personal scale.

The cold, hard numbers show that pilot incapacitation – at least as its reported – is an extremely rare event. But aviation is a world where fantasy often takes hold, and wild imaginations can conjure up all sorts of scenarios – ranging from food poisoning after a $100 hamburger run to a heart attack during an instrument approach.

Those fears played out in chilling fashion in a 1997 crash involving a Cessna 414 that lost pressurization. The pilot became incapacitated from hypoxia rather quickly, and the passenger desperately pleaded for help over the radio. Despite help from pilots and controllers, she couldnt turn off the autopilot to get the airplane to descend and she couldnt find an oxygen mask to buy herself more time to figure it out.

The passenger had accumulated more than 70 hours as a student pilot about five years earlier, but had not received a certificate. The pilot, the passengers husband, had discussed with her how to deal with pilot incapacitation.

The passengers daughter showed investigators pages of her mothers hand-written notes that included setting up a descent with the autopilot engaged but they did not include any mention of the pressurization or oxygen systems. The passenger was conscious for about a half hour after the pilot became unconscious, but only about 13 minutes of that time was useful consciousness.

The remote possibility that a passenger will have to take the controls has prompted a cottage industry of short courses aimed at helping a passenger – typically the nonpilot spouse of an aircraft owner or active GA flyer – put an airplane on the ground safely in the event of pilot incapacitation. They go by upbeat names such as AOPAs Pinch-Hitter course, the Nonflying Spouse Safety Training Course. Theyre offered by aircraft type associations, flying clubs and FBOs. CheckMate Aviation has even developed a two-sided laminated card called the Emergency Substitute Pilot, which is included in the AOPA course but is also available individually.

But these prepackaged options arent the only alternatives. Many flight instructors are willing to create their own emergency pilot courses, basing their syllabi on anything from intuition to plagiarism. The issues confronting pilots with non-flying spouses include how to realistically assess the risk, how to best train a passenger to handle pilot incapacitation and how to ensure that any non-pilot so trained would be up to the task if such an unfortunate time came.

Assessing the Risk
There have been only a small number of accidents linked to pilot incapacitation. That could mean several things. Either pilots dont become incapacitated in the air or its not so tough for passengers to land when it does happen, leading to a number of episodes that are never reported.

Champions of medical certification point to the fact that on average only two or three accidents a year are pinned on pilot incapacitation that does not involve drugs or alcohol. That, they say, shows current medical certification keeps pilots with threatening health conditions on the ground.

Pilot incapacitation accidents tend to involve the pilot suffering a heart attack, though they have also been blamed on carbon monoxide and hypoxia. In most of the heart attack instances, investigators concluded the pilot had a known heart problem he or she purposely hid from the medical examiner who approved their medical certificate.

Of course, the record does not reflect accidents in which the pilot became incapacitated and the ensuing crash involved fire or destruction such that the pilots remains offered up no clues as to the problem.

Perhaps some of the accidents attributed to spatial disorientation or controlled flight into terrain were actually induced by some kind of medical problems. If thats the case, it doesnt take too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a terrified passenger losing the battle to control the airplane.

In fact, there are very few documented cases of non-pilot passengers coming to the rescue. Passengers who do tend to be celebrated in the media as heroes who somehow manage to decode the secret handshake just in the nick of time.

For example, the pilot of a Cessna 402 who passed out at the controls in February 2002 reportedly had a history of insulin-dependent diabetes and had shopped medical examiners until he found one who would sign off his medical. His initial AME – who he had also visited 10 months earlier when he apparently became disoriented prior to taking off – said he refused to issue the pilot a medical when the Class II certificate came up for renewal a few months before the February incident.

Fortunately, one of the passengers on the flight was a 10-hour student pilot who also worked for the small airline. She was able to navigate to an airport selected by company management and made a successful landing – except for the fact that she did not lower the landing gear.

In another case, the pilot of a Cessna U206E on floats passed out in 1996 on a flight out of Renton, Wash. The passenger contacted the air traffic controller, who happened to be a flight instructor. The controller talked the passenger through the landing.

The airplane landed hard and was damaged, but the passenger walked away with only a minor injury. The pilot was dead.

On his second-class medical application, issued a year and a half earlier, the 46-year-old pilot reported he had no history of heart or vascular trouble. In fact, he had suffered a heart attack nearly five years earlier and had undergone cardiac catheterization. He was also carrying nitroglycerine pills at the time of the accident.

For most frequent general aviation passengers, the pilots health is no mystery. A charter pilot or flight instructor may fly with strangers, but most GA flights involve people who know each other. In the case of a pilot with a non-flying spouse, the best solution is also the easiest – the spouse needs to encourage the pilot not to fly if there are questionable health issues.

Passengers who fly frequently, such as spouses, might also consider some level of flight training to cope with an unexpected emergency. While the motivation may be one of emergency preparedness, other benefits may also accrue, such as aiding the pilot during periods of high workload.

Training for Incapacitation
Its no surprise that, of the accidents we were able to find in which a passenger successfully landed the airplane, each case involved a passenger with some kind of flight training. In most cases, the flight training came after the emergency, compliments of a flight instructor available on the radio to perform that Hollywood-revered action of talking them down.

Consider the flight in August 2000 in which a family was being flown from a religious retreat back to Florida in a fixed-gear Piper Turbo Saratoga. The man who assumed control of the airplane had never had flight training, but managed to broadcast a mayday. A flight instructor giving instrument training at Lakeland Airport, the flights destination about 25 miles away, heard the call and offered assistance.

The first order of business was to switch fuel tanks. Fortunately the instructor was familiar with the airplane – and had even flown that specific airplane with the incapacitated pilot – and was able to help the passenger remedy the fuel situation.

