Aircraft Emergencies: Working Together

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If there is an aircraft problem, the safety of everyone on the load depends on staying calm and working together

This article, by pilot and jumper Paul Hollow, raises some ‘what-ifs’. These are questions we should all answer now, to save wasting time and energy in an emergency, when it could cost lives.

Author & Pilot Paul Hollow

Last year, Skydive Hibaldstow increased the height that restraints should be worn until in the jump aircraft from 1,000ft to 2,000ft. The decision was not taken by a single person, it had been discussed at length by all senior staff members. We anticipated that people would have something to say on social media. What was surprising was the number of worryingly uninformed comments from jumpers, some reasonably experienced, imagining how they would deal with an aircraft emergency situation. I quote a few:

I’ve never understood the restraints. What are they supposed to do?”

If I’m by the door at 300ft and the engine quits I’m on my reserve

I’d rather be out the door ASAP and faffing around with a restraint isn’t going to help

This got me thinking. If people can’t, or choose not to, attend safety seminars that may be run by their DZ, aircraft emergencies may never be discussed with many jumpers after their initial ground school. Let’s be fair, we don’t have time to discuss detailed aircraft emergency situations with first-jump students. Hence this article.

Skydivers trust each other and look out for each other all the time – we trust each other during flight-line and pre-jump checks, we trust each other to do what we say we’re going to do in the air, we trust each other under canopy, on approach and on the landing area. We trust each other to look out for dislodged handles, flaps, pins, pilot chutes in the aircraft. But we also need to be able to trust each other, and the pilot, in an aircraft emergency – we need to know what everyone else will do. So, you need to have a plan for what YOU will do.

On the occasions that I coach newly qualified A-licence jumpers, I’ll nudge them at around 2,500ft and ask, “Considering you’re not a student any more, if we have an aircraft emergency right now, what are you going to do?” Everyone hesitates, thinks for a while, and then comes up with some kind of answer. But the point is, they should have already thought about it. We should all think through possible scenarios so we don’t waste time and hesitate if we really find ourselves in an emergency.

Cessna Caravan crash

What do we need to think about in advance? 

Here’s some pointers on things to think about. It’s not exhaustive. You need to be brutally honest with yourself about your abilities, knowledge of your own equipment and previous experiences and training.

  • How confident are you about getting out, getting stable and deploying stable? Be honest. When was the last time you even did a stable hop-n-pop exit? How did it go?
  • How does your main deploy at sub-terminal? Have you ever deployed your current main canopy at sub-terminal speeds?
  • What kind of aircraft are you jumping? Specifically, is it a single-engine or multi-engine?
  • Are you familiar with this aircraft and this door? Are you better at a dive exit, poised exit or seated exit? 
  • Do you know at what heights and speeds your AAD will fire? How might that information, in combination with the questions above, affect your decision about whether to use your main canopy or go straight for your the reserve? Better think now than when you are under stress and contemplating an exit at low altitude. Is your main likely to snivel its opening through your AAD firing height?
  • How low is too low? What is the absolute lowest that you would consider getting out of an aircraft? (Seriously, no bravado!) What is the lowest you have ever exited – when you were calm and prepared in advance to do so?
  • What is the lowest you would consider getting out on your main? What is the lowest you would consider getting out on your reserve? Taking the above into consideration, under what scenarios?

The answers you give to those questions will vary with experience and will change over time as you gain experience and change kit. Everybody should review those questions at the start of a jumping season (when you’re uncurrent), half way through a jumping season, and whenever you change any equipment, jump a different aircraft, or jump at a different DZ. Be honest with yourself and fix your hard heights while you have the mental capacity to do so! Discuss your answers and your reasoning with some of the senior instructors at your DZ, they may be able to add something that you have not considered.

A twin-engined aircraft like this G92 Dornier will have more options than a single engined aircraft in the event an engine failure. Photo by Sandy Spence.

But what will REALLY happen during an aircraft emergency?

