by Ken Ibold
When a pilot allows flying to fall into a routine, wheels go in motion that conspire to make flying anything but. Most pilots have seen how even a short layoff affects their skills in instrument flying and how a longer layoff can make hash of their landings.
Imagine, then, where youd be if you needed to dredge a high-performance maneuver out of your bag of tricks when the chips were down. Even more to the point, though, is that practicing high performance maneuvers will help your skills, judgment and confidence even during everyday flying. The emergency use is just gravy.
While the list of potential maneuvers is long, for pure stick and rudder flying there are five that stand out as being the most useful in building skill as well as coming in handy in emergencies. Your last use may have been your last check ride or maybe your last biennial flight review.
Depending on your ratings and motivation, some of these may be new. All belong in your flight bag, and the only way to put them there is to occasionally include them in your flight plan.
The Impossible Turn
The Impossible Turn is so dubbed because it borders on the undoable. In fact, there is an altitude for every takeoff at which it cannot be done. The Impossible Turn is the turn back to the runway in the event of an engine failure during initial climb.
In the instant following a power failure, the siren song of the airport is seductive. It sings of the Right Stuff and promises an undamaged airplane and a stroked ego. Many pilots crank the airplane around, only to find the airplane out of altitude and airspeed and themselves out of ideas. The result is predictable: either a stall/mush or a controlled crash into whatever happens to be there.
Research shows that the most effective turn back to the runway is a coordinated steep turn into the wind at stall speed. If youre still on the runway heading, turn about 220 degrees until youre back over the runway and then align with the runway.
In order to maintain a safety margin, using a 45-degree banked turn into the wind at stall speed plus 5 knots has been shown to be almost as efficient at getting the airplane back to the runway while maintaining a slight margin for error.
There are a few caveats to this technique. First of all, youll almost certainly do a lousy job if you havent practiced it. You must know the calibrated stall speed and convert it to indicated airspeed for that airplane. You must neither overbank nor pitch too high or you risk a potentially deadly stall.
During the first few attempts, you will probably be surprised at the amount of back pressure it takes to maintain the desired attitude. Your performance will improve quickly, and after a few tries youll be able to rack the airplane around in the minimum altitude possible.
The altitude loss youre able to manage while simulating this exercise at altitude is a best-case scenario. In an actual emergency, you may be tempted to troubleshoot the failure, such as checking mags or fuel selector, and those precious seconds will cost altitude. Youre not likely to react right away, ticking off a couple dozen feet more. Finally, when faced with coming up short, the urge to pitch up to stretch the glide is powerful.
With proper technique and prompt action, most airplanes can make the Impossible Turn from climbing on runway heading to a downwind deadstick landing in 600 to 800 feet of altitude. Compare that with your typical initial climb profile and youll see that often you will no longer be on runway heading as youre passing the critical altitude. If youve made a turn in either direction, the altitude required to make it back to the runway is probably less, though it depends on wind and other conditions.
However, under no circumstances should you try the steep bank at stall speed unless you have practiced it in that model airplane and are confident you know the numbers. And in most cases where a power failure occurs at less that 500 feet, straight ahead or nearly straight ahead is the best option unless you already know of a good location 90 degrees to either side.
The Impossible Turn gets its name because lots of pilots fail at it. Its a high-performance maneuver that should not be taken lightly, but when mastered it can be powerful indeed.
The steep spiral is a descending turn around a point, with a maximum bank of 55 degrees. The pilot compensates for the wind and maintains a given spot over the ground, making a continual turn of minimum radius and holding airspeed constant.
The obvious appeal of this maneuver comes during a power failure at altitude. If the airplane is right over a suitable landing spot the pilot is reasonably assured of making the field. Other benefits will also accrue that are both more subtle and more commonly useful.
A VFR pilot, for example, can use the steep spiral to come down through a small hole in the clouds to get to VFR conditions underneath – which could be particularly handy if icing conditions were present as well.
But the exercise will live with you whenever you fly. For example, it will make you more comfortable with descending turns at constant airspeed and help you practice turn coordination, which will come in handy on every traffic pattern you fly. It will do this as it solidifies your ability to track a precise path along the ground.
The spiral isnt a set-it-and-forget-it move because the bank must vary continuously to keep the airplane circling the reference point, and even those variations may change because the winds may not be constant as the airplane descends.
The tendency for most pilots is to tighten the radius as the airplane descends. The bank and airspeed both increase until the maneuver becomes a real mess. With a little practice, however, the pilot learns to control the pitch enough to keep airspeed steady, vary the bank to counter the winds, and still have the presence of mind to roll out within five degrees of an assigned heading.
Its not rocket science, but it will give you a feel for maneuvering the airplane in all dimensions simultaneously without getting overloaded. Doing that kind of practice in a high-performance environment will make even a challenging crosswind pattern seem easy.
The emergency descent is one of those maneuvers many pilots have never done. They may have some vaguely identified plan formulated years ago after nebulous advice from a flight instructor who has long since gone off to the fantasy world of airline flying.
The value of knowing the maneuver and occasionally practicing it is twofold.
First, in the unlikely event you ever have smoke in the cockpit, fire, decompression or other event that requires getting down quickly, the stakes are very, very high. One need only look at the fatal Cessna 210 crash in Atlanta in September 1999 to see what happens when a pilot delays putting the airplane on the ground when theres fire involved.
Second, we are firm believers that all pilots should know what their airplane is capable of, even if they never exercise that capability in the heat of battle. The flight manuals of many aircraft are woefully inadequate in addressing emergency descents, saying only that the pilot should land as soon as practical. Well, duh.
To get the most out of your descent, pick the configuration that works best for your airplane. The rub is that you probably wont know what configuration that is without some testing. Full flap descents at Vfe might work. Partial flaps and a higher airspeed may give the best descent. Gear down and more limited airspeed vs. gear up and a faster airspeed. Slips or banks. You get the idea.
