In Flight Emergencies: 5 things to consider when the lights start flashing Featured

In Flight Emergencies - 5 Things to Consider  

As business jet pilots we fly day after day, leg after leg and nothing ever goes wrong.  Autopilot on, climbing from our departure airport we start looking forward to another uneventful flight, thinking of what is waiting for us at our destination.

Then it happens; a noise, light, alarm or CAS message and suddenly everything changes.  Chances are your first reaction will be to stare at the warning, thinking this can’t be happening!  Why me, why now?  Your world (and your situational awareness) narrows as you focus on these feelings, possibly missing a radio call or assigned altitude.

I know this because I experienced it recently.  It happened on a flight back to my home airport after a 5-day layover in Cabo San Lucas.  After filling the plane up with fuel, passengers and catering we headed out with a long but normal takeoff.  The area was mountainous so the departure had us circling to cross back over top of the airport at 5,000 feet.  Sitting in the right seat, I called positive rate then retracted the gear.  As I had just finished calling “400 feet, 170 knots” to indicate time for flap retraction, the lights started flashing.  I retracted the flaps then focused my attention on the flashing Master Warning and corresponding CAS Messages.  

Needless to say the pilot flying was concerned and began to focus  on the situation as well.   After determining is wasn’t anything catastrophic we quickly realized one of us needed to fly and one needed to work on the situation at hand lest we fly into a mountain or miss an altitude.

At first we though it might be another false indication but then we heard it, the hydraulic power transfer unit (PTU) made a loud squeal as it tired to balance the pressure with that of the B side. Then we knew this was for real.

Turns out we had lost all of our hydraulic fluid on our A side.  Since the A side is primarily responsible for gear, steering and brakes, we could only assume we had blown it out upon gear retraction. 

While still sorting things out and reaching for the Abnormal/Emergency Checklist, the lead passenger came up quite concerned about the loud noise the PTU was making adding to the increased workload we were experiencing in the cockpit.  We assured him it was nothing urgent and that we would likely be continuing on to our destination as planned. 

Now into the checklist, we had some switches to flip and breakers to pull once again requiring designation of who was heads up flying and who was heads down flipping and pulling.  After completing the checklist to “Land as Soon as Practical” we were cleared to climb to FL350.  Monitoring of the instruments showed all to be stable so we got on the flight phone to Team X in Wichita.

Team X turn resource as they not only seemed to know exactly what had happened, (nose gear hydraulic line failed) but called ahead and discussed the matter with the Orlando Service Center where we were headed.  Additionally, I am not sure who advised them, but ATC soon knew of our predicament as well. 

Speaking further with Team X they assured us it was safe to continue to KMCO but that we would have to blow the gear down, land with flaps 15, use the emergency brake system and shutdown on the runway rather than try to taxi off.


The next twNoseGearHydLeak.jpgo hours went just as any flight would, diverting around weather and meeting crossing restrictions.  ATC was more than helpful and at least once offered us direct to the airport when still 500 miles away.  While we appreciated their gesture, there was some serious weather in the way and not necessary so we stayed on our planned route. 

We took advantage of the time to rehearse how our approach and landing would go and who would do what.  We even went so far as to put tape across the flap selector so we would not move them beyond 15 degrees.

We also had time to give a detailed briefing to the passengers about what was going on and what to do if we had to make an emergency evacuation.  That all went pretty well and the passengers expressed  if we didn’t look worried then they weren’t worried either.

Now close to the airport, ATC requested souls and fuel on board in hours.  I replied and reminded them we would need to stop on the runway and be towed off and would like Crash/Fire/Rescue standing by. 

ATC was so accommodating, almost too much as they gave us priority vectoring and before we knew it we were cleared for the visual approach.  This would normally have been a good thing but with a reduced flap setting and a hesitancy to use speed brakes we had a hard time slowing down and getting on the glide path.  Not having normal brakes on only one thrust reverser, if we dared use it without nose wheel steering,  we needed to be on profile.  For a moment it looked like it was going to be a go around but we ended up passing over the threshold at 90 feet and on speed.