Personally, I have only ever been involved in one serious aircraft emergency (and none as the pilot!). I was filming a tandem, many years ago, from a small 5-place piston-engined aircraft when we entered cloud at around 9,000ft or so on the jump run. I aborted the drop and told the pilot to descend, but, soon after, control of the aircraft was lost while still in cloud and we entered a spin. I was pinned to the floor, then pinned to the wall opposite the door. I had a heavy camera helmet on and could barely lift my head! I always thought that, in the event of an aircraft emergency, I’d just open the door and jump out. In reality, I couldn’t even move to the door, let alone open it or get out the plane. And I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to do once I was outside the ‘plane!

There are so many situations we could find ourselves in, it is impossible to consider them all in this article. But there is one thing that will happen in every aircraft emergency, and this is the first thing you will have to overcome – the ‘Startle Factor’.

The “Startle Factor”

Skybrary defines the Startle Factor as:

“The startle response, which in professional circles is also referred to as amygdala (or limbic) hijack, is the physical and mental response to a sudden intense and unexpected stimulus. This physiological reaction, which is most commonly known as the “fight or flight” reflex, will occur in response to what may be perceived as a harmful event: an attack, a threat to survival, or more simply, to fear itself. The fight or flight response enables us to react with appropriate action: to run away, to fight, or sometimes, to freeze to be a less visible target. In some circumstances, it can also lead to actions inappropriate for the situation.”

Nobody ever expects things to go wrong. And when they do, you never know what the situation will be. It’s that time where your pulse quickens, blood pressure rises and coronary arteries dilate to increase blood supply to the brain, limbs and muscles. Your depth and rate of breathing increase to supply extra oxygen to the body. The liver releases additional sugar for energy while the adrenal glands release adrenaline. Your muscles tense in readiness for action and sweat production increases to cool the body and brain activity switches from reasoned thinking to instinctive actions. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck. You know the feeling.

While all that happens, you lose the ability to creatively diagnose, analyse and decide on a course of action for your situation. The duration of that impairment has been studied and can last 30-60 seconds, even for mundane tasks like simple arithmetic (longer for more complex situations and tasks). It will take you some time to realise what has actually happened, then to understand your current situation and finally, to make a reasoned decision. Then you still need time to carry out that decision. And we haven’t considered what other people may, or may not, be doing around you.

That is why the questions, discussed above, are so important – make your decisions ahead of time while you can think things through. As part of initial and recurrent commercial airline flight training, the Startle Factor is taught and considered in many emergency situations and Recall (or Memory) Items are introduced and practised repeatedly – these Recall Items enable initial actions to be completed without the need to think too much, giving the pilots time to calm down and assess the situation whilst completing initial actions. Skydivers can do the same by making some basic decisions ahead of time. More of this later.

What will the pilot be doing?

Initially, the pilot will be just as startled as you! He/she will be trying to comprehend what has just happened, what the current situation is and the correct action. 

During this time, everything else needs to remain largely constant – jumpers need to sit still, to avoid large centre of gravity changes in the aircraft, as the pilot gets things under control. There will rarely be a need to exit immediately, unless there is massive structural failure. The pilot may also have some recall items (initial pre-defined actions required by the situation) to complete, depending on the emergency, and jumpers should also be aware of the kind of workload the pilot is likely to have in some scenarios.

In the airlines, once the aircraft is under control and the initial recall items are complete, this would be our TDODAR moment –

  • Time (is this failure time critical?)
  • Diagnose (what has happened and what is our current status?)
  • Options (what options do I have, what could I do to deal with this?)
  • Decision (having weighed up all options, what am I going to do?)
  • Actions (what actions need to be completed?)
  • Review (review of everything – are we taking the right actions? What is our status now?)

So, the pilot will be fairly busy before they can even think about talking to the jumpers or jumpmaster but you can be thinking through the same items – what has happened, what are my options, what do I need to do and how much time do I have to do it?

Consider an Engine Failure

An engine failure is probably the thing we all dread the most, other than structural failure. In the event of an engine failure, pilots will have recall items to complete to either try and restart the engine or to shut it down and secure it. But the first thing the pilot will do is to continue to fly and control the aircraft – and the only thing that keeps an aircraft flying is airspeed. Air flow over the wings creates lift and keeps the aircraft flying, or, at least, stops it immediately stalling and dropping out of the sky. How do we maintain airspeed in the event of an engine failure? The pilot will lower the nose and accelerate, possibly even into a descent. Given the startle factor, we can reasonably expect the pilot to slightly over-react with this before they are then able to refine the aircraft speed. As the airspeed increases and the elevator changes position (relative to the door), this is not the time to be jumping out! Increased airspeed and a changing relative elevator position increases the risk of a tail strike and you don’t want that!

