You Can’t Just Pull Over….

Checking the fuel level

In some of my earlier stories, I described some of the strategies and tactics that I used for overcoming my obstacles, but conquering the fears was more difficult.

For example, even after I got my license, I was still afraid of an engine failure. Jeff and I talked about it extensively and he explained how unlikely that was. While he was describing why it was unlikely (maintenance schedules, etc.) I was reminded of a tool that I had used in my corporate life to analyze difficult situations.

While I realize that fear is largely an emotional state, there is a logical aspect to it and this tool can help with that aspect. It’s called a SWOT analysis. That stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It is the last one, the analysis of the threats, or dangers, that is relevant to this conversation.

The process is simple and involves 5 main steps.

  1. Identify the threat (the fear, in this case).
  2. Assess the likelihood of the fear coming true.
  3. Assess the severity of the impact, were the fear to come true.
  4. Develop and practical methods to reduce the likelihood and the impact.
  5. Implement those methods.

Let’s use, as an example, the fear that I had – that the engine would fail.

  1. Identify. The analytical tool calls for us to be specific when we identifying the danger. The way I have stated the fear is fairly specific, but let’s be even more specific by saying that ‘I am afraid that the engine will fail while in flight’.
  2. Assess the likelihood. How likely is it – high, medium or low? To answer that question I needed information, so I did some research and learned that the likelihood is extremely low. Most pilots fly for their entire careers and never have an engine fail in flight.
  3. Assess the impact. How severe is it – high, medium or low? Well the answer is ‘it depends’. It could be low or it could be high. For example, there would be no impact if the engine were to fail when you are close enough to an airport to glide to the runway. But it would be very dangerous to lose the engine flying over the middle of Lake Ontario at low altitudes during the winter. So, for the purposes of this analysis let’s use a worst-case scenario and identify the severity of the impact as high.
  4. Develop methods to reduce the likelihood and the impact (even though we have identified the likelihood as low, it’s not impossible, so we should find ways to reduce the likelihood even further).

The two main ways to prevent the likelihood of an engine failure are:

  • Maintenance and inspection
  • Fuel management.

1. Maintenance and inspection

Airplane engines are much better maintained than car engines and they are inspected far more closely and often. In your car, you can just pull over to the side of the road if something goes wrong with your engine. You can’t do that while you’re flying. Every year (or 100 flying hours, whichever comes first) an airplane undergoes a rigorous  inspection. The engine inspection includes, among other things, a cylinder compression test and the use of a borescope to inspect the various engine components. And more frequent maintenance is performed. For example, we change the oil in our airplane engine every 25 hours of flying and the old oil is analysed.

2. Fuel management – fuel quantity and quality

Before every flight, we physically measure the amount of fuel in the fuel tanks. And even though there are fuel gauges in the airplane, we don’t trust them. We use a dipstick to determine the exact number of litres in each tank. Also, we know that when we have full tanks, we can fly for 4 1/2 hours. However, we never fly longer than 3 1/2 hours per leg because we want to have one hour of reserve.

Not only do we check the quantity of the fuel in our airplane, but we also check the quality of the fuel before every flight. We do that by taking a sample out of each tank and examining it for contaminants.

So those are ways that we can reduce the likelihood of my fear coming true, that the engine will fail while in flight. But, what if it were to happen? So the next step in the process is to identify ways to reduce the impact or the severity of the impact. As I mentioned before, the severity depends upon where you are flying.

The two main ways to reduce the impact of an engine failure are

  • Emergency training
  • Route planning.

1. Emergency training

One of the emergencies that a student pilot trains for is an engine failure. The student is taught how to choose an appropriate landing spot, preferably a farmer’s field, how to quickly troubleshoot the failure and how to setup and conduct the landing. During the in-air flight test, that is one of the emergency maneuvers that must be demonstrated to the Transport Canada flight examiner.

2. Route planning

As I mentioned before, an engine failure over the middle of Lake Ontario in the winter would be dangerous. So, like many pilots of single engine aircraft, I never fly out over the Great Lakes during the fall, winter, or spring, even if it means extra hours of flying time.

And when I have a choice, I prefer to fly over farmer’s fields, rather than over places that don’t offer as many options for landing, such as metropolitan areas and forests. If I don’t have a choice, then I fly at a higher altitude, as that will give me a lot more time to find an appropriate landing spot. A golf course, or even a soccer field, is an appropriate landing spot in metropolitan areas. And even if I had to land in a forest, that is still survivable. I have a friend, who lost her engine over Toronto. She aimed for a soccer field, but when she got closer to the field, she noticed that there were children playing soccer on the field, so she changed course and landed in a tree. She came away with nothing more than a broken wrist.

So, after going through the exercise of analyzing the likelihood and impact of an engine failure and doing whatever I can to reduce the likelihood and impact, I am less afraid of losing my engine in flight.

Leave a comment


email* (not published)