It Can Happen


After over 8000 hours of general-aviation and airline flying, the other day I declared an emergency for the first time outside of training. It wasn’t that serious, but it was real and could eventually have become life threatening.

I’d just picked up my airplane from the avionics shop after three and a half months undergoing a major panel renovation with a dual-headed Garmin G500 TXi system, new GTN Xi navigators, and a lot of extensive related work. A couple days earlier I’d spent a few hours in the airplane on the ground reviewing things, checking configuration, and generally going over the work just completed. I’d then taken the plane up for my three take-offs and landings to regain lost currency. In the article on page 16 of this issue I introduce the project.

My wife (a pilot) accompanied me. We loaded up the airplane, got the weather and our clearance. Then I methodically made sure everything was set properly for the flight before calling for taxi. I was about as comfortable as I could be with the new equipment without having flown with it. After considerable time with Garmin’s TXi trainer, I knew how to accomplish what needed to be accomplished, how to see what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t yet fluid and smooth with it, instead requiring thought before every action.

We took off uneventfully and proceeded normally on our trip home. I was beginning to relax a bit and even feel slightly comfortable by the time we were climbing through FL 210, when…

BANG! HISSsss! Okay, that’s not normal. My brain recognized it as a sudden pressurization loss, likely from an air duct that popped loose. I’m a bit fuzzy about exactly what I did and how I did it, but I stopped the climb, reduced power for a descent, declared an emergency, and began a descent. We should, but don’t, keep oxygen masks handy at that altitude. Somewhere in there ATC offered a turn toward lower terrain because we were entering the foothills of some mountains that we were about to cross.

Now, with my airline and recurrent training, my reaction was to an immediate emergency. But, in reality, the “time of useful consciousness” at that altitude was conservatively over five minutes, so I needn’t have reacted with such urgency. Replaying things in my mind afterwards, I realized that instead of reacting with urgency as I did, I should have methodically thought it through then taken the necessary actions. Okay, lesson learned.

Before the panel upgrade, I’d planned and practiced for this. But things were different with all the new equipment. Interestingly, the procedure remains essentially unchanged, but I didn’t realize that when faced with the actual event. I reacted immediately, but it took a moment to get things sorted in my mind to properly initiate the descent. My wife commented later that she believed my actions were immediate and appropriate, but I can assure you there was considerable drama in my head.

Other than yet another “there I was” flying story, what’s the takeaway? Well, there are a couple things. You can’t practice your emergency procedures enough. Do it in your arm chair. Do it in the air. Do it in the sim. Then, do it some more. Of course, you also need to be sufficiently fluent with any new equipment that you can still handle emergencies.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here