Distress [Noun, -]: n. A condition of being threatened by grave and imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance.

Hello my friends,

Another week, another article. I hope you are all doing fine.

In my last article, I was talking to you about how important it is for pilots to be as direct as possible in the way they communicate with ATC, and even more so in emergency or near-emergency situations. If you read the previous article, you will have understood that there is nothing wrong about saying when something is not right. It can save your passengers, yourself, people on the ground, and your aircraft from a lot of trouble.

And today, I propose to look into one particular situation when it did go right. When the pilot did “the right stuff”. Chuck it out for yourself 🙂

So here we are, on a late summer day, close to noon, and our pilot today is a student who has already flown solo time in the aerodrome circuit, performed a few touch-and-goes and a first solo navigation, and is heading out to the aircraft for a second solo cross-country flight.

The weather looks OK, the goal of the exercise is to fly outside controlled airspace for about 45 minutes, and then come back to land at the aerodrome of departure. It will not be a first time of anything today, and the prospect of flying solo is, as usual, exciting, and a bit scary at the same time, but reasonably nothing to be troubled about.

Of course, the empty seat on the right is always there in the thought of our pilot. It certainly makes life easier in that small airplane, to have room to put things without having to cram them into the last cubic inch of available space.

So, as usual, the pilot stops by at the weather office, and receives good information from the meteorologist that the forecast is just OK, but should stay so for the intended duration of the flight. There are clouds, yes, but nothing so low as to create trouble for the moment.

The walk-around is pretty standard, and all seems to be in order for the flight, so our pilot jumps into the Cessna 150 and prepares the cockpit. Naturally, the aircraft is in good flying order, albeit being quite past its prime youth. There are a few known minor issues, the radios are a bit dingy and the fuel gauges are not very trustworthy, but it is a safe aircraft to fly, so the decision to carry on with the flight is made.

After an uneventful taxi-out, the pilot contacts the tower, lines-up on the usual runway, and takes off. For those of you who have at least been through their first solo flight, you will know what I mean when I tell you that the take-off roll and initial climb is exhilarating, as ever. I am sure you also felt like a fighter pilot when your rusty little aircraft all of a sudden increased its performance dramatically without the weight of the instructor, didn’t you? (Note to flight instructors: I am not calling anybody heavy or fat. It is simple physics – no offense)

So, back to our flight. Everything seems to be doing OK, until a repetitive “clonking-banging-thunking” noise starts. Not OK.

Very. Not. OK.

Not OK at all.

For the first time, our pilot feels very bad, very quickly. Thousands of things are being analyzed mentally. Where could the noise possibly come from?

Oh, but wait. Outside is another problem. The weatherman had promised high clouds, and, it looks like they are now coming down quickly, to a point that, although on a regular downwind, the pilot becomes concerned with losing visual contact with the runway. And I am not talking about a 600-metre long, 15-metre wide random patch of grass in the middle of other patches of grass. I am talking about your big-buzz 2500×45 meters of beautiful black asphalt. The unmissable sort. The kind of runway that, if you stop seeing, you know you are in trouble.

Let’s make a quick assessment of our situation: the pilot has very good reasons to be concerned about the weather, about remaining in control of the navigation, and, of course about the condition of the aircraft. And NOW, that right seat looks way too empty. An instructor would clearly not have been superfluous, would it?

Fortunately, the pilot has the one good reflex. There is still somebody able to help. Somebody who is on the ground (sensible decision, mate)

OOABC: “Tower, OOABC on downwind, I need to land immediately. Noise in the cockpit”

TWR: “OOABC, Tower, roger, no problem. Can you accept to be number 2? I have traffic Boeing 737 on final.”

No time to negotiate. The pilot makes yet another brilliant split-second decision.

OOABC: “Can I please be number 1? I need to land immediately please”

TWR: “BIGJETS 85C, go around, I say again go around, emergency traffic is turning short base in front”

BIG85C:” Going around, BIGJETS 85C. We have traffic on TCAS, no problem for us”

TWR: “Thank you. OOABC, you are number one, Cleared to land runway 30, wind 280°, 12 knots”

OOABC: “Thank you, cleared to land OOABC”

Within seconds, OOABC makes it safely back to the runway, executes a normal landing, and taxies back to the hangar, with the emergency services responding “just in case”. BigJets 85C is back up to a higher altitude, from which he carries out a second approach and lands a few minutes later.

Our friend the student pilot is quite obviously a bit shaken by the unexpected happening. Relieved of course to be back in one piece and thankful of the quick and awesome response of ATC. But then, also a bit guilty for the 189 people in that 737 who had to go around.

Third good decision of the day from the pilot, who decides to pay a visit to the controllers, who are also relieved, and welcoming, offer coffee and some fresh air on the terrace, whilst the weather is turning really ugly.

After a bit of paperwork and more support from the Aerodrome Sub-manager who comes to investigate the incident, our pilot is still under big shock, but it for sure is very comforting to have all these professionals around who give compliments about the right decisions made in flight.

Behold, o kind reader, here is what happened.

The right seat belt buckle was hanging out of the door.

The mistake is honest. Let anyone who never made any error throw the first stone. But the best part of this flight is what came after. Let’s also talk about the lesson that this pilot not only learnt, but most importantly taught, and is still teaching us all. However professional and experienced we are, we should all be thankful to that student pilot for making us realize that being in a state of emergency happens, and it’s OK to say it.

By calling  ATC, explaining the problem, declaring an emergency (I know it could have been articulated more clearly, but still), and holding on to it until ATC responded appropriately, we all should remember that this pilot did a splendid job.

You think it was not a case of emergency? Wrong. If a pilot has a doubt about the airworthiness of his aircraft, it is a case of distress. A state of being threatened by a grave and imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance. When you don’t know if the structure of your aircraft is not breaking up, wouldn’t you call that a grave danger? And remember the words of the pilot in the first call to ATC: ” (…) I need to land immediately (…)”

Good call. That is a very legitimate distress situation. If you believe you need immediate help, say it. Simple and plain. No need to try and sound nice, polite, or to try and sound that you are in control of the situation if you are not.

Yes, other people will hear you. And whoever, if anybody, dares to say that you chickened out, they are dead wrong. I’m even going to go a bit further:

Don’t admit you have a problem. Just say it.

You will be praised for it.

Oh, and just a quick word, to remove all possible doubts: the pilot of that 737 who had to go around was told afterwards that ATC was sorry about the mishap, but that the light aircraft was an emergency. To which he replied very nicely that it was completely normal, and that nobody needed to be sorry about it. And that was very professional of him.