“Using the E-Word”

By Michael “Mick” Kaufman


I started a new instrument student this morning – and the first chapter in the textbook I use deals with flight instruments. What happens when those instruments fail? Even with the great detail we put on redundancy, they can still fail. Do we declare an emergency?

Two days earlier, I visited the local Civil Air Patrol Hanger in Eagle River, Wisc., and the same topic of declaring an emergency came up. I stated that I had declared an emergency seven times in my flying career and never was asked to file one bit of paperwork, nor did I receive a call from the FAA.

I recall many years ago, while walking through a flight school, I overheard an instructor briefing a primary student, “Never use the E-word.” He was referring to declaring an emergency.

I had a brain flash for this issue of the “Captain’s Corner,” based on the last several days and while the topic was still fresh in my mind. So, this issue will deal with inflight emergencies, VFR or IFR.

To the contrary of all the stories you might hear about the use of the E-word, it has saved my life on several occasions and allowed me to get the help I needed. In several of these situations, I give much credit to the great folks in air traffic control (ATC) and their response to my situation. I could write an entire book on this topic, but for this article, I will describe several situations I was in and how they were handled. I will also provide some tips to help you deal with challenges you might have in the future.

A famous aviation quote (author unknown) from many years ago said: “A superior pilot is one who uses his superior knowledge to avoid situations that might require his superior skills.” When I think of this quote, it reminds me of a check-ride I took with a General Aviation District Office (GADO) official near the beginning of my aviation career. I was younger then, less than 20, and this inspector had a reputation of being the toughest, meanest inspector at the Milwaukee GADO.

As I was trying to defend my case, for which I was being critiqued using the aircraft flight manual and the FARs, he said, “Son, if you believe that, you will not live long as a pilot. There are two laws – the law of God and the law of physics – the rest are rules; rules are made for pilots with no common sense by bureaucrats with no common sense.”

I have found this advice to be an asset I have used many times in my flying career. I often think of its application and how Captain Al Haynes (United Flight 232) and Captain “Sully” Sullenberger III (U.S. Airways Flight 1549) saved lives. There is no book or rule that is written for every possible situation that we might face as pilots.

That inspector further commented that we need to learn as much as we can about the airplane we fly, the weather we can expect en route, and we must have an alternate plan if the flight cannot be completed as planned.

I value your comments on this article, as there is nothing cast in stone when it comes to emergencies and emergency procedures. Emergencies are not preplanned and if they were, they would not happen. If you knew ahead of time you were going to have an emergency, you would never take off.

Here are three examples of the situations where I have had to use the E-word: 1) smoke in the cockpit, 2) loss of the alternator, and 3) loss of the vacuum pump, all in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

In the early 1980s, the company I co-owned and was flying for purchased a Cessna 421C. Compelled to learn all I could about the aircraft, I decided to take training at Flight Safety in Wichita.

This was my first experience in a high-end, motion-based simulator. The fourth day into the training, we dealt with inflight emergencies. It started with the loss of a gyro, then an engine fire, and everything imaginable eventually failed. I crashed the sim, so the instructor and I got out and called for a technician to reset it. I was embarrassed but got back into the sim for more training that day.

At the end of the day, my instructor was debriefing me on the items we did in the sim, but he never mentioned my horrendous crash. I then asked him to debrief the items I could have done differently leading up to the crash. He chuckled and said, “Everyone crashes
the sim, as there are only so many items a single pilot can handle. The number-one thing to remember is, don’t forget to fly the airplane.”

Smoke In The Cockpit

I had referred to this situation numerous times in my years as a columnist for Midwest Flyer Magazine and other articles I have written as there is a lot to be learned from this experience when flying approaches.

I was training a Cessna 185 pilot for an instrument rating at the Palo Alto, Calif., airport (KPAO) some 20-plus years ago. This was not just your average C185, as it had a two-tube electronic flight instrument systems (EFIS), when almost no GA aircraft had such equipment.

