Recent emergency landing in Mexico

Aircraft Emergencies: Tips From The Pilot

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Rabbitt Staib – Skydive Spaceland pilot with 14,000 hours’ flying for skydivers – talks about how to handle aircraft emergencies as passengers

If you’ve been paying attention at all lately to what’s happening around the world in skydiving, you’d know that the last few years have seen a handful (or two) of aircraft emergency landings. From California to Australia,  and places in between, skydiving aircraft have gone down in sometimes fatal, sometimes miraculously not, crash landings. 

While there may be speculation over why this is happening with specific aircraft, one thing that’s for certain, emergency landing procedures should be at the forefront of all of our minds. Read below to hear from Rabbitt from Skydive Spaceland on how best to handle emergency situations in an aircraft…

Seatbelts: some DZs say take them off at 1,000 feet, some say off at 1,500 feet, some don’t provide enough. What’s your take on this?

Seatbelts are used to restrain the occupant in the event of a crash (or severe turbulence).  The reason pilots (and DZ’s) keep them on till 1,000 to 1,500 feet is because, if there were an emergency after takeoff and before it’s safe to depart the plane, there will be a LOT going on for the pilot. Is this a ‘departing the plane’ emergency?  Is this just an altitude hold for other aircraft?  Are we going to return for a landing? (In which case the seatbelts need to be fastened in case of a hard or crash landing.) Note: For the skydivers, doing nothing is usually the best course of action until the pilot has some tasks completed.

The pilot has to determine the extent of the emergency – is it correctable or recoverable or disastrous? What is the best course of action to insure the safety of everyone on board? (Should we land with everyone seat-belted in? Do we have enough control to have some or all skydivers exit? Are we over a safe area to do that?) All this while still flying the plane, determining where the aircraft can safely go (Is that an antenna? Helicopter? Tree? House? MOUNTAIN?!), then communicating intentions to ATC, the ground, and finally to the eagerly-awaiting skydivers.

In the event of an emergency the pilot is very busy and the passengers are understandably anxious for answers (do we need to GTFO or put our seatbelts back on for a landing or crash?).  Having the seatbelts on during an emergency leaves everyone secured and maintains the CG/Load balance and ability of the pilot to control the plane. This helps the pilot find the safest place to put the plane down if necessary, hopefully at an airport, in a field or road.  You’ll notice the communication comes last in the task list.  The pilot’s priorities are: fly the plane first (including determining the extent of the emergency), navigate to a safe area (whether in the air or to get to the ground), then communicate to others.

Technically speaking, the seatbelt should stay on till you’re ready to depart the plane and deploy your reserve. (1,000 feet? 1,500 feet? 2,000 feet?) Most of the time skydivers are not thinking about an emergency (‘We have rigs on; if anything happens, we’ll just jump out and save ourselves’‘ … but this isn’t always the best course of action). They’re thinking, time to get our seatbelts off so we can open the door and get some fresh air.

We have to remember what the seatbelts are used for: to keep inertia (the movement of your mass) restrained in the event of a rapid deceleration (sudden stop). I’ve seen how long it takes people to put seatbelts on in a relaxed, controlled manner, while loading the plane.  Now add the anxiety of an emergency and the uncertainty of what to do next; keeping the seatbelts on takes out part of the complexity of the emergency. It is much easier and faster for everyone to remove a seatbelt if needed than to put one on.

In an emergency landing, should we have our seatbelts on or off?

I think I covered this in the previous question, but let me expand a little about when to put them on. Seatbelts on for taxi, take-off, and landing.
(FAR 91.107). Whenever the decision has been made to land, this will help with any movement in the plane.  There will be more turbulence on the way down due to increased speed of the plane.

Landing with the plane: weight towards the front of the aircraft, balanced across both sides, or does it matter?

When landing the plane, it’s a lot like taking off as far as loading.  An even distribution is always a safe bet.  If there needs to be something different, then the pilot will let you know.  As far as left and right side, that doesn’t matter as much as front to back.

In an emergency landing, what’s best: door open or door closed? 

The door should be closed on landing for the same reason we have the door closed for take-off.  In case of a loose pilot chute, or if there is a premature opening and the parachute goes out the door, there is danger. Not only for whoever is wearing the gear but danger to the whole plane if it takes out part of the aircraft (fuselage or tail).

If the door is open and the plane is above 1,500 feet and something extreme like fire or destruction happens, can we jump out? 

There’s a point where the pilot is not going to recover the plane, like getting hit by another plane and losing a wing or tail section.  At that point you’re just saving the lives of the people on board and then your own life.

