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This month we also have a short article written by our deputy CFI David Wood. As many of you will be aware, Geoff is having a short period away from the flying school and during this time David will be assuming the CFI responsibilities. Here are some words from him:

What’s the worst thing that can happen to you when flying? Well, aside from flying into something solid I’d guess that most of us who fly singles would say that a sudden and unexpected silence up-front is about as bad as it gets.

Strictly speaking, of course, it’s not the engine failure that’s going to hurt you. That comes a little later if you mis-judge the landing or you stall and spin while manoeuvring near the ground. So it’s no great surprise that the Practice Forced Landing is a pretty important part of the PPL syllabus. Any sensible pilot keeps himself in regular practice thereafter. The question is: how do we practise – and is it really good practice?

At the risk of being contentious, it seems to me that what we tend to practise when we do PFLs sometimes has less to do with executing a safe forced landing and more to do with executing a checklist. What do I mean? Well, over the years I’ve noticed a tendency to focus mainly on the actions to be taken immediately after the engine stops, and then upon the early stages of the set-up for a forced landing approach. Of course these things are very important; I’m not saying that they are not. If we can work out why the engine has stopped we can perhaps restart it and get ourselves out of a situation that is tricky but not yet sticky.

Likewise, the Mayday transmission, the circuit planning and the final crash-checks are all obviously important. So I’m not saying ignore the procedure or forget what you’ve been taught.

But it does seem to me that in focusing too much on the procedural aspects we’re maybe missing the bit that’s going to bite us. We’re in danger of addressing the wrong end of the problem, if you like. After all, the critical bit surely isn’t in the descent from 2000’ to 500’. The part where you really earn your wings is the final stage of the approach and landing. It’s the last 500’ (actually, the last 50’) where all the potential for disaster lies – yet that’s the bit we seldom if ever practise.

Now of course many would say, and rightly, that if you’ve carried out the PFL procedure as taught you will have put yourself in the best possible configuration for the final approach to either a safe landing or a controlled crash. I wouldn’t argue with that. But I suggest that if we routinely break-off our practice at 500’ and power away whilst breezily assuring ourselves that we’d have been able to get into our chosen field then, in reality, we’re probably ducking 70% of the challenge and we’re missing 70% of the learning.

It’s in the last few hundred feet or so of the descent that the full effect of the wind-gradient becomes apparent (who has not felt that sudden sink as you descend into slacker air or, worse, into rotor?). It’s in the last few hundred feet that the real nature of the field you’re trying to get into becomes clear. Crop a bit higher than it looked from height?; Bit more of an upslope than expected?; A set of telephone wires running along the near hedge-line?. These things are only really apparent once you get down to low-level. But by then you are into unfamiliar territory and your options are rapidly running out.

In my flying career I have had the misfortune (or perhaps the good fortune) to experience six engine failures. All quite a long time ago, mind you, and all on microlights. On five occasions I got the aeroplane down undamaged. Sadly, on the sixth I wrecked it. But I am quite convinced that the reason that I was able to walk away from each was that I was in really good practice. Not only was I in good practice with regards to the procedure for dealing with an engine failure but, more importantly, I was in good practice when it came to unplanned landings in fields (believe it or not, in those days it was quite common to take the PFL right down to a full-stop landing).

Time has moved on and it is nowadays much, much less common to land-out in fields or farm strips. Land-owners are less friendly, insurers suck their teeth, and we’re all much more conscious of the legality (and indeed the dangers) of low-flying. As a consequence most of us now never land on anything other than a ‘proper’ runway. And, mindful of Rule 5, most of our PFL practice is broken off at 500’. But we’re missing out on a lot of valuable experience, I suggest. It’s the sort of experience that might one day save a life.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of a very, very pertinent point made by the AAIB’s Julian Firth at the presentation he did for us earlier in the year. In a nutshell he said that the pilot who retains control of himself and his aeroplane right up to the point of impact is very much more likely to survive than the one who loses control before impact. In other words, a controlled crash is much more survivable than an uncontrolled one. I can testify to that. So my point is this. Practise PFLs whenever you can. Indeed practice them at every opportunity. Practise them until you are truly comfortable with the procedure and can do it even when your heart is pounding. But when you practise them remember that it’s more than just a procedure. The bit that really matters is the last bit, not the first bit. So don’t bust Rule 5 but if it’s safe to do so don’t just break off routinely at 500’. If it is safe and legal to do so then take the approach down to a height at which you can start to experience what it’s like to make a real forced landing. If you are not comfortable doing that by yourself then ask an instructor along; that’s what we’re there for. But believe me, the experience will be worth it and it just might save your life. After all, one day the deafening silence may happen for real and when it does you need to be ready.

A few pointers to finish:

• Keep a Good Look-Out. The temporary Olympic airspace restrictions have had the effect of pushing a lot of GA out of the London areas and into the Ulu. Around us it has also had the effect of compressing all the VFR flight into altitudes below 3,500’. Coupled with the sudden good weather after weeks of rain, I’ve certainly noticed an increased density in GA traffic in the local area. So, keep a very good look out when you are out and about. It’s likely to be busier than usual.

• Olympic Restrictions. As far as I can tell there have been no significant infringements of the temporary Olympic controlled airspace. Let’s keep it that way. Remember, the CAA have threatened to deal very harshly with anyone who infringes. So remain aware and remain clear.

• G-MAVV. We’re shortly to get G-MAVV back and will have two operational AT3s again. May I just remind everyone to be careful with the canopies on the AT3. There are a couple of things to bear in mind. Firstly, when shutting the canopy at start-up, always check that it is actually locked by trying (carefully) to open it. I’ve been surprised by how often the catches fail to engage properly. Secondly, when leaving the aeroplane, don’t lock the canopy by squeezing your hand through the little window. It does more damage than good. Just leave the canopy down, it won’t blow open.

Be safe; but never stop learning.

David Wood