Thursday, November 6, 2008

Night Engine Failure Strategy & Discussion

A couple nights ago, while on a night cross country flight I was wondering what we would really do if we happened to lose our engine power. Strategy for putting a powerless plane down at night is a subject that is rarely discussed, which is why I thought it would make for a good topic of discussion.

I can't write about this topic without stating up front how extremely rare that complete and unpreventable loss of engine power is at any time, let alone at night. However, it is something we should be prepared for in case it does happen.

There is of course a classic saying one of my professors always said when referring to an emergency landing at night, and I'm sure it has been quoted by many an aviator over time. "Flip your landing light on, and if you don't like what you see, turn it off."

Makes for a good chuckle of course, but seriously, what is a good strategy for engine out operations at night. A question like this, as well as any other, should always start with a search through the FAA publications to see their take on it.

The Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3) discusses this subject of Night Emergencies at the end of Chapter 10. First of all, it states that just like any other engine failure, the first thing you should do is maintain positive control of the aircraft and pitch for best glide speed. It then states that that you should attempt to determine the cause of the failure, attempt a restart, and communicate your emergency with ATC if unable to restart. Again, this doesn't vary from what you would do any other time.

The extra considerations for night conditions come in when they mention the following recommendations.

  • If the condition of the nearby terrain is known, turn towards an unlighted portion of the area. Plan an emergency approach to an unlighted portion.

  • Consider an emergency landing area close to public access if possible. This may facilitate rescue or help, if needed.

  • Complete the before landing checklist, and check the landing lights for operation at altitude and turn ON in sufficient time to illuminate the terrain or obstacles along the flightpath. The landing should be completed in the normal landing attitude at the slowest possible airspeed. If the landing lights are unusable and outside visual references are not available, the airplane should be held in level-landing attitude until the ground is contacted.

Those are the FAA's guidelines so let's take a close look at what they are getting at exactly and then I'll throw in my 2 cents. They say if you know the condition of the terrain, aim for the unlighted portion. The key words there are "if it is known." What if you don't know the condition? You may be aiming for a forest, when a perfectly lit street is close by. On the other hand, if you know there is a nice level field underneath you, by all means use it. Landing close to public access is important also. What if you needed medical help after landing? This could mean the difference between waiting two hours for an ambulance or 10 minutes. That could be the difference between life and death. I would immediately turn the landing light on as soon as I knew I had to put it down. The sooner you can see any obstacles, the sooner you may be able to take action to avoid them.

I'm also a firm believer that being a safe and smart pilot is all about leaving yourself as many outs as possible. An out is simply a way out of something that is hazardous or has the potential to become hazardous. For instance, a way out of icing conditions may be the ability to climb above the clouds. A way out of thunderstorm hazards may be the fact that you are staying out of the clouds to increase your ability to see and avoid them.

The cold hard truth is that when you fly at night, you simply lose one of your biggest outs: the ability to see the surface of the Earth so you can choose your landing spot more wisely. Knowing this, what can we do to possibly improve our odds in addition to what the FAA recommends? Here's my advice. Pick a high cruising altitude. This will give you more time to troubleshoot and a greater gliding distance, possibly to an airport. It also wouldn't hurt to choose a route which takes you over or near several other airports along the way. If the engine did fail, wouldn't it be nice to know you had an airport underneath you? Also use VFR flight following or go IFR, even if in VFR conditions. ATC may be able to vector you to a good landing spot.

I hope this sheds some light on the subject and if nothing else, gets you thinking about what your strategy would be for night engine failures. I'm not trying to scare anyone out of flying at night, because I think it can be some of the most pleasant and enjoyable flying that there is. But we always must know that potential hazards that exist whenever we take to the skies, no matter what the conditions.

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