In a single-engine aircraft (your typical Cessna Caravan, for example) you are now descending, probably at around 600-700 feet per minute, possibly faster. A loss of power in a Cessna Caravan during a nose-high climb attitude will also require quite a sharp push from the pilot to nose the aircraft down and prevent it from “mushing” out of the sky – that will feel quite uncomfortable to those of you sitting in the rear of the aircraft.

In a multi-engine aircraft (say, a Dornier, Twin Otter or Beech 99) you might still be climbing on one engine, but at a much reduced rate and with the pilot having to contend with asymmetric control issues. Even if the twin-engine aircraft only holds altitude, or at least descends slowly, it gives the jumpers more time to communicate and more time to make a reasoned decision.

While you are dealing with your own Startle Factor, trying to figure out what the hell is going on and then trying to make a sensible decision, you are most probably still descending, losing altitude all the time. And we haven’t even thought about making it back to the DZ yet. Do you know where you are in relation to the DZ? Are there hazardous landing areas below you? Do you remember which way the wind is blowing – do you have the confidence to land off the DZ after an aircraft emergency, possibly on the reserve canopy that you’ve never jumped before?

Jumpers during an emergency landing

Why did Hibaldstow increase their restraint safety altitude to 2,000 feet?

Skydivers, and skydiving regulatory bodies, can arguably be slow at reassessing rules, regulations and procedures as equipment, and equipment usage, changes with time. All countries are still grappling with the best ways to teach, educate and regulate the ever-evolving range of canopies that jumpers are using now. But few people have considered changes to the type (and size) of aircraft we are using.

It wasn’t long ago (well, 25 years ago, I’m getting old!) that most skydiving aircraft were something of the size of a Cessna 182, 206 or PA32 Cherokee 6 – all of which took pilot plus 4 or 5 jumpers. If you were at a big DZ, you possibly had something like an Islander, taking 9 jumpers. But times move on, larger turbine aircraft became more popular and the jumpship of choice is now the ubiquitous Cessna Caravan, usually taking 15-18 jumpers. It doesn’t take long for 4 or 5 people to get out of a small Cessna 206 or similar, but it takes a lot, lot, longer for 17 or more people to get out of a Caravan!

Canopies are now, generally, much more responsive, and higher performance than they were a few years ago, which makes them ‘twitchier’ and more reliant on a good solid deployment position. Many take much longer to open, too – requiring more altitude until you are under a fully developed and controllable canopy.

And, of course, very few people are used to getting out the aircraft at anything other than full altitude. Most skydivers do not practise hop-n-pop exits and most will never have exited an aircraft lower than 5,000ft for their AFF Level 8. Or even at that altitude since their Level 8. I always giggle to myself as I watch canopy course students make poor exits from 7,000ft – and that is a controlled situation from a stable aircraft and a planned exit!!

Should you be unfortunate enough to experience an engine failure, the aircraft will be descending while jumpers 

  1. contend with the startle factor and realise what is happening, 
  2. decide what they’re going to do, 
  3. possibly start to exit the aircraft. 

If the aircraft is descending at 600 feet per minute (not unreasonable, but it’ll probably be faster than that), then it is descending at 10 feet per SECOND. If it takes 5 seconds between jumpers to exit (each jumper takes time to set up before leaving, but also doesn’t want to open too close to the jumper before), then it takes 75 seconds (that’s a whole 1 minute 15 seconds) for 15 jumpers to exit – a difference of 750 feet between the first and the last. And that’s assuming everything is orderly – nobody hesitates, nobody decides they don’t want to jump and creates a bottleneck for those behind them, there is no delay in starting to exit and the aircraft is flown very well.

Given the above, it is unlikely if anyone will even start to exit the aircraft from an altitude as low as 2,000ft – by the time something has gone wrong, you’ve realised, and opened the door then you are already well below that height. Which means that almost everyone else is committed to remain on board for a forced landing. Now, jumpers need to get a restraint clipped on again in the remaining time before that forced landing – if you had already taken it off at 1,000ft (as per the previous restraint safety height) you now have to find it again and reattach it – and everyone knows how long it takes to get all jumpers clipped in before a normal take-off!

