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Insider Series: How Pilots Deal With In-Flight Emergencies

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New to our Insider Series (where travel-industry professionals write about their work under pseudonyms), TPG Contributor “Marty McFly,” a pilot for a major American airline, shares his thoughts on how pilots deal with emergencies in the air.

Training For Every Possible Situation

The vast majority of a pilot’s life in flight is spent watching corn fields, mountains and oceans fly by while doing mundane paperwork and making frequency changes as we pass from one air traffic control sector to another. We keep track of the weather, look for smooth air, monitor fuel burn levels and keep tabs on our projected arrival time all while trying to gather routing info to help shave a minute or two off the total flight time.

On very rare occasions, that routine is interrupted by an emergency-level malfunction — how pilots handle them is the result of a century of trial and error, human factors studies and a sharing of best practices within the industry.

We spend most of our time in training learning how to handle in-flight emergencies, focusing on aircraft systems so we can understand their normal and back-up operations and how they interact with each other. During simulator training, we learn how to keep flying despite system failures and the correct way to deal with everything from air pressurization issues to the one-in-a-billion chance of the plane losing all hydraulics. This training exposes us to various worst-case scenario situations so that in the event we actually encounter one, we’ll have the skills and confidence needed to handle it in a calm, professional manner — the goal is to get crew members to switch straight from initial shock to their flight training.

View from the cockpit. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
View from the cockpit. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Behind The Scenes: What Happens During An In-Flight Emergency

The first steps in any emergency situation are to silence the alarms going off in the cockpit — these alert pilots when a system fails but are extremely loud and can make communication in the cockpit difficult — and keep the plane flying. Thankfully, almost every warning system can be silenced or disabled. As this is happening, the pilot who is flying will make sure the auto-flight system is still functioning correctly or personally take over control of the aircraft if necessary.

Next, the pilots complete the appropriate checklist that corresponds with the malfunction. Some aircraft have checklists in paper flight manuals that pilots carry in their flight bags while many modern planes have electronic checklists which pop up on cockpit displays when the aircraft senses a malfunction. One pilot will read and complete the steps in the checklist while the other confirms that each step is being completed correctly. The pilots will then take a moment to assess what is and isn’t working and start calling people for additional assistance.

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Flight manual checklists, an important part of every pilot’s job. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The first call will be to air traffic control to declare a “Mayday.” Using “Mayday” will alert the air traffic controllers (ATCs) that the aircraft is in distress. In most cases the ATC then will give that crew’s requests priority over all other aircraft.

Next, the crew gets in touch with their company dispatcher. The dispatcher has a wealth of resources at his or her fingertips: Weather reports as well as information for every airport close to the aircraft and all resources available at those airports including runway lengths, equipment outages at the airport that may limit operations and crash-fire-rescue capabilities. In addition, the dispatcher can immediately contact the airline maintenance team and patch them through to the pilots to help troubleshoot the malfunction.

The dispatcher, airline maintenance team and pilots will then determine the appropriate landing distance for the aircraft (to make sure it has enough runway space) and analyze if the crew needs to jettison fuel in order to reduce its landing weight and be able to stop on the runway at their intended destination. Crews are trained to use all these resources, carefully consider their options and come up with the safest course of action to bring the flight to a successful stop.

Of course, there are always emergencies where the crew does not have time to complete all these steps and they need to revert to their experience and training to come up with the best plan of action on their own. Once pilots have a game plan, they will communicate with the flight attendants and bring them in the loop so they can take the necessary steps in the cabin to help prepare the passengers.

Fire handle light. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The fire handle light on an airplane. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Keep Calm and Carry On

I have only encountered two situations in more than 22 years of flying that have been considered an emergency. In each instance, when I reflected on the event, what impressed me most was how my fellow crew member and I were able to operate as if we had flown together for years in spite of the fact that we had never shared a cockpit before. That cockpit environment is a testament to the evolution of flight crew training over the last 30 years.

After the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) recommended that airlines address breakdowns in the cockpit between crew members that led to a number of high profile accidents in the late 70s and early 80s, Crew Resource Management (CRM) programs were developed to help train crew members on ways to manage stress, prioritize tasks, maintain situational awareness, solve problems and work as a team.

The value of this CRM training was highlighted in the 1989 crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. United Airlines was an industry leader in the development of CRM and many attribute the fact that anyone survived that accident to the incredible actions of the flight crew — and their teamwork — as they struggled to get their crippled jet to a runway.

Bottom Line

Successfully handling emergency situations requires the flight crew to employ all of their technical knowledge, flying skills and CRM tools at the highest level. That is ultimately what the pilots prepare for during every training event and what they mentally prepare for before every flight. Airlines spend millions of dollars a year on training programs and every pilot spends countless hours over their career preparing for the day they may have to handle an emergency. Most pilots go an entire career without one but they also know that, if that day ever comes, they will have all of the tools necessary to safely get the aircraft and passengers back on the ground.

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