On day seven or eight of my 10-day training course, the syllabus had us perform the 250 nm cross-country that is required for the Instrument Rating. The flight departed KPAO under rather low IMC conditions en route to Lake Tahoe (KTVL) on an IFR flight plan. Shortly after leveling off at our initially assigned altitude, the avionics displays started to flash on and off, and we had smoke in the cockpit. I assigned the task of flying the airplane to my student, while I troubleshot? the emergency. (It is great to have two pilots in the cockpit at times like this, but seldom does that happen.)

We were talking with San Jose (KSJC) approach control at the time, and after the problem continued and we didn’t have an obvious remedy for it, I used the E-word and described our situation. Here is something for you to learn and apply to everyday instrument flying.

After explaining that we needed to get on the ground as soon as possible – and that we needed an approach to the nearest airport – ATC gave us the ILS 30L approach to San Jose. I learned a lot about how helpful controllers can be at a time like this. Even with two pilots in the airplane, it is tough to try to find the approach chart for information that is necessary to fly the approach. This is an ILS approach and all we wanted was vectors and the minimum information we needed to fly the approach. The controllers knew that and gave us exactly what we needed.

This can apply to everyday instrument flying, as well. I teach this by having instrument students give me the approach chart after memorizing the necessary items I have listed below:
1. Heading to fly to intercept the inbound course (Vector).
2. Heading of the inbound approach course (ILS 30L should be about 300 degrees magnetic).
3. Frequency of the ILS, if not a GPS approach.
4. Altitude to intercept the glideslope or glidepath.
5. Decision altitude (DA) or missed approach point (MAP) should a missed approach be necessary.
6. Initial missed approach instructions should a missed approach be necessary.

It is so simple: all you have to do is fly headings and watch the needles, but not so with an emergency in progress and the outcome unknown.

The screens continued to flash, and the smell of smoke continued, until we touched down at San Jose, with fire rescue vehicles parked alongside the runway.

We rolled off onto a taxiway, shut off the engine and exited the aircraft. Several more puffs of smoke came out from underneath the cowling, as the fire crew watched with fire extinguishers aimed. No more smoke or flames, so the FBO was called and the airplane was towed to the ramp.

After removing the cowling in the shop, the issue became apparent. A larger alternator had been installed to handle the larger electrical load of the EFIS, and the mounting bracket was bent, allowing the alternator output post to short against the engine mount. There was no paperwork or calls from an FAA inspector; only some paperwork from the fire rescue crew that assisted us when we cleared the runway.

I continue to emphasize the importance of using the E-word with my students and not to delay.

In 1998, a Beech 58 impacted the terrain while diverting to Volk Field (KVOK), Camp Douglas, Wisc., after the airline transport-rated pilot had declared an emergency and reported smoke in the cockpit. The aircraft was destroyed, and no one survived. I remember that there was discussion that the declaration of the emergency should have been made sooner; however, I was not there, and I don’t like playing Monday morning aviation quarterback.

Lost Alternator

My second example of using the E-word occurred on one of my many winter Bonanza trips to Florida. I delayed my early morning departure from Ocala, Fla., (KOCF) due to low ceilings, both at Ocala and along 75 percent of the route back to Wisconsin. Weather reports showed I would be in IMC along the first quarter of the flight, then on top and clear at my destination. Alone in the aircraft, I departed mid-morning and was flying on autopilot (fat-dumb-happy) with nine hours of fuel on a six-hour non-stop flight.

The first 1.5 hours went fine in IMC until I noticed I was several hundred feet off my assigned altitude. Must have bumped the altitude hold switch or something, I thought. I manually reset the altitude and re-engaged altitude hold on the autopilot.

Another 10 minutes went by, and the altitude hold came off again. Now, I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with my autopilot and figured I would need to hand-fly the plane for another 4.5 hours. A few minutes later, the squelch on the nav/com started to give me static. It was then I noticed that my ammeter showed a healthy discharge, and I had a problem.

