Preparing for the Worst-Case Scenario: What Pilots Are Thinking During a Dual Engine Failure
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As a pilot, a dual engine failure is something that you will probably never experience in your entire career. Yet, last week in Moscow, the day which we never expect to occur happened to the two pilots operating Ural Airlines Flight 178 to Simferopol.
As they rotated their Airbus A321 into the air, the aircraft hit a flock of seagulls. Even though engines are designed to continue running after impacting a flock of birds, the size of the seagulls was too much for the engines to take.
The aircraft started to climb away from the ground but with both engines stricken, the aircraft wouldn’t be able to climb for much longer. Less than a minute later, the aircraft would come to rest in a corn field.
All 233 passengers and crew evacuated safely via the emergency exit slides with nothing more than a few bumps and bruises. Almost before the one-in-a-million event had started, it was over. For the passengers left standing amongst the corn sheaths, it was a miracle. For the pilots who brought them safely through this incredible event, it was a combination of great skill and a little bit of luck.
So what was going through the pilots minds when this happened? How did they react? And how did they know what to do in order to save all 231 lives on board?
Just Another Day
The day would have started like any other for Captain Damir Yusupov and First Officer Georgy Murzin. Like most of us, I’m sure that on their way to the airport, their planning for the flight would have already begun. On the drive to work, we’ll take note of the cloud and wind conditions and whether there’s rain around. Are there any thunderstorms building? Situational awareness is a critical part of being a good airline pilot.
The fact that there were birds reported on the airfield would have been of little concern to them. Many airfields around the world are located by the water and are home to wildlife. The hazard of birds is just another item on the list of which we expect each time we take to the skies. The preflight briefing would have been straightforward. The weather in both Moscow and Simferopol was forecast to be fine. It was a lovely summer’s day for flying.
On board the aircraft, before every flight, the pilots carry out a departure briefing. This not only covers what the crew plan to do and how they will do it, but it also covers any threats pertinent to that specific flight.
For example, in Paris Charles de Gaulle, aircraft are often cleared by ATC in French to cross the runway ahead of you. As a non-French speaker, there’s a threat that you may not be aware that this is happening. If ATC have inadvertently cleared you for takeoff at the same time, there is a clear and obvious danger ahead. These specific threat-based briefings focus the crew’s mind as to what is important for that particular flight.
The departure briefing will also cover what the crew will do in the event of an emergency. Statistically speaking, the most critical ‘likely’ event is a single engine failure on takeoff. In the event of this happening, each pilot has defined tasks to perform. To ensure that this ballet is performed correctly, they both run through the exact actions they would take as part of this briefing. This way, their actions are fresh in their minds and any ambiguity they may have has been ironed out in advance.
However, even with the best of briefings, nothing could have prepared Captain Yusupov and First Officer Murzin for what was about to happen.
The Natural Reaction
The 15 January 2009 marked one of the most remarkable days in aviation history. Shortly after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia airport, US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a dual engine failure after hitting a flock of geese.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger and Senior First Officer Jeffrey Skiles were hailed as heroes for landing the aircraft safely on the Hudson River just a few minutes later. It became known as the Miracle on the Hudson. After the event, Captain Sullenberger spoke of the moment that they realised that they had lost power from both engines.
“I remember vividly my first three thoughts. ‘This can’t be happening!’ Having read about accident flights before, I know a very common, a very typical thought rooted in disbelief. Followed immediately by ‘This doesn’t happen to me!’ And the third thought was more of a realisation that unlike all the other flights, this one probably would not end on a runway with the aircraft undamaged”.
This brief but raw insight to the human reaction in this scenario is incredibly telling. When the unthinkable and unexpected happens, as humans, we all react the same way. Disbelief, panic and a refusal to accept what our eyes, ears and other senses are telling us. Our inner chimp is well and truly loose and causing absolute chaos in our brains.
The Chimp Paradox
Situated in the centre of the brain, the limbic system is a raw and primal system engineered to keep us safe. When our bodies sense danger, it is the limbic system that reacts first and what Dr. Steve Peters refers to as our ‘chimp’ in his widely acclaimed book, The Chimp Paradox.
The chimp is an incredibly powerful force within our minds. As it is built for survival, it senses danger everywhere. It quickly assesses situations and jumps to decisions. It thinks very much in the short-term with very little regard to the long-term results. It’s the same force that may give you sudden anxiety when faced with making a speech in front of a large group of people or stop you from setting off on a steep ski run.
It is the chimp that caused Captain Sullenberger to have his initial two thoughts: “This can’t be happening!” and “This doesn’t happen to me!” It disrupts the structured pattern of thought in even the most well-trained and experienced people.
