There’s something to be said about doing things by the book. Learning the “textbook” way of doing things is important. For the most basic of reasons, you can’t pass the test if you don’t learn the textbook. In aviation, doing things the right way – by the book – is a way of life. It’s funny, though, how when you start to pitch some real world scenarios, you can find yourself in a situation that requires a decision that the textbook just doesn’t cover. I just finished reading Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s audiobook about his famous “Miracle On The Hudson.” If you don’t recall the events of Flight 1549, Sully’s Airbus hit a flock of birds shortly after takeoff, causing the loss of both engines. The plane was effectively a glider, heading towards the ground, and a decision had to be made – quickly. When it came down to it, there were two main choices: Turn back towards LaGuardia Airport or land in the Hudson River. While not depicted in his book, the movie shows pilots in the simulator, in the same conditions, trying to turn the airplane around and land at the airport. The point was to test Sully’s decision to land in the Hudson and determine if that was the right decision. Had he been able to make the airport, an expensive airplane wouldn’t have been lost. Plus, water landings don’t usually end up that favorably – it was a risk. I won’t spoil the movie for you, but let’s look at a real word example that an average pilot might be faced with and see what you would do.
The Engine Failure Scenario
You are in cruise flight on a nice, clear day. Conditions couldn’t be better for a pleasure flight for a hundred dollar hamburger. You notice an unusual sound, however, and the engine begins to run rough. As you look across the instruments, checking for anomalies, the engine quits completely. You execute the procedure for an engine failure by first pitching the airplane to fly at its best glide airspeed. You then look for a good place to land it and find a field down below you. While descending, you attempt a restart, but are unsuccessful, so you prepare to land on the field that you have now set up perfectly to land on. While on final approach to this field, your engine suddenly kicks back on, roaring to life. The big question here – do you land in the field as a precaution or climb back out and head to the nearest airport? This isn’t much of a trick question – in fact you could say that the answer is quite textbook. Although it is tempting to consider the engine running as a good thing and continue to the nearest suitable airport, there is clearly something wrong with the engine, so it could quit again as you fly away, but this time at a potentially low altitude and without a good field in front of you. The generally accepted correct answer is to land anyway while you have a field to land in.
Let’s Spice It Up A Bit
In your head, you might be picturing this field we found to be a nice, pristine field of smooth, level, open grass. I guess it’s possible to find one like that, but in reality, any open areas below where you are flying are probably less than perfectly manicured. To add a little more suspense to our scenario, let’s go back to that final approach to the field. This time, as you are descending towards the field with the engine out, that field that looked so good from the air doesn’t look so hot up close. The grass is high, with big patches of tall weeds and bushes. A power line crosses the field. There are a few cows walking about. Worst of all, a fence cuts through the field, limiting your landing area. This turns out to be a less than optimal field. Sweating a rough landing with obstacles, you are overcome by relief when the engine roars back to life. But now what? You’ve been trained that it’s better to land as a precaution with engine trouble instead of flying away to have the engine potentially fail again, perhaps at a low altitude and with no good field to land on. So what it boils down to is a risky landing on a marginal field or a risky flight on a marginal engine. Do you land or fly away?
Sully was faced with a similar dilemma. Landing on the Hudson presents a smorgasbord of risks, but the river was the “field” ahead of him that he was sure to make. On the other hand, turning back to the airport presented a much safer landing if they can get there, but landing short of the runway – even just a few feet – would prove to be catastrophic. So what’s the right decision? In the real world, there isn’t always a checklist or reference page with the answer. Pros and cons have to be weighed out and decisions have to be made quickly, without the luxury of simulators to test out your theory, a whiteboard to draw out flow charts, or a discussion board to bounce your thoughts off other pilots. Whether or not practiced simulator pilots could get Sully’s airplane back to the airport doesn’t mean much when the margin for error is so small that any changes in factors (wind, sink rate, judgment error, etc.) would cause failure. So in our engine failure scenario, what would YOU do? Do you land on the marginal field or fly away on the marginal engine?
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