One of the most important aspects of flight training is learning how to properly conduct an emergency descent. While most pilots may never have to put their knowledge into practice, having the skills to perform such maneuvers safely and efficiently is extremely important and all pilots should always ensure that they are comfortable carrying the process out. In this blog, we will discuss the common method for conducting emergency descents with a single-engine piston aircraft so that you may better familiarize yourself with such procedures.
Put simply, an emergency descent refers to a rapid maneuver to reach a lower altitude as quickly as possible, most often being used for the means of landing. Regardless of whether a pilot is flying a small, general aviation aircraft or a large commercial transporter, all need to have sufficient training in such procedures for their particular aircraft type so that they can quickly act in a life-threatening situation. The need for an emergency descent can come about from a variety of reasons, including situations such as major fires, failing systems, a loss of cabin pressurization, and more.
When conducting a descent, it is important that it is done rapidly, but also in such a way that the positive load factors on the aircraft are properly managed so as to avoid other detrimental occurrences. According to the Airplane Flying Handbook provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it is most optimal to initiate a descent at a bank angle of 30 to 45 degrees. Banking is quite useful for causing a rapid descent as the angle undertaken will cause a reduction in the vertical component of lift. Dumping vertical lift is one of the best ways to ensure a rapid descent. While conducting the descent, it can be useful to roll into a turn with only the ailerons extended, also making sure not to apply any back-pressure.
As the aircraft begins to drop in altitude, it is crucial that the pilot properly limits airspeed as necessary. Beyond the obvious risks of conducting descents at unsafe speeds, many aircraft will have a maximum airspeed allowance before detrimental effects may ensue. As such, pilots must be careful. For piston powered aircraft that feature a constant speed propeller, the aircraft propeller assembly should be set to a low pitch position so that it can mitigate the unnecessary buildup of airspeed. Additionally, manufacturer specifications may be followed for properly deploying aircraft landing gear components and flaps, both of which can increase drag to further manage airspeed.
During a rapid descent with the use of flight surfaces, the pilot should monitor flight conditions to prevent values from surpassing the structural never-exceed speed, maximum landing gear extension speed, or the maximum flaps extended speed. During this time, the pilot may also attempt to remedy any outstanding issues while they decide whether to undertake a recovery or a landing. To conduct a recovery, it is paramount that there is enough altitude to safely return to flight. With landings, on the other hand, all aircraft landing gear components should be readily deployed and a safe area which accommodates the aircraft wheel and brake system should be chosen for the touchdown.
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