In emergencies, context is everything: 

·       The location

·        The weather 

·       The pilot 

·       The aircraft 

 The circumstances in which a problem occurs can make it a virtual non-event — or turn it into a nightmare. For example, an engine failure at 5,000ft. in perfect weather, with 20 suitable landing spots within gliding distance provides a lot more options than one at 300ft. during a night take-off. Many “emergencies” that pilots face can be qualified as “abnormal” — not business as usual, but not a source of immediate or grave danger. That’s an important distinction.

 Coming to Grips

When confronted with an emergency, unprepared pilots tend to work their way through several mental stages (shock, denial, acceptance) before finally taking action, wasting valuable time in the process. In a time-critical situation, those extra seconds can mean the difference between an acceptable outcome and something much worse. 

 Initial Response

You’re flying at cruise altitude when a problem arises. What to do? First, perform a very basic initial assessment: 

  • What’s wrong?

  • How critical is it?

  • How much time do I have?

 The most dangerous situation is one that’s both serious and requires immediate action. Engine failure shortly after take-off, fire, oxygen system failure at 25,000 feet, or vacuum failure in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) come to mind. These situations require you to be “spring-loaded” to deal with the issue and recall the immediate action steps so you can get the situation under control. 

 It’s equally important not to act rashly if the situation doesn’t call for it. Pilots have got themselves into deeper trouble overreacting to a problem that isn’t particularly time-sensitive or critical — for example, taking drastic measures to extend landing gear or close a door that popped open in flight.

 Declare an Emergency

Call for help! Declare an emergency: There’s no good reason not to. You only need to switch to the emergency frequency if you aren’t already in contact with ATC. 


If the problem is mechanical or electrical, it may not be immediately obvious what’s wrong. Given time, attempt to determine the cause — both because it might be fixable and on the chance that you can keep it from getting worse, or causing other problems. 

 Also, the situation may have been precipitated by something you did or failed to do. Into the category of self-induced emergencies fall such blunders as switching to an empty fuel tank (or forgetting to switch tanks) and grabbing the wrong power lever — mixture instead of throttle. If a problem coincides with something you did, undo it!

 Whatever the situation, one rule always appliesFly the airplane! Troubleshoot, talk to ATC, calm the passengers — whatever it takes … but remember that it’s all for naught if you lose control of the airplane in the process.


If asked to name the first aircraft emergency that comes to mind, most general aviation pilots would probably answer “engine failure.” That makes sense: Engine failures are the focus of much training and practice. 

 On the bright side, most engine failures don’t “just happen”. There’s a good chance that the engine has been giving hints about its poor health in the hours leading up to the failure. Abrupt changes in oil consumption, unusual engine monitor indications, failure to develop proper static rpm, or unusual noises or vibrations are all worth investigating. 

 A real-life engine failure usually isn’t the sterile exercise most pilots have come to expect when the CFI reaches over and yanks the throttle. The tach probably won’t just drop to 1000 rpm and remain there. The engine will likely be shaking — violently, even — and there may be oil on the windshield. Smoke and fire are possibilities. In some cases, the engine may seize. In short, there’s a “reality factor” that can make it more difficult to take the appropriate action.


Improper or overlooked maintenance can cause mechanical failures, so investigate or report engine system squawks and get them resolved. As an owner, have oil samples tested regularly and consider installing an engine monitor that shows the health of each cylinder.

 Fuel Philosophy

To prevent an engine failure due to misfuelling, be present at fuelling. Communicate clearly with line service personnel or FBO customer service reps: Tell them the fuel type and quantity you need, and which tanks to fuel. Have them confirm the order and check the receipt to make sure you got what you requested. 

 Partial Power Loss

Several things can cause a partial power loss:

  • Carburettor ice

  • Failure to advance mixture on descent

  • Valve train issues

  • Cylinder/piston failures

  • Early stages of fuel exhaustion/starvation

  • Ignition problems


Assuming no mechanical failures are present, if you have Gas in the tanks, Air going to the engine, and Spark from the ignition system, the engine should run. Some quick troubleshooting can often get an engine running again.

 Whatever the cause, the engine may cease to produce sufficient power to maintain altitude, and it will probably be running rough. Proceed on the assumption that the engine could fail completely at any time: Head for the nearest airport and be prepared for a forced landing.

 Engine Failure Strategies

  • Flight preparation—Brief every flight to cover emergency contingencies and critical checklist items. Commit immediate procedures to memory.

  • Route selection—Consider your route carefully. Are you flying over water, high terrain, or a forest? Have a plan for an unplanned off-airport landing.

  • Recurrent training—Practice engine-out scenarios at altitude or in a simulator with a qualified flight instructor who knows your aircraft.

  • Fuelling—Always be present at fuelling and communicate your needs clearly. Check the fuel order to confirm it is correct.

  • Engine failure—When it happens, stay calm and fly the airplane all the way to the ground in a controlled landing.


Tony Birth