Mayday! Event Lessons from a Flying Emergency

The aircraft on a better day

The aircraft on a better day

An emergency Mayday call is not one a pilot every wants to make. Between Christmas and New Year my brother had his first real emergency when the engine on his small bi-plane failed at 1,200 feet over Cheshire.

He had just about 90 seconds from recognising the failure to being on the ground. In that time, he would make a Mayday call (so that the emergency services would know where he was, how many people were involved - 2, my brother and his son - what kind of aircraft and what was wrong*), he would try to fault find and fix the problem, he would decide where to land - into wind, on level ground, preferably not too boggy, not ploughed, no trees, no power lines, no people, no livestock - all within gliding range of less than a mile at that height.

Pilot's view 

Pilot's view 

The chosen field and track of the landing

The chosen field and track of the landing

He did all of that, chose a nice field, was fortunate that it was not too boggy and managed a very uneventful landing with no injuries and no damage to the aircraft, aside from the broken engine. Shortly afterwards he was joined in the field by a passing helicopter, who had heard his distress call, and all three emergency services. The next day he returned to the field, removed the wings and loaded the aircraft onto a trailer to go to the workshop - but only after he was authorised to do so by the Air Accident Investigations Branch.

With the wings removed (with a spanner) ready for transit

With the wings removed (with a spanner) ready for transit

What can we eventprofs learn from this real life-or-death emergency?

Not the return to base that was planned

Not the return to base that was planned

1. Plan for emergencies. 
Pilots train for engine failures more than anything else, because they happen - rarely -  but they happen; and when they do, it really matters.

We have lots of things that are like this in events: Power, projectors, delegate transport, unexpected delegates, wind, rigging and lots more. We can prepare for these things going wrong, we can think about them and what we are going to do about it.

Our reactions to catastrophes (however large or small) must be instinctive, swift and calm. That is how we learn to make sure that as few people are aware of a problem as possible.

2. Analyse Failures without Blame
There has been much written about the aviation industry and its safety culture. No sooner had my brother's broken plane stopped when the Air Accident Investigation Board were informed. Engineers were checking maintenance logs and everyone was analysing not just what could have caused the failure, but also my brothers' reaction to it. He himself, went onto Google Earth to check out whether he could have chosen a better field. The aviation industry behaves this way to learn from failures and therefore make flying safer. 

In events we have to do the same thing (we already do). We have pick over the bones of every event, analyse what worked and what didn't. Understand why things didn't work or people enjoy things we expected them to. Only by this sort of analysis do we learn and hone what we do.

The cumulation of decades of flying failures has made aviation one of the safest modes of transport. The cumulation of experience and debriefs on 20 years of events has made our failures few and far between but rarely noticed and always safe.

I am grateful, and proud, that my brother's preparation, fortune and skill brought him down safely. I am extremely aware that in events, like pilots, we often have the responsibility of many lives in our hands - not always as obviously visible as flying but very real nevertheless - and we must plan and learn to ensure that failures are few and far between - but when things go wrong, no one gets hurt and hopefully few will even be aware.

 

*A note on the famous Mayday call - how do they get so much information into so little time? They practice a standardised Mayday call, in the same format used all over the World e.g. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Manchester Radar, Golf Sierra Kilo India Echo, Skybolt, engine failure intending force landing 1,200 feet, 3 miles west abeam Winsford, PPL, 2 POB,  sqwauking 7700" 

In that short sentence the pilot has alerted all traffic on that frequency of a serious emergency (a less serious one starts with PAN PAN PAN), addressed Manchester air traffic controllers directly (Manchester Radar), told them the registration of the aircraft and its type (G-SKIE Skybolt), told them what's wrong and what the plan is, height and position, qualification (PPL - private pilot's license), how many people are onboard (2 POB) and enabled them to track you on radar by setting the aircraft transponder to 7700 which is the general emergency setting. In this instance, the control tower lost contact with the aircraft once it had landed, but a helicopter which had heard the call relayed the messages from overhead.

 

 

Alan Wight