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How pilots handle airplane inflight emergency situations

By Captain Les "Jetson"

Do you ever wonder how airline pilots fly and handle your plane in an emergency situation? Are you wondering what is going on in the cockpit that keeps you safe and could even save your life in extreme situations?

As a passenger, you can benefit from knowing how pilots fly an airplane during an emergency situation. But how? It will help you feel more confident knowing the why’s and the what’s of the things going on, should you be on an airplane that has an emergency.

What is it really like to be an airline pilot?

Airline pilot routine

First off, being an airline pilot is largely all about flying with hours of boredom. And that’s the way it should be.

Hours of boredom means everything is routine, uneventful, and completely safe on board!

For an experienced airline pilot, flying that huge jet for decades is no more difficult than how you feel about driving your own car. it really IS that easy, because everything we do becomes “second nature” after a while. Flying becomes an extreme routine from pushback to parking.

However, it’s important that a routine does not become complacency!

Back to that typical day in the office (the cockpit)…

Suddenly, those hours of boredom can occasionally be interrupted by a few minutes of “sheer terror”, as we describe it. And this is where you find out if are worthy of those pilot wings you earned!

Then you hear a passenger yelling, «OMG, the right engine is on fire!». Next, the flight attendants seemingly get into a rush of coordinating things.

However, by that time your pilots already know about the emergency from cockpit warnings. So, relax, your pilots know very well how to stabilize, fix, and handle the problem!

How do your pilots fly the airplane during any given emergency?

How well your pilots handle an emergency, or “when the crap hits the fan“, as we say, depends on so many factors.

Here are some determining factors

Pilot education, age, and type of experience are important points. How many hours of experience does the pilot have total, as well as in flying the affected airplane type?

Your pilots’ personal confidence, «can do» attitude, (as taught in the military), piloting skills, the ability to stay calm during stress, remaining collected and methodical, ability to maintaining effective command, and how well you work with the other pilot are all important considerations.

How a competent pilot can save your day as a passenger (video)

This real-life story from NBC News (YouTube) illustrates the successful handling of an emergency by a well-trained, experienced pilot.

How do pilots deal with multitasking during a stressful emergency?

How pilots handle inflight  emergencies. Boeing 757 overhead panel. Photo: Captain Les, CaptainJetson.com.
Boeing 757 pedestal. Photo: Captain Les, CaptainJetson.com

That depends on the type of emergency you have. In brief, here’s what we do:

First and foremost your pilots have a way of organizing the multitasking an emergency presents. Pilots worldwide have a standard approach to this:

1. Avigate

“Avigate” means, FLY THE AIRPLANE. Continue to safely fly the airplane by maintaining full control of the flight. Don’t ever let the airplane get ahead of you. The pilot controls the airplane, not the other way around.

Next, your pilots will work on the emergency problem by following the protocol for “navigate” and “communicate”, as described below:

2. Navigate

“Navigate” means KNOW WHERE YOU ARE AND WHERE YOU ARE GOING.

For example, did an engine quit over the tall Andes Mountains in South America on the way to Rio de Janeiro on a flight from the U.S.? Or, what if you are above the Himalayas?

Well, with one good engine remaining we have to descend to a lower altitude. Your B767-400 is a heavy bird, so we need to continue the flight at a lower altitude to safely proceed to our alternate airport clear of the mountains.

Does the pilot have a clear awareness of navigating his “escape route” to safely clear those tall mountains while descending?

3. Communicate

“Communicate” refers to the least important order of things to accomplish during an airplane multitasking order of things that have to be done.

Even the order of communication has a “pecking order” of importance. It goes like this:

  • First, your pilots focus on communicating among themselves and with Air Traffic Control (ATC).
  • Then the next order of importance is to communicate with the company (airline dispatch/maintenance coordination and communication).
  • After that, it’s the flight attendant’s turn to be filled in on the emergency facts. At this time the pilots will give the flight attendants their orders on what to do and which procedures to implement in the cabin.
  • Finally (if the pilots still have time before landing) it’s the passenger’s turn, where a Passenger Announcement (PA) will be given from the cockpit.

How do pilots stabilize, fly, or even solve an emergency situation?

  1. First, your pilots recognize and determine what exactly is going wrong with the airplane.
  2. If immediate stabilization of the problem is needed, we take care of that by applying our highly trained “pilot memory procedures”.
  3. There are literally hundreds of different emergency situations that pilots are highly trained in handling. Once a year all airline pilots have to pass annual simulator check rides, where these emergencies are practiced.
  4. Awareness: Your pilots maintain a phenomenal awareness of what’s going on at all times during any emergency, to ensure complete safety, concentrating on getting you to a runway for a perfect emergency landing.
how pilots handle emergency situations
Boeing 757 overhead panel. Photo: Captain Les, CaptainJetson.com.

How pilot personality traits are ideal for knowing how to fly airplanes in emergency situations

U.S. NAVY studies and countless other studies on “typical pilot personalities” have concluded that pilots are excellently personality-shaped to handle emergencies and stressful situations with calm and collect.

In a U.S. NAVY class, a behavioral psychologist once gave an excellent presentation of pilot personalities, based on medical research:

The psychologist explained that the personality traits of pilots have a strong commonality to that of an MD surgeon, an ER doc, or a police officer.

The pilot’s personality is confident at all times, some with almost a “cocky”-like attitude” But that’s also an acquired personality-type, and not something we are all born with. Airline flight training and military flight training is EXTREMELY COMPETITIVE! If you (as a pilot) don’t believe you are the best in business, then you’ll be washed out of the program like water falling into the Niagara Falls, and real fast! Yet, you work with your fellow pilots applying uttermost respect for one another.

The CAPTAIN is in ultimate charge of his or her ship (airplane). Therefore, there also has to be a ranking order of the chain of command on that ship.

Your FIRST OFFICER (co-pilot) is the next in line of command of that entire airplane.

The mix of pilot and flight attendant personality traits working together during the emergency situation

As a combination flight (pilots)- and cabin (flight attendants) – crew they all work together as a well-oiled team during emergencies as well as during normal uneventful operations.

Pilot emergency checklists

As previously mentioned pilots are heavily trained to handle any conceivable emergency being thrown at them.

Jet aircraft literally has checklists for hundreds of emergencies. Each airplane, in turn, has its own unique procedures for how to fix abnormalities and emergencies on that particular airplane type.

Sample emergency checklist procedure for a Boeing 737

This is from the pilots Boeing 737 QRH (Quick Reference Handbook”:

Image: Online open source.

Your comments

Did you enjoy reading a little about how pilots handle emergency situations, as well as a little more about pilot personalities? We welcome your comments here.

Featured Image: Captain Les, for CaptainJetson.com.

This article was updated on July 11, 2020.

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