Declaring an Emergency

With the nice recent weather we have had in Oregon, I invited a friend who had never been in a small plane before to take a ride.

Our plan was to depart from Pearson Field (VUO), then fly up the Columbia River to Astoria (AST), then south along the coast to Tillamook (TMK).  We would land there, stretch our legs, and then return back to Pearson with a direct leg.

My friend doesn’t show his emotions, but I could tell he was a little nervous about the flight.  He went to the bathroom three times before we took off, for example, while I was doing the plane’s preflight inspections.

We got up in the air and over Vancouver lake I asked him how he was doing; he said “fine.”  He seemed to be happily snapping pictures out the window and otherwise having a good time.

I was on the radio with Portland Approach for flight following.  A few minutes later, basically abeam Scappoose, the passenger said, “I don’t think I can do this” and reached for the airsickness bag.  I said, “No problem; Scappoose is right next to us, I’ll just land there.  We’ll be on the ground in 5 minutes.”  I called up Portland Approach and cancelled our flight following and said I was diverting to SPB with a sick passenger.

Not more than 30 seconds later, he went into a seizure in the plane, or at least that’s the way it looked to me.  He was unconscious, eyes rolled back in his head, arms and legs flailing about, right beside me in the right seat.  His leg was bumping against the mixture knob and everything, which really scared me.  I had already switched the radio to SPB’s frequency but still had Portland Approach on the backup, so I switched back to them and said something like, “Approach, my passenger is having a seizure; can you have an ambulance meet us at Scappoose?”  They said, “4542L, Are you declaring an emergency?”  I thought about it for a second, contemplating what it might mean if I replied how I thought I should, before I said, “Uh, affirmative.”

At this point my passenger was no longer flailing but didn’t appear to be in very good shape.  He was conscious but it appeared barely so.  Thankfully, Amanda was in the back seat of the plane, sitting just behind him, and she was talking to him, holding his hand, and generally helping him as best she could.  I talked to him to calm him down and let him know we would be on the ground soon.  Then I set up to land at SPB.  I had no checklist because he had been holding it for me and now it wasn’t anywhere near him (I later learned that he had handed it to Amanda in the back seat after he regained consciousness).

Coming into Scappoose, I didn’t feel that there was time to call to get the weather.  I was already set up on a 45 for runway 33 — making the assumption that I should land in the same general direction I had departed Pearson — and made a radio call to that effect.  But then I spotted a plane taking off from runway 15, the opposite direction.  I made a loop in the pattern and turned into the downwind leg for runway 15.  While I was actually maneuvering to land on runway 15, in my stress and confusion I made a radio call stating that I was maneuvering to land on 33.  Another pilot in the pattern replied, “Airplane on downwind for 33, we are using runway 15.”  I replied, “I have a really sick passenger and need to get on the ground immediately.”  I recall at this point staring at the heading indicator, trying to force my mind to make sense of the numbers, while seeing my passenger’s head bobbing up and down from the corner of my right eye, not sure what shape he was in.  Fortunately, I was actually queued up for the same runway as everyone else, but under stress referring to the wrong runway.  I recognized my mistake around the time to make the base turn and corrected myself on the radio.  The other pilots in the pattern were very kind and gave way to us, and one other pilot in the pattern must have sensed my stress because he actually made a radio call on my behalf, i.e., “Tiger with sick passenger is on final for runway 15.”

Here is the actual path we took, diverting to SPB.  Note my unconventional loop at the end to line up for the correct runway.  In retrospect, this wasn’t the safest pattern entry, but it’s the one that made sense to me at the time.

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In fact, my largest regret from this experience is that I endangered the other pilots in the Scappoose pattern by changing the direction of my pattern with this loop.  I remain grateful to them for having more presence of mind than I was capable of, given the stress I was under.

The landing itself was not my prettiest — I came in too fast, completely forgot the flaps, and landed about halfway down the runway.  But after the plane settled onto the runway, we taxied back with the windows open to the fuel pumps, where I had asked the ambulance to meet us.  My passenger got checked out by the medics.  He ended up being fine — just had an anxiety attack and passed out from it — and the only lasting diagnosis was a severe case of humiliation, especially since his girlfriend had to drive all the way from south of Portland to pick him up (neither he nor I wanted him to get back into the plane for the return trip!).

I learned so many lessons that day, namely:

  • Fly the plane first. I remember thinking this at the time, actually telling myself, “Fly the plane first.”  This is very hard to do when the adrenaline hits and you have a passenger you’re very worried about, which of course you can never train for.  I think I did an adequate job of this.  In retrospect, I wish I had anticipated that I wouldn’t have time to get the weather at SPB and asked ATC to help me figure out which runway was active.  I also should have done a better job of landing without the checklist.  I got the critical elements right, but because I was set up for the wrong runway, I didn’t fly a normal pattern and hence didn’t do a normal “flow check.”  As such, I forgot the flaps, which, combined with my extreme haste to get on the ground, resulted in us coming in way too fast on final and not touching down until halfway down the runway.  SPB has a nice long 5,000 foot runway.  I was very lucky that it was the closest one to me when our emergency struck.  If I had had to divert to a shorter runway, I likely would have had to go around, which would have heightened my own and my passenger’s anxiety, making the situation even more unsafe than it already was.
  • All the aeromedical knowledge we private pilots learn is important stuff, not just stuff to memorize for the checkride.  It didn’t even occur to me that my passenger might have hyperventilated, and I had no paper bag to offer him to breathe into if that was the problem.  I’m now keeping a paper bag in my flight bag for the future.
  • Know where the checklist is at all times! I was having my passenger hold it for my own convenience, but when he fainted, it got lost.  I should have just kept it in my lap or pocket.
  • Brief the entire set of circumstances surrounding the flight, not just the plane and weather. For example, I could have done a better job “preflighting” my passenger situation. If I had to do this flight again, my passenger’s three trips to the bathroom in the 20 minutes before takeoff would be a clue that he was nervous. Next time, with a passenger who is nervous or new to flying in small planes, maybe a trip around the home airport pattern or two would have been a better way to start the flight, just to make sure everybody is comfortable before heading out of the home airport area.
  • Use flight following. Even though I had already switched my radio away from Portland Approach when my passenger fainted, having been on the radio with ATC was helpful in two very important respects.  First, even before our emergency struck, they already knew where I was diverting and why (to SPB, with a sick passenger).  Second, their frequency was still set as the backup frequency on the radio.  If I were not on with them, I would have had to waste valuable time searching and programming an ATC frequency into the radio (with my head down inside the cockpit, mind you) to declare the emergency and have them call the ambulance.
  • Don’t hesitate to declare the emergency if you have one.  ATC had to prompt me to do it, but in retrospect it was the right call.  I called the FSDO the morning after the incident and spoke with the TRACON controllers, including the supervising controller at the time of my emergency declaration, to follow up on the incident.  They said I don’t have to do any follow-up, no paperwork or anything.  Not to mention how helpful they were to me while in the air.  So nobody should be nervous about declaring an emergency if they have one.

In the end, though, the old pilot adage applies: Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.  This particular landing was certainly the most stressful of my short flying career.  Which made this experience and unwelcome one, but after having been through it, an excellent one to have had.  I reflect now that on the scale of flight emergencies, mine was a relatively minor one — after all, my passenger ended up just fine, and the plane performed perfectly throughout the ordeal. Still, even a minor emergency provided very valuable lessons. The most important of which is to approach the skies with humility, because there are always more variables than you can prepare for.

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