So, the requirement at Skydive Hibaldstow is now to keep your safety restraint on until 2,000ft – being realistic about the chances of people getting out lower than that and the consequences for those who have not.

Other dropzones in Europe have also raised their restraint altitudes, with several in Poland raising theirs to 500-600m (1,600-1,950ft). In the US, many dropzones use 1,500 feet as their restraints-off altitude. Wherever you’re jumping, be aware of the local procedures and talk to the senior instructors for the reasoning.

The Twin Otter crash, Perris 1992, that killed most of the occupants

Why do we wear restraints for take-off and landing?

Amongst the comments on social media were several asking why we bother to use restraints, or saying that they would not choose to wear one in the event of a forced landing.

On 22nd April 1992, a Twin Otter took off at Skydive Perris. Onboard were 2 pilots and 20 skydivers, including World Champion Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld (Dan BC). Shortly after take-off the right engine lost power and the aircraft crashed (the NTSB report can be found here). None of the skydivers had restraints on – they were not fitted to the aircraft. Both pilots died, 14 of the skydivers were killed and the other 6 had multiple serious injuries – Dan BC was in a coma for 6 weeks afterwards and also suffered a broken neck. The NTSB found that the impact force should have been survivable for many of the skydivers on board and made some recommendations, among others, that suitable restraints be fitted to provide “an adequate level of crash energy absorption in the event of a survivable aircraft accident”.

Restraints are worn for both take-off and landing in case of a forced (and possibly heavy) landing. A crash landing, if you will. In the event of things coming to a sudden stop, a large cabin gives plenty of room for any unsecured items, including people, to be thrown around – hitting those sitting behind, with multiple injuries to many people as a result. Restraints limit the amount of possible movement in such a situation, therefore limiting further possible injuries. It is not just common courtesy, it is also a regulatory requirement for you to do so.

When loading the aircraft, ensure you pick up the correct safety restraint. The easy way to do this is to identify and pick up your restraint BEFORE you turn around and sit down. It’s far easier than sitting down, having somebody else sit in front of you and then scrabbling around with your hand to try and pick up something that feels like a restraint.

First Hand Accounts

British Skydiving’s Skydive The Mag ran a great article written by Liam Domin-Goddard. He was on board a Cessna Caravan that suffered an engine failure shortly after take-off and made a forced landing into a nearby field. Everybody survived with no serious injuries and Liam describes how important it was for everyone to have had restraints attached. His article can be found in the August 21 edition here.

Another first-hand account of an aircraft emergency and subsequent crash in a skydiving aircraft can be found on Skydive Mag here and is definitely worth a read – particularly the section entitled “Seatbelts save lives”.

Everyone was ok!

What should we do during an aircraft emergency?

Initially – NOTHING AT ALL. Sit still, be quiet – look around and listen, gather information about what might have happened. Check your altimeter and look out the window – what height are we at and where are we? Think back to your pre-decided emergency altitudes – using those, decide if you may get out using your main, your reserve, or you will opt to stay in the aircraft.

Sitting still and not moving around prevents centre of gravity changes, helping the pilot keep the aircraft in a properly trimmed state. This lowers their workload and, if it doesn’t need to be constantly retrimmed, helps the aircraft fly efficiently.

Remaining quiet prevents distractions for the pilot, the jumpmaster and everyone else – it helps people think. The last thing we need is people shouting at each other – the jumpmaster is responsible for your safety, the pilot is responsible for the aircraft and everyone in it, so give them time to think, time to talk to each other and then obey their instructions.

Prepare for all eventualities. Put your helmet and goggles on, check your handles and pads and give yourself a quick pre-jump check. If you still have your safety restraint on, leave it on for now but be prepared to take it off. If you have already taken your restraint off, find it again and be prepared to put it back on. If you are sitting next to the door, try and open it (at least partially) in readiness for a possible exit, or in case the fuselage buckles in the event of a forced landing and prevents you opening the door later. Those sitting to the rear of the aircraft should be able to do that with their safety restraints attached. If you can, consult with the jumpmaster and pilot before opening the door, but this may not always be possible.

