Practicing Emergencies With Flight Simulators

Failures, Dangerous Situations, and Uncomfortable Scenarios 

Whether it’s an instantaneous failure, a troubling situation that gradually worsens, or an uncomfortable scenario we’ve found ourselves in, they all have something in common – they rarely happen… However if they occur, the outcomes can be severe if you are not prepared. 

So how do you prepare for these rare but potentially fatal events? Do you cut the mixture after taking off to see if you can make it back to the runway? Or intentionally exceed your personal minimums with weather to see if you can do it? Obviously not. However, there is a solution where you can practice various emergencies that increase your skill but don't compromise safety - using a flight simulator. Imagine if you could perform any emergency checklist by heart, or at least with very good flows, and back it up with the appropriate checklist on a simulator. You would certainly be more prepared if one of these rare instances required you to make the most important landing of your life.

A home flight simulator

Instantaneous Failures 

Certain instantaneous failures can happen when flying, requiring you to do something reasonably quickly without hesitation. What gets us into trouble during these instances is that we aren’t familiar with them, and our reaction is either freaking out or doing absolutely nothing – which are two of the worst responses to have. We’ve probably all heard the old saying when asked by your instructor, “What’s the first thing you do when you lose your engine?” and you say, “pitch for airspeed”.  The instructor smacks your hand and exclaims, “Wrong!  You take a sip of your coffee.” Well, the instructor has a point in this scenario.

We may end up making things worse if we react without thinking. So the best thing to do is handle every emergency situation with a cool head, and the best way to do that is to practice for them. That way, you're always ready, even if you don’t see it coming. That being said, not only do you have to stay calm, but it’s important to react appropriately and immediately, as time may not be on your side. 

It’s extremely rare for our engine to fail after take-off, but if it does, you don’t have time to think, “can I turn back to the runway.” In that example, you MUST do something right away, in fact, you should have been on your toes waiting for it to happen, just as you should always be looking for the best spot to land in any phase of flight. But it can be hard to train ourselves to always be waiting for the engine to fail, especially after a couple of thousand takeoffs with no issues. Also, there is no way to practice this in the airplane like in other emergencies. So that’s why holding yourself accountable to practice emergencies on a more frequent schedule than your currency requires might save your life one day, and it’s easy to do in the comfort of your own home on a flight simulator.

Here are other instantaneous failures to practice on your home flight simulator - 

  • System failures - pitot static failure or vacuum failure. 
  • Engine failure at takeoff
  • Engine failure during cruise
  • Electrical failure (loss of battery)

By practicing failures in a simulator you can learn to recognize situations as they would occur in a real-life failure, where failures aren't often immediately noticeable. You can choose whether to trigger a failure immediately or choose to trigger the failure somewhat randomly at a certain altitude or time

Dangerous Situations That Gradually Happen

Though many unfortunate factors can result in aviation accidents, an aircraft's greatest threats are ice, fog, wind shear, and rapidly changing wind currents. Checking the weather is a prerequisite for flying. While no one would purposely put themselves in a precarious situation, sometimes things gradually happen and sneak up – either you don’t notice or aren’t looking out for them.

Here are a few things that can perpetually get worse and ultimately result in an emergency - 

  • Icing encounter / buildup pitot / static blockage
  • Fuel imbalance
  • Oil pump failure (slow oil pressure loss)
  • Fuel exhaustion
  • “Skud running” 
  • Alternator failure 

It is absolutely invaluable to have trained for all of the various altimetry icing situations on a simulator and be able to diagnose what part of the pitot-static system has been affected. You should also train for the best way to navigate out of the icing conditions. Ask yourself, is it always a good idea to descend if you’re getting any type of icing, or is there a situation where it is best to climb? 

Another example is fuel exhaustion. An NTSB report from August 2017 titled “Flying on Empty.” (Safety Alert SA 067),Fuel exhaustion accounted for 56% of fuel-related accidents while fuel starvation was responsible for 35% of these accidents.” Sometimes pilots aren’t paying attention and/or forget to switch the tanks, which obviously can result in a critical emergency. This can happen more often than you think, and it’s because those pilots don’t routinely check or monitor their fuel. Taking longer flights in a simulator that forces you to switch between tanks will ultimately be ingrained in your head after drilling it so many times. 

Non-Comfort Zone Scenarios 

Being pilots, we often find ourselves in uncomfortable situations, sometimes more often than we’d like. Whether that’s getting out of the airport at 6pm when we wanted to leave at 3 pm and now we’re flying at night with a strong headwind that we didn’t anticipate. To help build confidence in this scenario, you should practice night flying and be more comfortable with your instruments. A non-life-threatening situation but still uncomfortable scenario is talking with ATC when visiting a large airport. If you’re not used to landing in one part of the airport and then taxiing to another area on a highly trafficked tarmac, then we suggest pairing one of our audio panels with Pilot Edge to practice that communication. 

Here are some examples of uncomfortable situations to practice in your flight simulator - 

  • Flight extends into the night
  • Inadvertent flight into clouds (non-IFR rated pilot) “VFR into IMC”
  • Unexpected high crosswinds at the destination
  • Complex taxi at a large airport
  • Full in-flight reroute for IFR clearance

Home Flight Simulator on a desk

Your Body During An Aircraft Emergency

In the presence of a threat or dangerous situation, our heart rate and breathing increase, and our bloodstream is flooded with hormones that send our body into a freeze, fight, or flight response. The question is, will this yield success or failure? It all depends on how well-prepared you are at that time. 

Even after you practice these on a flight simulator, you will not have the same physiological response when that emergency happens. But this time, you will be ready because you’ve re-created those situations and know what to do, which ultimately puts you (and your passengers) in a safer environment. 

So, set up scenarios where things happen randomly. Many of us who already hold our PPL don’t have instructors to give us these scenarios to practice. A simulator can help with that, and the best part is you can practice it over and over and over again, until you get it right.