The Reluctant Pilot: Emergency Landings

4 Feb 11 4 Comments

This is another excerpt from my essays about learning to fly at Velez-Malaga airfield in Axarquía, Spain. The events took place shortly before I did my first solo flight away from the airfield. The cross country navigation exercise is required to get your private pilot’s licence. It is effectively the first time the pilot is left alone with their plane, dependent on their skills both in flight and on the ground. My instructor had a list of prerequisites: the horizon needed to be clear, the wind calm, and my practised forced landings needed to be perfect. If, god forbid, I had an engine failure, I had to be able to bring the plane down. I still have the sequence written down on a sheet in my clipboard, long after passing the tests.

Weekends in the summer are busy at Axarquía. Broad-shouldered young men with their hair clipped short invade the airfield. They fly the banner planes, advertising discotheques and cheap restaurants across the beaches of the Costa del Sol.

There was no point in my doing anything until they were out of the way, so I studied engine failures. This was exactly the type of information I’d signed up for in the first place: a get-out-of-jail-free card if things really went wrong. Only once I’d begun did I realise: it didn’t help just to know how to deal with engine failure. I had to be able to do it under stress.

I recited the steps on the ground, trying to train my brain, so that the reactions would be automatic. If the engine cuts out, there’s no time to panic, no time to think about what my priorities should be.

I studied the theory in the shade of the fig tree, just a sequence of words. To bring it to life, I paced around the parked planes on the apron, reciting the steps.

Get the plane trimmed for glide. Work out the wind direction, look around for a field, choose a landing spot, fast fast fast. And only now – set up with a worst case plan, only now do I get to be optimistic and try to find the mechanical issue. There’s still time to restart the engines. Check the magnetos, the oil, the fuel, is there any chance I can turn this brick back into a plane? If not, continue the landing, don’t lose focus on my field. Tell someone where you are.

I turned towards the abandoned tower and made my radio call:

Golf Papa Echo is experiencing an engine failure.
Landing in a field 6 miles NW of Torre del Mar with 2 souls on board.

A young pilot at the fuel pump glanced over at me and then shrugged: crazy foreign lady. The banner pilots had never seen me fly. I retreated when they arrived, watching jealously from the distance. They never speak, they shout, laughing and clipping each other on the shoulders. Over the radio it continued–jokes, maybe insults. The Spanish was too fast and too dialectal for me to follow. They scared me: the energy, the easy-going laughter, as comfortable with the planes as an old bicycle kept in the garage. The airport holds no secrets for them, the aircraft is not a mystery. It’s a culture I would never belong to, even if I spoke the language, even if I was the same age. I think they must have been born in the cockpit.

I returned to my practice.

Having explained my dilemma to the outside world, I need to focus on the landing. It’s just another landing, don’t panic. Don’t get distracted by discussing the issue with the air traffic controller. Don’t. Land the plane. Now that I’m sure there’s no chance of restarting the engine, I need to shut it down, minimise the risk of fire. And then it’s down in a graceful glide towards my field, until the instructor says “Go Around” and I put the engine back on and pull away.

The first time that my instructor pulled the power off, I looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. The engine sputtered. The nose tilted down. He looked back at me. “Engine failure,” he said in a dead-pan voice.

Shit, shit, shit.

I mimicked a radio call, told an invisible someone that I’m in trouble. He shook his head as I became aware that the Cessna was going ever-so-slowly. Too slow, we were at risk of stalling: the nose tipping up, the plane preparing to plummet to the ground. Instinctively I reached for the throttle – more power! – and the instructor smacked my hand away. Right, engine failure.

Finally I put the plane into a gentle glide, losing height but in a controlled manner, moving forward. I stared out my left window, searching for a nice stretch of field to land in, something long and flat and runway shaped. I had still not found anything like that when my instructor finally told me to put the power on and climb away.

“There just wasn’t anywhere I could have landed,” I complained. It wasn’t my fault! He’d picked a stupid location to simulate an engine failure. He let me rant as we flew across the valley.

“OK, then, let’s try one now.” The engine roar dwindled to a low rumble. “Don’t worry about anything else, just get into a glide and find a field.”

Again, I couldn’t see where I could possibly land. There were no flat fields, nothing even vaguely appropriate. I started pointing at locations to try to get some input. “I can’t land on the side of a mountain so I need to look in the valleys. There’s the dark green patch there, there’s trees everywhere. That lighter patch there isn’t long enough and the field next to it has furrows or something, that’s no good and look, fences, why do they all put up fences, and buildings, buildings everywhere!” I shook with frustration. “There’s just no where to land here!”

“I guess we’re going to die,” he said and put the power back onto full. He took control and circled the area. “You don’t have a lot of choice, your engine is dead. You aren’t looking for the perfect landing spot, you are taking what you can get. You need to pick the best out of a bad lot. That’s the nature of an emergency.” He pointed out to me the tiny area of flat land that he would have chosen. Well, it was easy for him, he was good at it. But I understood also that he made decisions quickly. Meanwhile, I kept hemming and hawing about where to go and whether that spot was just right until it was too late.

I had a feeling there was a life lesson there. But I didn’t have time to ponder it, the instructor was climbing away again and I knew what that meant, another PFL. This time, however, I kept an eye on the field he’d pointed at and chose it for my landing point. His grin told me that he knew I was cheating but I didn’t care. The main thing was to get the plane on the ground, right?

We did this day after day, circling the low ground. “Where now, Sylvia?”

Finally I began to recognise the possibilities, to see the best out of a bad lot and set up the plane to make the landing. “That field, there,” after a quick glance out the window and then a gentle turn and concentrating on the plane rather than staring out at the unfriendly landscape. And then came the day when I was descending, totally focused, perfectly lined up for my make-shift runway. It was perfect.

“Go around.” My instructor was cutting me off but I knew I had everything right. I glanced at him in confusion as I put the power back on.

“That was perfect,” he said. “But we’re not actually trying to land, just to prove that you could, if you needed to.”

I was so focused on the approach that I’d forgotten we weren’t playing for keeps. I had set up the landing and I knew I was going to make it. His interruption took me by surprise. I wanted to land it in this godforsaken middle of nowhere, so confident that I had it right.

I scarcely had time to ponder what this meant, this new view of my own ability. He interrupted me yet again. “Let’s do your solo navigation tomorrow.”

I said nothing for a moment, pretending an extended interest in the horizon in front of me. But I knew he was right. I was ready.

Read the whole story in my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman

Category: Learning to Fly,


  • I shared many of these feelings while training for engine-outs- I was terrified of them! But agree that over time, you start to see things that you didn’t at first. We used a pneumonic though for the checklist. A-B-C-D-E-F. Do you use the same? Airspeed-Best glide-Checklists (engine restart)-Declare emergency-Emergency squawk-Forced landing flow.

  • very interesting read here. I bet that would be a big shock the first few times you did that. Like you said your first instinct was to reach for the throttle but it was an engine out scenario. Thank you for sharing can’t wait to read more.

  • Haha, you wouldn’t be the first person to continue a simulated engine failure so low that they actually hit something… That’s why you should never practice them by yourself.

    One thing I used to teach is that in most single-engine airplanes, with engine power out, trim the plane practically all the way nose up and it will fly hands-off at close to best glide speed. It helps you to run through the emergency procedures if you’ve already taken care of the most important part: always fly the plane first.

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