Understanding the 'Instinct' Phenomenon - Response to Looming Disaster


Critical options in landing successfully after engine failure...shortly after take-off, are reliant mainly on 'feel-instinct' developed by hard training lessons!! My aim is to try and define this term so often used...and now in the flying context in my writing of this article find it has slowly evolved!!

Recent focus on the fine line between landing straight ahead or turning back shortly after take-off needs serious consideration as outlined in Flightline Weekly’s recent and mind-searching article.

There are only a few options influencing what will always be a split second and probably life-saving decision…One's that obviously count greatly in favour of survival will be your height above ground, air speed & speed of action at the onset of engine failure ...remembering, that no matter how experienced or cool you may be.....the realisation that power is suddenly and unexpectedly lost on take-off, will undoubtedly be an incomprehensible shock being close to terra-firma!! Not to mention exacerbating the problem by adding low visibility, as at night, or in handling a twin in this dire situation!!

Concerted effort in observing airfield surrounds on arrival and quizzing local ATC and fellow-aviators before T/O, as part of pre-flight planning as the author suggests, would keep one mindful of possible action to take until a safe and option-favouring altitude is reached. Thinking back to my 'instinctive' response in successfully landing safely from a low-level engine seizure, I concluded that by defining what this 'instinct' really is, becomes part of what this article is really about...from my point of view!!

During my significant Harvard, ab-initio SAAF flying year at FTS Dunnottar, profound words of our wily CFI, Kmdt Peter Letley were drummed into our young heads...."Never be embarrassed by snide remarks when being faced with a tricky landing off a lousy glide slope!!" (not in quite the same words)...and furthermore that. "Flying is dangerous, rather go around again and adjust accordingly!!" In the same vein he made us pupil pilots appreciate the need in no uncertain terms, to be aware of surrounds, personal and a/c limitations and at all times during flight...spotting en-route, possible escape routes and landing-site options!! He also emphasised the importance of studying, knowing and practising emergency procedures off-pat. His words stuck and have prompted me to share the resultant influence of his wise teaching and guidance in coping with my emergency landing two years later!! I'm hoping my story will emphasise the authors wake-up call to the critical choices and recovery from possible engine failure soon after take-off, that you may one day be faced with!!

During further training during our 1 Sqn Sabre conversion course in 1969 whilst practising 500' touch & go landings at AFB Pietersburg, I experienced engine seizure climbing through cross-wind at approx. 300'....a description of which comes further on into this article.

There's more to being prepared for handling an emergency at short notice whilst practising at altitude than in reality, devoid of realistic threat. The difference, I feel between robust military-style training, which is designed to satisfy effectively, the needs of operational requirements by flying the a/c to its limits and civilian flight, is that parameters in the civilian flying context, are less challenging.

A lot can be said for aerobatic and formation flying when one rarely glances at instruments and controls .So the more willing your instructor is to take the a/c closer to what might be a surprise one day, the better... always with the comfort in knowing that the engine's in idle mode and power is just a throttle move away. To master this during civilian flying, early emphasis on training (initially at appropriate height) encompassing full familiarity of the aircraft with regards to operating controls by 'feel' in such manoeuvres as recovery from stalls, spins and unusual positions and especially in simulated or actual IFR when most inexperienced pilots suffer the deadly spatial disorientation syndrome...in not achieving the mindset required for flying in IMC conditions. Confidence gained will lead to quicker and positive response in flying by 'feel-instinct' , when most attention should be paid in VFR as well, to what's going on outside the cockpit in critical situations when reaction time is of the essence.

I'm relating specifically to this 'feel' with regards to my handling of engine seizure by what one could refer to as 'instinctive' response...but which is really I've reasoned, an accumulation of lessons well practised which lead to a complete feel for the a/c's performance and response in executing recovery from such abnormal flying behaviour of your a/c as in sudden loss of power especially at low level, with minimal or no reference in this case, to the instrument panel or controls!!

So back to my Sabre 'touch & go' experience off runway 05 ...on a left-hand circuit climbing through approx. 300'...when with sudden, severe engine shudder all power was lost!! ...I instantly & instinctively yanked the Sabre into a left dive aimed at a touch down point midway along the cross runway 19 which I felt would be doable, focusing only on the job at hand whilst simultaneously and by 'feel’, chopping throttle, activating speed brakes, extending full flap and lowering u/c ...probably taking no more than 2 secs!! You've got to stick to your immediate decision and not deviate from plan by being distracted...there is simply no time to waste in trying to evaluate!!

Then at critical point of commitment, approx. 5 secs since taking drastic action...concentration on the landing spot aimed for, was the sole priority now, approaching at a possible 50knots above the usual 110 knots touch-down speed. In sensing that speed was still in excess of need...the left hand aileron dive necessitated counter right rudder input to initiate a side-slip to increase rate of descent which stemmed from an automatic input developed through extreme need for use in various operational sorties. By now, 2 secs on... levelling off and flaring was in serious need for touch-down at the middle marker of the runway in an attempt, at all costs, not to overshoot into the catch net the sharp ATC had already deployed. During this limited time span, I hadn't thought to answer them!! Still floating ...with a tail wind not helping matters, I forced her down onto the runway, standing firmly on the multi-disc brakes. Wow. Did they respond well… with both main tyres bursting in quick succession and coming to a smoking-rubber stop… 30m from that dreaded net!!

In conclusion...One would need to quickly consider immediately, what's best? Wheels up or not.... Landing on an extended line into a cultivated or donga riddled or developed area ahead with the possibility of cartwheeling the kite into a mangled mess or returning to the airfield. Height above ground will determine this!! If straight ahead landing is the only option aim for any sort of clearing or reachable road or park ...with wheels up, if not fixed. Do not stall the kite in your attempt!!!

My saving grace on that challenging day, was having sufficient speed off a touch & go landing, proximity to the airfield and wind direction in my favour. It would have been a very different and dangerous scenario if the prevailing wind required take-off using the reciprocal runway 23, taking me over built up areas instead as was faced, sadly, by one of our instructors a few months later in his attempt to eject near the ground. May he RIP!!

If height and speed allow, maybe turning back onto groomed areas of airfield grounds or taxi-ways ,with help close at hand, may not be a bad idea after all!! My suggestion is to simulate both though, as realistically feasible, alerting your mind to the pitfalls of each!!

#Sabre #AviationSaftey

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