Once the pilot, and then the jumpmaster, have issued their instructions, follow them. Remember that the pilot is in charge of the aircraft, the jumpmaster is in charge of you and now is not the time for people to make independent decisions or to start a “should we/shouldn’t we?” discussion. You are either getting out or staying in. If you’re staying in, clip your restraint on and adopt the aircraft brace position. If you’re getting out, hopefully you have already made your decision about which canopy to use and what kind of an exit you intend to make.

If you exit the aircraft, give yourself a second or two delay before throwing that pilot chute – it will help you remain stable for the deployment, ensure that you are away from the aircraft elevator (ie. you won’t get hung up on the aircraft itself) and the extra airspeed will help your canopy deploy and inflate. As soon as you are under canopy check your airspace and prepare to make an avoidance turn if any other canopies are close to you – remember that everyone is getting out in quick succession. Once clear of other canopies, look for a landing area (including overshoot and undershoot areas), landing hazards and anything to indicate wind direction – you did remember to reference the position of the sun to the wind direction before you took off, didn’t you?

If you remain in the aircraft for a forced landing, stay in the braced position throughout and ensure you are clipped in – you don’t want to be bouncing around the inside of the cabin. Once landed and stopped, unclip yourself. If you are having trouble unclipping your restraint, you may be carrying a safety knife that could be used to cut the restraint, if necessary. Once unclipped, exit the aircraft as soon as you can, run past the tail of the aircraft and to a suitable distance away.

The YouTube video of the Caravan forced landing at Lodi, California, in 2016 makes for interesting viewing (below). As people exit the aircraft after the forced landing, the person filming can be heard informing those still inside that there is no fire. He then starts to ensure that everybody is accounted for and begins to marshal people away from the immediate area. It shows an initially good landing which then ends in confusion inside the cabin as the aircraft flips when it comes to a halt.

Whatever happens, look after each other. The pilot and jumpmaster should both know how many people are on board, and everybody should be accounted for – although, this is not to suggest that you should return to the scene of a forced landing, keep yourself safe! Attempt to let the DZ know where you are and the condition of everybody on board. “What Three Words” is a great App to describe your location.

In conclusion 

Please think about your personal altitude limits in the event of an aircraft emergency. Be realistic and cut the bravado – what is the lowest you would really get out on your main canopy? What is the lowest you would get out on your reserve? What actions would you take if you’re preparing to remain on board for a forced landing?

Remember, everybody has a duty of care to look after each other (including the pilot), and you have a personal responsibility to consider the effects of your actions on everyone else and the controllability of the aircraft. Understand what may happen during an aircraft emergency, and consider what the pilot may have to do to maintain control before any other decisions can be made. Understand your equipment and its limitations, and, above all, be realistic about your own experience, skills and abilities.

If you are the jumpmaster, take your responsibilities seriously. Have a plan, make sure everybody knows you are the jumpmaster and sit in a position where you can execute your duties, should you have to. If you choose to delegate your responsibilities near the door, ensure that somebody else, suitably qualified, experienced and trustworthy, is nominated.

Much more can be written about this subject, and many more people could contribute further information about their own experiences and ideas. There are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to emergency situations. However, taking the time to realistically think this through before the event may save your life and the lives of those around you. At least take the time to think it through for yourself before you ever have to experience it for yourself.

Author Paul Hollow

This article was written by pilot and jumper Paul Hollow (“H’), he is grateful for the assistance, review and contributions from:

  • Gareth Thomas, Skydive Langar
  • Noel Purcell, Skydive Hibaldstow
  • Gerwyn Watkins, Skydive Chatteris
  • Jakub Langowsky, Sky Force Polskie Centrum Spadochronowe
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Meet: Paul Hollow

Paul Hollow (or “H”) is a skydiver driver and commercial pilot with 7,500+ hours flight time (of which 4,500 hours are dropping jumpers), currently flying the Boeing 757 and 767 for a job and the Dornier DO28-G92 and Cessna Caravan for a hobby at Skydive Hibaldstow. With over 9,000 jumps over the past 27 years, he is also a current Instructor Examiner, Advanced Instructor, AFF and Tandem Instructor and previous Chief Instructor at Skydive Hibaldstow.

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