However, it’s important to realise that the reaction from the chimp is just a suggestion. We do not have to do what the chimp wants us to do. What we need to do is engage another part of the brain to bring in some balanced thinking.
The frontal lobe is the ‘human’ in our brains. A more recent evolutionary development, it’s what gives us rational thought based on evidence. The human takes in facts from all our senses and evaluates them against our knowledge. This is the part that calls on any previous training and experience to decide on the best course of action for not only the short-term but also the long-term outcome.
It is the human brain that enabled Captain Sullenberger and SFO Skiles to react and fly the aircraft safely onto the surface of the Hudson River.
The problem is that the human is much slower than the chimp. Before the human has come up with a plan, the chimp may well have acted and made what may end up being rash decisions that may be irreversible. Whilst we are unable to free ourselves from the chimp, we are able to manage it.
The other influencing aspect of the brain is what Dr. Peters refers to as the ‘computer’. This stores information on our thoughts and belief and also pre-programmed responses on how to handle certain situations. Both the chimp and the human use the computer as points of reference.
As pilots, we regularly undergo training in flight simulators. This enables us to practice normal and emergency scenarios and update those pre-programmed responses in our computers. For more on how exactly these training sessions are run, check out my previous article, Practice Makes Perfect — How Pilots Train for Every Situation.
Managing the Chimp
Dr. Peters suggests that there are fours way in which we can manage our chimp. Two of these are more relevant to the dual engine failure case than the other two.
Firstly, you can box the chimp. This means engaging your human brain and using it to talk to the chimp with logic and reason. By giving the chimp an alternative in a situation, you can diffuse his sudden urges to act irrationally and allow the more reasoned human to take over. With repeated practice at this, over time you can train your chimp to accept your human rules. This may take some time, but the more you practice it, the more it becomes ingrained in your computer.
This is why, as airline pilots, we regularly practice for emergency events in the simulator. Not only does it gives us the experience of running though the checklists and procedures, it trains our chimp to accept the fact that the human knows what it is doing.
Secondly, you can distract your chimp. In a situation of sudden high stress, there may not be time to effectively box the chimp. What you need to do is temporarily distract it by taking a deep breathe and counting to 10. This gives your human time to catch up and be able to have an effect.
It is the combined effect of these two approaches that enables us to think clearly and act appropriately.
Initial reports from the Ural Airlines flight suggest that they suffered complete loss of power from the left engine in the few seconds after takeoff. At this stage, the chimp would have been in control. Initially, the crew declared an emergency and requested to return to the airfield.
“The height was not significant. Initially, there was a decision to turn around, land the plane”, Captain Yusupov told journalists just after the event.
However, the aircraft then experienced another birdstrike — this time to the right engine. Whilst the right engine did not fail completely, the remaining power was insufficient to continue climbing. In the brains of the pilots, the chimp was in full meltdown mode.
Let’s freeze the situation here for a moment and put ourselves in the minds of Captain Yusupov and First Officer Murzin. You’ve taken off on what was going to be just another normal flight. A few seconds later, you’ve lost effective power from both engines and you are just 750 feet above the ground. A situation no pilot wants to be in.
We can’t be sure exactly what they were thinking. But that day for which they’d put all that hard work into practicing for had arrived. They knew they had the training hidden away in their human and computer, they just needed to sort the chimp out to allow them to access it.
This is a great example where distracting the chimp is the first action that needs to be done. Deep breath. Count to 10. With the chimp distracted, you’ve given your human time to catch up. Time to allow it to start reasoning with the chimp and usher him towards his box.
With the chimp boxed, the human can start to talk. The part that is thinking of the longer-term outcome: How to come up with a plan to get the aircraft safely back on the ground.
“There was little time,” Captain Yusupov continued. “But when they (sic) saw that the second engine was also failing, I had a decision — to land the plane just in front of me”.
As humans, we are all susceptible to our biology — no matter how well trained or experienced we are. However, by having an understanding of how our bodies work, we can optimise how we perform in any situation.
When faced with a situation of sudden stress, the pilots of Ural Airlines 178 were able to box their chimp and allow their minds to think clearly. It was the ability to do this which resulted in them saving the lives of all those on board.
In my experience, the professional pilot community tends to attract those who are more able to manage the chimp effectively. The intense selection processes and regular training that we undergo are all designed to enable us to not only learn how to manage non-normal situations, but also learn how we as humans react when faced with adversity.
Featured photo by Sergei Bobylev / Getty Images.