How many of you would say that you had adequate, in depth training to be a DiverDriver? Did you come to that first 182 job already “checked out” in 182s or did the DZ train you? When I was first hired that was the norm to already have time in type and then they would train you for the jump pilot part of the job. Times do change though. Are you getting training from a current jump pilot possibly with a CFI? How in depth did they go into systems and performance (hey it’s just a jump plane not the Space Shuttle right)? Ok, so you went over some FARs that pertain to skydiving. You might have even referenced some website dedicated to flying jumpers. Maybe you got told that a premature deployment could go over the tail and just kick some right rudder to see if you can get it to slide off. Hey if you have an engine failure just glide down you’re starting out right over the airport most of the time anyway.
Is that the extent of abnormal procedures you discussed? Well, that would be similar to my experience too. Only through time and talking did I hear more stories and began to take in important points. But what if that bad stuff happens in your first hour of flying skydivers? What then? Are you suddenly going to become Chuck Yeager and a test pilot to see exactly what your new operating envelope is? That would be unlikely.
So what to do? How do you handle emergencies? I’m not talking about the emergency procedures of your POH. Yes, you should know that and have it down cold. I’m talking personal. What happens to YOU in an emergency? You will get tunnel thinking. You might have heard the term tunnel vision which is certainly a possibility under great stress (actually having limited use of your eyes) but under stress our thinking becomes strained. That’s why we practice emergency procedures over and over in ab initio training. It is an effort in stress “inoculation”. That’s why you’ll hear a pilot after a successful dead stick landing say something along the lines of “my training just kicked in and I did what I had to do.” Great, that’s the point of the training.
But what if the emergency is something that’s not in the book? Say damage to the aircraft from a premature deployment. You must first BREATHE! You need oxygen to the brain. Talking aloud can help in forcing oxygen into the lungs. “What happened!” “What does it look like now?” “Where is everyone?!” You are gathering information if anyone is still around to talk to you and you are helping yourself. But the mind is a funny thing.
My guarantee: You will ALWAYS think of things after everything is said and done that you could have done better. You should NOT let that play in your head over and over. Granted you should never operate with willful negligence and some things have consequences but in an emergency not of your own making you will make choices that in hindsight you’ll rethink. Are you alive? Is everyone else alive? Then good. The rest can be sorted out.
First try to assess what is wrong. DON’T TRY TO BE A MECHANIC IN FLIGHT! Assessment is not fixing. You are trying to determine if your operating envelope has been affected. Is it? In what way? If you have aircraft damage and limited flight control availability you need to assess how and when you will have to land. THIS IS WHY YOU CARRY RESERVE FUEL. You will need to know how much time you have to make decisions. If you have fuel you have time. Is the engine running? Take your time. Do a controllability check like skydivers are taught from jump one. Left, right, flare. Ok, add in up and down since we have an elevator. Well, we might have an elevator in a premature deployment. Again, assess what control you do have. Can you maintain altitude with power or are you in a slow descent no matter what you do? Now your time option is going away. Ok, left, right, up, down, configuration. You need to assess the configuration you plan to land in. If you have aircraft damage to flight control surfaces do NOT change the configuration you are in unless you know it will not effect aircraft control. If you have altitude and time then maybe you should test whether adding flaps will effect your landing. You DO NOT want to find out on short final that extending flaps will cause the remaining pitch control to go away and now you’re out of control rolling into the ground from 500 feet.
If you have an engine failure other than in the traffic pattern you should have some time to assess. If it happens on jump run DO NOT fly your normal descent profile. Get back to best glide. Give yourself all the time you can. Make sure you determine the wind direction so you land into the wind if at all possible or at least be aware if you need to land with a tailwind that you will be covering ground faster than normal. Are you in a piston engine? You’ll have more drag and glide shorter than you are used to because an engine at idle takes some pressure off the prop. If the relative wind is the only thing driving the propeller (and in turn the engine) you will have a significant increase in drag. DON’T FLY YOUR NORMAL PATTERN. You’ll need to assess how it is effecting your glide distance. Are you in a single engine turbine? Did the prop feather? You’re going to be committed to dead stick landing even from a high altitude. The time needed to start a turbine, get it out of feather in flight and then restore power is significant. Also, your glide distance will have INCREASED due to the feather prop so…you guessed it….DON’T FLY YOUR NORMAL PATTERN TO LANDING. You could likely over shoot.