With time now on their side, the instructor flew near the troubled flight and gave the substitute pilot about 20 minutes of instruction on how to control the airplane and how to cut the engine once the airplane was committed to landing.

The airplane landed hard and departed the runway, but the damage to the hardware was minimal and the passengers emerged without a scratch. The flight instructor jokingly said the passenger did such a good job he could buy a logbook and the instructor would sign him off for solo. Behind the relief of the safe landing, however, was tragedy. The pilot had died of a heart attack.

The incident underscores the value of some level of flight training, however. Just how much is enough is subject of some debate. Clearly the more training someone has at navigating and landing an airplane, the better theyre likely to do. However, for the purposes of an emergency pilot situation, the question is not how much is enough, but how much is too little.

The Airplane Owners and Pilots Association offers a training video and manual for 30 bucks. The video essentially contains the same information offered at AOPAs six-hour Pinch-Hitter Ground School course, which travels around the country and costs $100.

AOPAs Warren Morningstar says the purpose of the Pinch-Hitter course is to give non-pilots basic information on how the airplane works. Its a way to involve non-pilots in the whole experience of flying. While pilot incapacitation is not the focus of the program, its part of the lesson.

In any event, Pinch-Hitter is ground school only. It needs to be augmented by experience in the airplane to be truly useful in an emergency situation. Just how many people do that is uncertain.

Some FBOs and flight schools have also developed their own emergency courses, but they are more hit-and-miss propositions. You may get a good one; you may not. One local flight school mailed out fliers advertising, among other things, a Nonflying Spouse Safety Training Course.

The course included six hours of ground school and six hours in a Cessna 172 for $690, which in the local market is a cheap but not earth-shattering price for 12 hours of dual and six hours of flying. However, repeated calls to the school yielded no one who could tell me what they actually covered during that time.

One frustrated instructor confided that hed seen the mailing but had no idea the school was offering it – either before it was mailed out or after.

In the interest of finding out just how much work it would take to enable a passenger to safely land an airplane, we enlisted the services of a local flight instructor and found a non-flying spouse to play along. The results, frankly, were surprising in some respects, although perfectly predictable in others.

Our guinea pig was like any zero-time student in that pitch excursions were common when trying to adjust trim. The Cessna 172s pitch change with deployment of flaps was also noticeable, although she brought that under control after experiencing it only a few times.

We also noticed she had a tendency to fixate on the panel, looking at the VSI or altimeter for climb/descent feedback rather than looking at the relationship between the nose of the airplane and the horizon. In addition, the airplane would sometimes start a turn – usually a descending one – when she was required to look at the panel to find the throttle or trim wheel.

After about one hour of informal ground school at home and a half-hour with the selected flight instructor, the passenger had a better than passing knowledge of aircraft dynamics.

The surprising difference between an emergency pilot and zero-time student came with the landing practice.

We found that at the end of lesson one she could have landed the airplane without injuring anyone, at worst, and possibly without even damaging the airplane.

Compare that to your initial training and youll quickly recall that your instructor wasnt about to let you solo on your second lesson. The important distinction to make is that, in training an emergency pilot, most of the regular rules of flight training go out the window. Theres less to learn, of course, if youre only doing touch and not go. In addition, the task becomes significantly easier to teach in a compressed fashion if you throw away the quest for style points.

Now What?
The skills imparted during a single lesson are fleeting, and we hesitate to say a passenger who took a couple hours of instruction eight months ago could safely land an airplane now. But aviation, being a land of checklists and order, has a solution for that.

One approach to take may come in the form of the Emergency Substitute Pilot, a two-sided laminated card offered by CheckMate Aviation for about $15. It breaks the task down into three parts: control the plane, radio for help and landing.

Its a noble attempt, but we think the final product misses the mark somewhat. First, it tries to be too comprehensive, addressing both yokes and sticks, singles and twins. Although it attempts to assist the panicky passenger in finding which instrument is the radio, for example, it cant possibly identify every King, Narco, UPSAT, Garmin, Cessna, Becker, Michel, Collins, Icom and Microair communications radio out there.

Second, in trying to pack information into two sides of a 7 x 10-inch board, it relies on a hodgepodge of colors, italics, fonts and boxes, all of which battle for attention. Plus, the type is really small.

Thats not to say its without value. Our neophyte pilot liked some of the helpful hints, rendered without pilot jargon – such as flying in the middle of the green arc on the airspeed indicator – but concluded that the Emergency Substitute Pilot checklist would be far more helpful as a reminder after taking flight training than as a how-to for someone with no experience.

Another approach is to merely use the airplanes checklists for descent, approach and landing. This requires a bit more familiarity with pilot skills, but shouldnt be too much of a roadblock if the passenger has taken some flight training. Our rookie first stumbled on the 172 checklist item that read: Carb heat – as required.

What the heck is carb heat and how do I know how much is required? she wondered.

Any passenger who takes the risk of pilot incapacitation seriously enough to learn to land the airplane should understand that its a skill that will quickly atrophy. We recommend the training be driven by a flight instructor who is not related to the passenger – even if the passengers spouse is an instructor.

Furthermore, adjust the passengers expectations about the amount of training required to the aircraft involved. Obviously a Skyhawk and a TBM-700 have little in common when it comes to the demands imposed on the pilot in a typical task.

Finally, dont fall into the trap many pilots do. They expect an emergency course will awaken repressed urges that will induce the spouse or other frequent passenger to get a pilot certificate on their own. It happens but dont count on it. The best you can hope for is a backup to get you – and the insurance companys airplane – back on the ground with a minimum of grief.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “I Ride in Back.”

-by Ken Ibold


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