Rabbit and co-pilot flying jumpers at Skydive Spaceland

Would a pilot be speaking to the jumpers on the aircraft during an emergency landing?

During an emergency the pilot would normally be talking to the person behind the co-pilot’s seat. This is why it’s important to have someone experienced who is able to communicate instructions from the pilot to the jumpers, and relay any messages back to the pilot.  During an emergency landing, like most landings, the pilots are going to be focused on the plane and not talking to people in the back unless it’s to make the landing safer.

What things do you want us to know or do after the plane comes to a rest after an unexpected landing?

The first thing to do is take stock.  Is there anyone injured that needs immediate help? Help them. Open the door (which door might depend on the safest egress.  It might not be the jump door. Help people out that may need assistance due to injury (taking care not to move people with back/neck injuries unless it’s life-threatening). Once outside, move away from the plane. Give aid to those that need it.

What is the proper brace position we skydivers should use in case of an emergency landing?

Maybe the best way to approach this is with some critical thinking.  There isn’t going to be any one procedure that will work with all planes and seating configurations. If we think about what might happen in the event of an emergency landing, unless something got seriously turned around at the last second, the chances that a sudden stop would force the momentum of the jumpers to the back of the plane would be slight at best.
Up and down: Seatbelts.

Deceleration toward the front of the plane.  Probably most likely (landing gear failure, off-airport landing, run into something).  Preparing for that kind of second impact (the one that stops YOUR momentum) would be the one to brace for.  That’s the thing to think about before you’re actually in an emergency. Typical training is everybody sit close, grab the rig in front of you, try to be close to the front of the plane/person behind you, brace.

Having seatbelts on will slow the crush in the front of the plane, so sitting close and moving to the front may not be the best choice.  Maybe keeping it loose, tightening seatbelts (so the shift on impact will be lessened) would help the person in the front of the plane from getting squished. Definitely in a sudden stop EVERYONE is going to keep moving forward toward the front of the plane till resistance is met either by seatbelt (preferred) or by another body or bulkhead.

Stay present on the plane ride and know your EPs for emergency landings

What kind of extensive training do you go through to be calm and confident in the face of an emergency?

There aren’t really any trials until there’s an actual emergency. However, knowing the plane, systems and emergency procedures allow us to troubleshoot on the fly.

How would the pilot communicate to the jumpers that they need to bail?

That’s back to the pilot communicating with the person that’s behind the co-pilot’s seat.  Instructions go to and from him/her.

What situations or altitude would jumpers bail from the airplane versus landing in the plane?

If the plane is flyable (not losing altitude or at the very least slowly losing altitude) and we are able to fly over a safe place to let the jumpers out, then that’s preferred. Getting everyone to the ground safely, whether by parachute or plane, is our main concern. There is a lot going on in the cockpit during an emergency and flying the plane is our main concern.  Anything that can help in that endeavor is only going to make our return to the planet safer. Read: stay calm, listen for instructions and relay pertinent information back to the pilot when he/she has time to process it, and staying seated till he/she is ready for a shift in center of gravity.

If there was damage to the plane and the pilot is correcting an instability by use of the controls an unexpected shift in the CG could make things worse.

Storytime: I was flying the Skyvan with some people not familiar with the plane.  When it came time to close the door for the climb to altitude the jumpers pushed the door past the stop, the wind caught it and bent it in half which caused a lot of nose-down attitude for the plane. The half-bent door was pushing on the air and forcing the nose down. There was room in the door for the jumpers to get out, but luckily for all of us, we had time to work out the best solution.  The normal thing would be to move everyone to the front of the plane and land it, but moving to the front would only have made things worse.  Getting out would have make things worse as well, but having the group move to the back of the plane and strapping in helped balance the nose-down force caused by the broken door.  We all landed safely, removed the door and continued to jump for the rest of the day.

Staying calm, assessing the situation and making a decision based on the circumstances was the best move in this emergency.

Spaceland legends and excellent pilots, Mr Boyd and Rabbit Staib
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Meet: Alethia Austin

Alethia is a passionate full time international angle and freefly coach. As the creator of LSD Bigway Camps and LSD Angle Camps, she's been running skills camps in skydiving for over 8 years around the world. Some of her coaching and LSD camps have taken her to Botswana, Egypt, Central America, North America, Europe and more. Alethia brings her years of yoga teaching, love of good health and healthy living into the way she coaches angle flying and vertical flying. Alethia was a regional captain for the Women's Vertical World Record and has two world records. Her sponsors include UPT, Tonfly, PD, Cypres and LB Altimeters.

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