Our calculated emergency landing distance was 5,000 feet and we had 10,000 available so we went easy on the emergency brakes so as not to blow any tires.  With 5,000 feet remaining we were still at 90 knots, which made the pilot on the e-brake nervous as he had it pull full back, yet we were decelerating nicely.  With passengers applauding, we came to rest 8,000 feet down the runway and shut both engines down.

The fire department swooped in and declared the runway closed.  We opened the cabin door and they asked if everyone was okay and advised us our brakes were smoking and measure at 300 degrees.  A tug was standing by and as soon as the fire department felt our brakes were not going to ignite we were towed to US Customs of all places.  

The passengers got out and enjoyed having their pictures taken in front of the plane with the emergency personnel.  After clearing customs they all got into their vehicles, which the FBO had repositioned, and headed home with a story to tell.

Upon reflecting on the flight I am happy it had a good outcome.  It had been at least 10 years since I last had an in-flight emergency and 7 of those years I’d spent as a Flight Safety instructor.  From watching hundreds of crews deal with simulated in-flight emergencies and from my own recent experience I am left believing there are at least 5 things to consider when in an abnormall or emergency situation:

  1. As soon as the lights start flashing decide who is going to fly and who is going to run the checklist.  While that seems obvious without that discipline you will no doubt spend some time as “deer in the headlights”.  That may be time you can’t spare.
  2. Let the passengers know what is going on.  Every time I have had a real in-flight emergency the passengers come to the cockpit adding to the situation.  Even a quick announcement of what happened, what you are going to do, when you will follow up and to please stay seated.  They have a right to know but you’ve got a job to do.
  3. Build safety margins in everywhere.  Lets face it, you don’t deal with these kind things very often.  As a result you may be preoccupied or even a little nervous.  The result is you cannot expect to fly with the precision you normally would.  That's why it's a good idea to add a “safety factor” to everything.  If the book says you need 5,000 feet of runway plan on using 7,000.  If you are normally configured 1 mile from the final approach fix, why not be configured at 2 miles and so on.  Leave yourself plenty of room.  In most cases you will have a flyable airplane so no need to rush or push the limits.
  4. Get others involved early.  For years I stood at the front of a classroom of pilots and said the definition of CRM might be “effectively using all available resources to enhance the safety of flight”.  Now more than ever I believe that to be true as everyone we spoke to was more than willing to help in anyway they could and all were instrumental in our success.  Here is a list of who we spoke with in order to have the safest and best outcome for our passengers:
    1. ATC (For Emergency Handling/weather)
    2. Team X (Advice)
    3. In house maintenance (Advice, repair coordination)
    4. Customs (had to change airport of entry)
    5. Universal Foxtrot Team (help with EAPIS/Customs)
    6. Cessna Service Center Orlando (Tug, Repair)
    7. Atlantic Aviation MCO (Intl. Trash etc.)
    8. Sheltair ORL (Reposition Passenger vehicles)
    9. Emergency Ground Personnel (By radio to coordinate ground movement)
  1. Make a stabilized approach.  While this goes along with number 3, Build in Safety Margins, I think it is worth emphasizing.  When you are an emergency aircraft you get priority.  When you get priority you get to the airport fast, maybe faster than you are able to get ready.  Next time I find myself in this situation, real or simulated, I am going to build in a “safety 360” on a 5 mile final for a visual approach or a “safety hold” on an instrument approach.  If you need it then it's there, if you don't then you can just pass it by and keep going.   At least ATC is aware and prepared just in case. I feel our passengers wouldn’t have minded the delay and appreciated our precaution more than being involved in a go around or worse.


 No one every expects to find themselves in an emergency situation and hopefully you won't.  Nevertheless, just to be on the safe side why not take a moment to consider what you will do the next time the lights start flashing.


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Mark Mealey

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