Controlling energy while engine-out

As a guy who has lost all engine power in flight and survived to tell the story (read this story), I’d like to think I have a good perspective on teaching a good engine-out technique.  However, the more I consider that particular occurrence, the more I count my blessings and realize that I was not well prepared that day for the long glide to terra firma and now believe that I am alive purely because the Lord saw fit to keep me here another day.  I’m sure there was some skill involved, but the day after the event I doubt I could have trained anyone to duplicate my efforts.  Since that fateful day, I’ve become a glider pilot (and CFIG) and have learned quite a bit about managing energy with the engine out.  And now, I think I’ve got a better way to teach an engine out scenario that may save a life or two for those that consider adding this discussion as an arrow to their quiver of aviation tricks.

An aircraft (any type of aircraft) makes an approach to landing every time with the pilot managing power…even a glider.  In a Malibu, a pilot will usually fly the approach after the   Outer Marker at about 120KIAS and will need about 20″ MP in a “dirty” configuration to do so.  If this pilot were to add power, for example, up to 22″MP, and hold airspeed, the airplanes glide path on approach will shallow and the aircraft will impact the runway far beyond the intended touchdown point.  If he were to pull the power back to 15″MP, then he would not make the runway, the approach angle would steepen.  I can always tell a good pilot because he will find the power setting that holds the VASI lights correct and then correct slightly as the lights give indication of deviations in his approach angle.  (Here’s another discussion of pitch and power).

So, power controls the approach angle.  If you add power, it shallows the approach and if you decrease power it steepens the approach.  This works for every aircraft in the world.  If it is an airplane, engine power controls approach angle; in a helicopter, the collective (with corresponding engine power following precisely) controls approach angle; in a powered paraglider, the throttle controls approach angle; and in a glider…well, what controls the approach angle in a glider?

Believe it or not, the same thing…the glider pilot manages power (or energy).  In this case, it is not an engine on the front, but the left hand of a glider pilot handles the spoilers, which is his way of managing power.  If he adds spoilers (and adds a bunch of drag), the approach angle steepens, if he decreases spoilers (decreasing drag), the approach angle decreases.  So, a glider pilot does exactly the same thing as an airplane pilot…he manages energy on an approach.  A glider normally flies a much steeper approach than a powered aircraft, which gives the glider pilot that ability to manage the approach angle with the spoilers.

How does this apply to an airplane pilot in an engine-out scenario?  It applies precisely.  When the engine(s) dies on an airplane, the pilot is still left with energy to manage, and he must manage it well.  He has the left hand on the yoke, and this is one way to raise and lower the descent rate, but it will come with a corresponding increase or decrease in airspeed.  A better way to manage energy is with the other three energy controlling devices that are still available to an engine-out pilot: Flaps, landing gear, and a slip.

Flaps are a one way to manage energy.  It is quite simple…add flaps and you will steepen the approach angle.  Decrease flaps and you will shallow the approach angle.  I recommend a pilot leave the flaps retracted until he assured of making the runway when engine-out.  Then, once he is assured he will make the runway, simply add the flaps necessary to make the approach angle appropriate.

Another energy tool: landing gear.  In a Malibu, definitely leave the landing gear retracted until you have assuredly made the runway.  Once you have, then you can put the gear down, but realize that the gear extended will steepen your approach.  If you put the gear down and then worry that you won’t make the runway, unquestionably raise the gear and land gear-up.  It is better to be in control and land with gear up on the runway than land in the trees before the runway and crash uncontrolled.

The last method to control the approach angle is the one the should be practiced the most.  I must give credit to John Mariani for really broadening the horizons of many Malibu pilots by teaching the full slip to landing.  He is correct in his approach to teaching, and I’ve adopted his method (with my bit of my own teaching technique) in this discussion.  When you have most assuredly made the runway, and there is no doubt that you have, simply lower the gear, add an appropriate amount of flaps for the conditions present, and then put the airplane into a full slip.  You will instantly notice that the approach angle will increase dramatically and the touchdown point will begin to rise in your field of view.  With the gear down, flaps extended, and a full slip, you will be coming out of the sky at a very steep angle.  It is interesting to note that the approach angle in this configuration is almost exactly the same as is considered normal for a glider.  As the approach continues, if you deem that the airplane won’t make the runway, you simply take a bit of the slip out.  This will shallow the approach and allow the intended touchdown point to descend in your field of view.  Then, you just need to adjust the amount of slip applied during the approach so that the appropriate approach angle is achieved in order to make the runway at the intended point of touchdown.

Putting the whole picture together, it looks like this…As the FAA teaches (in the Flight Training Handbook), the best technique when your engine first begins to show signs that it might fail (oil on windscreen, oil pressure dropping, banging engine noises, etc.) you should immediately: 1.) Maintain control of the airplane 2.) Turn toward the nearest suitable landing area 3.) Establish best glide speed (90 KIAS in a Malibu).  Assuming all engine re-start attempts fail,  you should glide over the intended point of touchdown and then begin a spiraling turn, always keeping the intended point of touchdown in sight.  You can lower the flaps (if desired) and the landing gear anywhere in the descent after knowing you are in gliding distance to the runway.  Then, after rolling out on a high left downwind you can begin a full slip to landing.  You should use the left hand (yoke/pitch) to maintain 110KIAS in the descent while slipping as you will want a little extra speed to arrest the rate of descent at the bottom of the approach.  Then, land normally.

If you’ve never practiced a slip to landing, then you need to get with your instructor (hopefully, that is me!) and make sure to do three or four approaches so you are very comfortable.  I try to teach this on every initial and recurrent training I do.  It does not take very long before you will fully understand that controlling energy is the key to walking away from an airplane when the engine dies.  Think like a glider pilot…and if you really want to become good at this, spend a little extra and get your glider rating.  It is well worth the time, money, and energy.

About Joe Casey

ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G Commercial Pilot - SE, ME, Rotorcraft, Glider US Army AH-64 Pilot and UH-60 Instructor Pilot and Instrument Flight Examiner
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