Emergency landing

Mayday! Emergency landing

Tim Takeoff
2 pictures
5 minutes

“The cabin crew would now like to familiarise you with our safety procedures …”. Usually by the time the cabin crew has reached this sentence, it is clear that the majority of passengers have mentally switched off. An emergency landing? Surely not today! But what actually happens should the worst come to the worst?

An emergency can have many different guises and it is hard to tar it with the same brush as it can often come from a sequence of diverse circumstances. However, an attempt is nonetheless made to group emergencies into specific cases to prepare the crew for this eventuality.

If the emergency is caused by a “simple” technical fault in the air, the cockpit crew will generally work their way through the relevant check-list. Modern jet aircraft are so well networked that the majority of faults are immediately detected electronically and presented to the pilot. In all other cases, both pilots up front agree in detail and analyse a situation based on predetermined scenarios before making a decision. Is a diverted landing required? Is the problem time-critical and is immediate action needed?

Time-critical or not?

Time-critical problems generally involve fire, smoke or medical emergencies on board. Even a loss of pressure, which causes the oxygen masks to drop, simply requires an immediate descent to an altitude at which passengers and crew can breathe without the need for additional oxygen, generally below 10,000 feet (approx. 3,000 metres). At this altitude, the aircraft can initially continue flying without any problem even if its range is limited by the higher fuel consumption. However, no immediate emergency landing is required.

The situation is naturally very different with fire and smoke. Crew members are always trained to act conservatively, but equally are also trained not to immediately overreact. A light mist from the air conditioning system is normal particularly in hot weather. However, if in doubt, passengers should always draw the cabin crew’s attention to the situation should they become aware of odorous smoke, heat or even open flames. They will then pass this information to their colleagues in the cockpit. They may already have received notification from the on-board smoke detectors or only then make a decision about how to proceed. If a large volume of smoke builds up in the cabin, the crew will deploy different methods to quickly replace the air and extract the smoke.

Training leads to success

A fire is thought to be the cause of smoke as it is often impossible to determine its precise cause. The crew has access to a variety of fire extinguishers for almost all classes of fire as well as an extensive first aid kit on board. The crew is appropriately trained and every year needs to demonstrate their knowledge of these emergency procedures in a specific training course or possibly “repeat” the course. Every jet is different and the crew can only operate on an aircraft type for which they have received the appropriate emergency training.

Depending on the type, most aircraft generally have an internal fire extinguishing system, which includes fire extinguishing systems in the engines as well as in the hold. A fire extinguishing canister is directed automatically into the affected space and a further canister slowly discharges until the aircraft lands, either inhibiting or fully extinguishing the fire. In the event of an engine fire, the pilot can initially fully decouple the engine. Of course, that does not mean that the engine is jettisoned, rather that all the pipes and lines carrying fuel, air or electrics are disconnected from the entire on-board system. If this does not solve the problem, up to two highly effective fire extinguishers can be directed into the engine to extinguish the fire.


An emergency landing is initiated should the crew’s efforts or the aircraft’s own emergency functions prove unsuccessful. A number of steps now take place quickly, professionally and simultaneously. While the cockpit issues the emergency call “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”, discusses the situation with air traffic control and requests assistance, the flight attendants start preparing the cabin. All the emergency commands flood back into the mind. “Emergency landing in two minutes”, followed by “Brace, Brace!”, the command to adopt a safety position. Statistics show just how important this can be.

If an emergency landing is successful, the cockpit crew always endeavours to free up the runway for other traffic. The aircraft will then be parked on the apron or even at a finger dock. The earlier alert will have already informed the rescue squad, consisting of the police, fire service, ambulances and local hospitals, which is on standby in minutes for an emergency. It’s always easier to lower an “alert level” than to raise it. With medical emergencies, the quickest way is always selected to provide the relevant passenger with medical assistance.


An immediate evacuation is called for should the aircraft nonetheless be damaged or the time-critical situation show no signs of improving. As soon as the aircraft comes to a standstill, the crew issues the command “Evacuate, Evacuate!”. The flight attendants do not lose a second and inflate the emergency slides as soon as they have removed their belts. There may be further restrictions caused by fire or damage if the doors in certain sections of the jets are to remain closed. It is incredibly important to follow the instructions given by the crew, as they are the only ones in an emergency to have an overview of the situation by communicating directly with the cockpit. All luggage needs to be left on board. Material possessions can be replaced – but we only get one life!

The emergency slide

“Sully” shows the way

Probably around now you recall the incident involving Captain “Sully” Sullenberger who safely made an emergency landing of his Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in Manhattan.

Here you can see the trailer of the film adaptation of this spectacular emergency landing:

Having said that, a manoeuvre of this kind is fraught with risks. It was only the exemplary conduct of the crew and passengers that ultimately resulted in a successful evacuation. It is crucial that life vests are only inflated after(!) the passengers have left the aircraft. Should water enter the fuselage, an inflated life vest might prevent passengers from fitting through the door or obstruct the other passengers.

The emergency slides are waterproof and double as a floating raft with a simple fastener releasing the raft from the aircraft. In this event, a final remaining mooring line remains connected to the plane. Every slide also has an emergency kit, containing survival materials as well as a knife (to cut the rope), fresh water supplies, food and lights and many other useful items. It may be of interest to learn that the kit also includes highly effective powder to dye a large expanse of the surrounding water, enabling rescue forces to find the raft more easily.

Should the emergency landing really be made on the open sea, the slides of modern jets even feature a kind of roof constructed over the uprights to protect the inhabitants from sunlight and harsh weather conditions. In the event of extreme cold, passengers are recommended to huddle together as quickly as possible like “penguins” to store heat, and avoid panic. The rescue forces are already on their way!

No one wants to find themselves in this situation, but it is absolutely crucial and sensible to discuss it. It would be tragic to survive an emergency landing just to then get into difficulties or even be injured before the rescue services arrive. Any questions? Don’t hesitate to ask on your next flight!

by Tim Takeoff

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