During such testing in our Citabria, we tried three methods – all there are because of the lack of flaps or retractable landing gear: extreme slip at high speed, steep bank at high speed, and a straight dive. We set up the descent, waited for the rate to stabilize, then measured altitude loss in 30 seconds. We conducted several trials in each configuration and averaged them.
In the slip, with the rudder at the stop and enough bank to counter the turn, we were able to get the airspeed up to Va but with an extremely sideways and nose-down attitude that, frankly, was very difficult to hold. We averaged 3,450 fpm.
Then we tried a 45-degree banked turn with a Vne dive. That yielded an average of 4,720 fpm. A straight Vne dive without banking gave us 3,050 fpm.
The point is to get the airplane on the ground now. Style points matter only in that you want the wings to stay on until youre on the ground and you want to walk away from the airplane. In evaluating the emergency descent capability of the airplane, keep in mind how much altitude it takes to reduce the descent to something survivable. It would be a shame to execute the maneuver perfectly only to lose because of the sudden stop at the end.
Short Field Landings
The simple reason short field landings are on this list is because far too many pilots pay absolutely no attention to airspeed on final and dont have the slightest idea where the airplane will touch down. They make sure its on the runway somewhere, but whether they use 900 feet or 4,000 feet, it doesnt matter to them because theyve got 6,000 feet of concrete stretched out for them to use.
Short field landings put discipline back into flying. Sure, the technique would help if you were forced to land in a field for whatever reason, but the discipline involved in making a proper short field approach and landing is what youre after.
If you rush an approach, you have a tendency to fly it too fast and try to plant the airplane on the runway rather than letting it land. Thats a recipe for floating, ballooning, bouncing or jamming the landing gear up into the wings or fuselage. Even if you spot trouble in time, youre faced with a go-around that puts even more pressure on you the next time.
A short field approach instills airspeed control and judicious use of power. It teaches you to make the airplane do what you want it to, rather than you keeping the airplane out of trouble as it tries to land itself.
Short field technique should be more than just flying a slower approach and trying to spot land.
First, fly the pattern slightly wider than normal. Note the word slightly. This will give you more time to set up the airspeed and get the airplane trimmed. Extend flaps in a compressed fashion, so that you reach full flaps (or whatever final flap setting you plan) on the base leg.
There are two ways to tackle the final approach, and either works. The first is the classic short-field landing over an obstacle in which you hold some power and a low airspeed until the obstacle is cleared, then close the throttle, lower the nose to glide to the runway and add a dash of power right at the flare.
Some people prefer a more stabilized approach, so you can also come in at a steady airspeed, about 5 knots less than the normal approach speed or 20 knots more than the stall speed in whatever landing configuration youre using. Hold that airspeed past whatever obstacle you might see and then reduce power and airspeed into the flare.
The key to the exercise is setting your aim point before your intended touchdown point. While you may to this on every landing, its important in short-field work to select an aim point thats before the numbers, maybe even before the runway edge, depending on the airplane.
Try to get the wheels to touch down on the numbers. Then, when making normal landings, youll have a better feel for managing the descent rate and airspeed relative to where you want to land.
After touchdown, hold the nose up and apply brakes. Dont smoke the tires and dont let the nose slam down. This is a good thing to do on any landing, but the short-field necessity helps ingrain the habit.
You may think youll never need to land on a runway short enough to require this technique. But its not just for getting into 2,000-foot grass strips. Landing at a controlled field with a tailwind may require a short field technique even if the runway is of moderate length. Maybe a friend will buy a mountain cabin and offer to let you use it. Maybe you will have that engine-out.
Slow Flight Series
Mention slow flight and most pilots think of two things: student pilots droning around forever turning left and, gasp, stalls.
There is some evidence that a reluctance to fly at the slow end of the envelope leads to a large percentage – if not most – of the episodes in which airplanes get bent. As a general rule, pilots fly approaches too fast, land hot and long, and dont cope with rejecting the takeoff in either a proficient or timely fashion. Like the short field landing practice, learning slow flight helps fix many of those problems. As an added benefit, it can make your initial climb straighter by teaching you just what those pedals do in high-power, low-airspeed situations.
A proper slow flight series would include straight flight at minimum controllable airspeed, a 360-degree turn in each direction with about 10 degrees of bank, power off stalls and power on stalls. But in doing this work, dont just crunch through the minimum. Fly around a bit. Climb and descend. Feel the buffeting; hear the sounds; become familiar with the control feel.
If youre slightly more adventurous and your airplane (and instructor) consent, do some spins, too. Not just a run-of-the-mill upright spin, but spin out of cross-control stalls and other situations that may arise in everyday flying.
The aim here is to become familiar with low-speed handling. Only by experiencing it can you know when it doesnt feel right. Use trim or not, its up to you.
Pay particular attention to turn coordination. The combination of high power setting and high angle of attack will lead to some right leg fatigue, but an important point here is to make the connection between turn coordination and the seat of the pants, not turn coordination and control pressure.
Many pilots fly with feet flat on the floor except when they are making a crosswind landing or taxiing to the ramp. Learning rudder control is an important factor in keeping traffic pattern turns coordinated, which in turn helps ease the fear of a low altitude stall/mush because that whole part of the flight envelope becomes less foreign.
It may come as a surprise that several of these exercises focused on flying slowly. In fact, even a superficial analysis of aviation accidents makes it quite clear that about half of all accidents stem from either fear of the low-speed regime or incompetence there.
The point of any practice is to get up to speed on techniques you may not use every day. These maneuvers will increase your proficiency with certain aspects of aircraft control you use on every flight, even if youre not aware that you are.