As jump pilots many of us have the option of wearing an emergency bailout rig. Believe it or not this complicates decision making to a point. If you have a plane that’s disintegrating around you (to use a skydiving term) that’s a high speed mal. You have no time to assess anything. It’s time to go. However, if you have something that’s not falling out of the sky that’s a slow speed malfunction (again associating to skydiving terms) like line twists that you’re hanging under. Is it time to go? I have altitude and gas? Continue to assess. Determine your hard deck. Hopefully you’ve thought about that before you took to the air.
Story time on how the brain works. I had a slow speed malfunction of line twists. But for some reason I could not kick out of them. I was slowly gaining ground. I did not check my altitude as I became totally engrossed in getting out of line twists by all accounts and learning up to that point EVERYONE ELSE has been able to get out of right? Well, I rode it down below my hard deck of 1,500. I did not have a steerable, landable canopy. Now, I DID get out of the twists and landed safely. The point is I did not follow what I thought I had settled on as a decision point. Why? Because we are human. And I took away something that I can share with you. How many pilots have taken seemingly small problems and ended up a fatality in smoking hole? Many.
Another story about the power of the mind. I was a new jumper and under a very large canopy. The wind was equal to the forward flight of the canopy so I was essentially coming straight down….over high voltage power lines! And for a time, hard to admit as it may be, I was thinking my only course of action was to cutaway and use my reserve which was smaller and might give me forward progress to clear the power lines. I can’t tell you what it was but it seemed to take up a lot of brain power to overcome that urge to take that action. It most likely would have been fatal or at least very unnecessary. I took one more look behind me, spotted a cow field, turned and let the wind push me quit quickly over the open field and I landed safely. Someone gave me a car ride. Life was good.
Last one. I had an engine failure in a Twin Otter. A jumper reported that I had an engine fire also. I could not see it so my impression was that I was about to lose the right wing as it burned through. I first turned on the door light. I emphatically stated for people to get ready to jump immediately. I simultaneously took the steps to secure the engine according to the manufacturer’s AFM. I then stared at the fire handle wondering why it wasn’t lighting up. I just had a jumper report that I had a fire. But this system seemed to be failing. Should I pull it just in case? Hmmm, I wonder why it’s not lighting up. I dunno. Is everyone ready to get out? I don’t want them all dying here too. I just had five friends die four months ago in an engine fire. I don’t want 19 plus me to die. Oh, I hope they start going. “THE FIRE’S OUT!” pheeewwww. Relief. Hey, where are we? I should turn back for the DZ now. I hope I can drop them over the top. Hey, we’re still climbing! “Chicago Center we’re declaring an emergency dropping now.” “Roger, two minutes to drop.” “No, we’ve had an engine failure, we’re dropping now.” “Say again?” “WE’VE HAD AN ENGINE FAILURE WE’RE DROPPING RIGHT NOW CLEAR THE AIRSPACE!” “Roger, do you need any assistance?” <pause> “No.” Ok, green light, everyone is going, things are looking better, my legs are shaking, damn that better stop I won’t look cool, Ok everyone out “manifest let me know when everyone is on the ground”, ok, alright I better not screw this up I’ve come this far I don’t want to ball it up now, ok everyone down I’m going to make a long straight in, nice and easy, nothing to rush now. <Errrr> I’m down. Oh relief, wait what’s that next to the runway! OMG someone has to film it. Great.
Now, afterwards. DON’T get back on the horse if you’ve had something catastrophic happen like this. You’re not proving how macho you are. If you’re hands or legs shake THIS IS NORMAL. You just had an adrenaline dump. There is nothing you can control about it so do not feel embarrassed about it. It will subside and then likely you will feel really tired. You will need time to decompress. Your natural instinct will be to start analyzing what happened. This is normal. You’re memory is not like a digital recorder or as we used to say it’s not Memorex. This is why you should not talk to FAA for a couple of days. You’re not hiding anything. You need time to let your brain catch up. But it is our natural instinct to want to tell our story if we feel we have done nothing wrong. That’s not the point. You will miss things. You will interpret things incorrectly. And going back to correct things later will seem like you are just changing your story. So tell one story and tell it correctly later.
And then the press, hey you’ve got to make that decision for yourself. But if it were me I would not talk to the press if I was directly involved in an incident or accident. When we stand around the bonfire and tell our “No shit, there I was. Thought I was about to die.” stories we tell it in a light hearted manner often. On TV this can come across as flippant and not caring for the gravity of the situation. Not what you intended but that is how it can be perceived. Basically don’t make matters worse. Sort out one thing at a time. Deal with the incident, take time to deal with FAA/NTSB and give yourself time to decompress. Then later, much later if you want to talk/write about it get some advice from someone else who has “been there, done that.”