How To Handle a Plane Crash as Pilot-in-Command
A plane crash involving mountains, ground or other airplanes make for a lousy end to a flight.
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be Pilot-in-Command of a plane crash? Just because we don’t like to talk about them doesn’t mean they don’t happen and accidents come in all sizes. Some are surprises such as controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) or running off the end of a runway. Some are intentional like landing when your gear won’t come down or a water-ditching when low on fuel. Then again, sometimes they reach out and grab us unexpectedly like getting entangled in wind-shear. It’s obvious that they’re never a good thing. Even so, unfortunately, there are times when it is inevitable you are going to crash. When such misfortune comes your way the more planning you are able to do, the more you improve the outcome.
When impact with the Earth is a certainty, pilot preparation for it is different than when one is a passenger on a large aircraft airline flight. The most important thing you can do is keep your wits about you. There is an ancient cliché thought to be originally written for helicopters but the sentiment is pertinent for airplanes as well: “Fly it till the last part stops moving.” In other words, keeping aircraft control is paramount.
On a commercial airliner, the safety briefing by the flight attendants covers only the most rudimentary of preparation and this is so because the actual aircraft response to impact is unknown. Federal law requires that persons seated near an emergency exit be asked if they feel they can open the exit door. They usually and nonchalantly grunt, “yeah” and go back to reading their newspaper. I’ve watched experienced airline crews train on opening the emergency exits on a new airplane and it typically takes 2 or 3 tries until they get it right. So imagine the reality when Joe Sixpack is doing it amid screams, a crush of people, cabin smoke et cetera. Although my bringing this up is not really within the context of this article, throughout your flying career you are going to find yourself as a passenger riding in the back of an airplane and I implore you to pay attention, read the placards and take sitting in that vital emergency exit seat seriously.
Most serious injuries and fatalities occur due to impact forces, fire, and smoke. It is not the initial impact but, instead, the second or third impact that injures most people. According to Transport Canada, 22% of smaller aircraft crashes would have been otherwise survivable but post impact fatalities were due to smoke and fire.1
In the frenzied bedlam that occurs in a plane crash, without flight attendants, it is important for pilots to do what they can to assist other passengers. Early in my career, I had just been type rated on a corporate jet and got a job flying one immediately. Since my training and even the check-ride occurred in a Level D simulator, I had never actually been in the airplane. On my first day with the new employer, I was sent on a trip with another captain whose job it was to more or less “keep an eye on the greenie (me).” The first leg of the trip, he climbed in the left seat while I was to administer the passenger briefing and close the door. Imagine my embarrassment when it came time for me to close the aircraft entry door and I had no idea whatsoever how to operate the mechanism! Now consider how bewildering egress from a smoke-filled airplane, possibly upside down in water would be to a passenger! Any fatal plane crash is sad but the crash of singer Rick Nelson’s DC-3 is particularly horrible because the pilots climbed out of the burning plane through the cockpit windows while the doomed and unassisted passengers remained inside.2
It is incumbent on every pilot able to do so to assist any and all occupants in a plane crash.
There are preparations to be made prior to an inevitable plane crash and these things are applicable for any non-standard landing such as when the gear won’t come down. Safety experts counsel airline passengers to wear non-flammable clothing, remove sandals and high heels and put on a coat if it’s cold outside. But in small planes, you likely will have such preparations stashed away and inaccessible by the time you will need them. So what CAN you do?
- Advise all passengers of what is happening so they too can prepare.
- Passengers, as well as pilots, should remove all sharp objects (pens, pencils, glasses, etc) from pockets and jewelry.
- Cinch up the seat belts and shoulder harnesses.
- Secure (as much as possible) any loose objects. Upon impact(s), anything loose will fly forward.
- Radio your intentions. If not on an ARTCC frequency transmit in the blind on 121.5. All FAA towers, FSS and ARTCC facilities monitor this frequency.
- If fuel dumping is possible, do so. The less there is to burn the less that might burn. (It may also improve handling characteristics of the aircraft.)
- Isolate the fuel systems if possible. If there is a cross-feed, close it.
- If possible, remove flammable cargo by tossing it out of the aircraft.
- Review any pertinent emergency checklists such as those for gear up landings or ditching.
If landing off airport and out in the middle of nowhere you can sometimes get an idea of the wind from cows and horses. Cows, deer, and horses tend to stand north-south but in strong winds, they face into the wind whereas sheep face away from the wind.3 Pay attention to trees, flags or smoke on land and in water land between the swells or if that’s not possible, land on the backside of a swell. See the Aeronautical Information Manual Chapter 6 Section 2 for more information.
Once the aircraft as come to rest it obviously is essential to get everyone out as quickly as possible. To minimize the potential for injury during the evacuation, pilots should take all necessary actions to shut down the engines by using respective fire handles, condition levers, or fire push button to isolate the aircraft engines. This may not be possible due to the extent of aircraft damage.
In the event that the aircraft has come to rest and does not appear to be threatening smoke, fire or explosion, if possible, remove items that will assist in survivability in the event that help isn’t immediately available. Unless you have good reason to believe that search and rescue aid is not forthcoming, it is a better idea to remain with the aircraft. Collecting materials to start a fire and acquiring a mirror (or shiny piece of metal that can be used as a mirror as well as a women’s make-up compact) might be helpful for signaling SAR aircraft.
Although water seems to be more forgiving than the gritty hardness of terra firma, impact in water is not too different than with land. Typically there is a bounce and the structural damage may be just as bad. “Fly it till the last part stops moving” is good advice. Touch down as slowly and as softly as possible and keep flying until the aircraft has stopped. This means to continue to increase back pressure on the elevator control as the aircraft decelerates until the nose can no longer be held off the ground. Landing in plowed fields or on rough terrain often results in the aircraft flipping over on its back at the very end. Be prepared for this with tightly cinched seat belts and shoulder harnesses and securing any loose objects.
When a plane crash is inevitable, maintain slow, soft, control and let the aircraft absorb the impact forces instead of its occupants. Wings can be as effective as a bumper on a car.
You often hear it said that any landing you walk away from is a good landing but this is nonsense. Good landings infer a certain degree of finesse and precision. However in matters of crash landings, there is no such thing as a “good landing.” The best that one can hope for is a survivable landing. Plan for it accordingly because you’ll not have another chance to go around and try it again.
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2 – Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, Philip Bashe, Hyperion Publishing 1992.
Feature Image: Enrique