I tried to contact ATC on my last assigned frequency, but no response. They were not hearing me. I was too low on transmission power. Ah, the transponder, high-power, low-current, pulse technology. Let’s try 7700 for a squawk code. It worked. ATC was calling me and by turning off their squelch, they could hear me as I explained my circumstances. Same circumstances and response occurred, as with my fire emergency. I received radar vectors for an approach to the nearest airport; this time, it was Columbus, Ga.

Here is where the thought process and knowing my aircraft came in handy, though I left my backup handheld radio in the luggage compartment.

I was navigating the ILS with what I knew was a very low battery and the fact that any unnecessary electrical load could cause an immediate loss of the radios. There was an immediate electrical load shed once I noticed I had no alternator, so I had to decide what was necessary equipment and what was not.

All lights were off: one nav/com radio and the transponder were all that remained on. I acknowledged all ATC communications using the ident button on the transponder. No voice transmissions on the nav/com.

How about the landing gear or flaps? That electrical load would kill the radio I was using for the ILS for sure. I was ready to make a gear-up landing if necessary, as the task of hand-flying the ILS in moderate turbulence and cranking down the gear by hand would be very difficult. There was no time to crank the gear down before intercepting the localizer, and should I have the gear down and needed to go missed with no navigation capability, I would not have the fuel to fly to VFR conditions where a landing could be made.

One missing bit of information was the weather at Columbus, Ga. Not wanting to take a chance of keying the transmitter, I did not ask. I got lucky on that one, as I broke out of the clouds at about 1,000 feet with several miles of visibility. I circled the airport while I cranked the gear down and landed with no flaps. Same situation as in San Jose, except I taxied to the FBO under my own power and signed a document for the fire department that followed me in.

In summarizing this situation, again “THANK YOU, ATC” for understanding my situation and for providing the necessary support for a safe landing.

It was interesting that after getting the airplane in the shop, we measured the battery voltage, which was 8.8 volts on a 12-volt battery. That old KX-175 nav/com never let go, which would not be true of many of our modern avionics today. That’s why that old KX-175 is still in my Bonanza today, as my backup.

Vacuum Pump Failure

Another situation which required the E-word dealt with loss of a vacuum pump in IMC while doing student training.


When an instrument student is ready, and the situation presents itself, I like them to fly actual approaches before taking the check-ride. This was one of those situations that just happened, and it presented a great time to give the student a chance to handle a real emergency, though it was not planned that way.

I have developed a technique of flying timed approaches, and even though this student had not gotten to the point of needle, ball and airspeed approaches, we needed to do it. Some would argue that they would not declare an emergency for this situation, but I like to get whatever help I can from ATC. Remember the word “GPS” had not been coined yet and was still a half-decade away.

Some tips I will share if you are ever needing to do a needle, ball and airspeed approach are as follows:
1. Select an approach to the east or west if possible, as the magnetic compass will amplify or dampen your heading changes while on a final approach course of north or south.
2. Make a long final approach, as it allows you time to fine tune your heading prior to increased needle sensitivity.
3. Make all turns standard rate and time every turn 3-degrees per second.
4. For small heading corrections 45 degrees or less, count out loud 45 degrees is 15 seconds.
5. For larger heading changes (on a course reversal), I use a digital timer or a clock with a sweep second hand.
6. Know and fly your airplane by the numbers.
7. Get a no-gyro approach from ATC where possible.

Our approach went as planned with a VOR A approach to Tri-County Regional Airport, Lone Rock, Wisc. (KLNR), and it was great to have ATC on hand should another problem have occurred.

After reading this article, many of you might wonder why we did not use the GPS or all  the great features on our ForeFlight App to assist us during these emergencies. What about the backup electrical system during the alternator failure? The answer is, it was not invented yet.

Today, the modern pilot has so many safety enhancements in his/her airplane that he/she thinks it could never happen to him. Wrong! A broken wire, a failed circuit breaker, or an internal short in a piece of avionics are all still possible.

When teaching instrument flying, I begin with the basics and then move to the sophistication of the equipment being flown. “Know your equipment well” keeps coming back to me from that old GADO inspector. And above all, don’t hesitate to use the E-word.

Safe flying – and I’ll see you next time.