Calm Under Extreme Pressure: Here's Another Example
Not many of us will ever be in the circumstances Kevin Mayes faced. But most of us can learn from how he handled them.
This post is a departure from the world-emergency news of the day. But it is about response to emergency, and about calm despite life-and-death stakes, and about members of a team suddenly coming together in circumstances none of them foresaw. And those elements are all part of the story of world-emergencies of the day.
My purpose is to draw attention to the grace under pressure of a man named Kevin Mayes. I know about him only through the video below, and some followup posts he has done online. But I know enough to want to share his story.
‘I’ve got smoke in the cockpit and need to go somewhere immediately.’
Many times over the years I’ve noted the backstage skills that are revealed when the modern aviation system faces unexpected stress. For instance, the recent items “Say Souls on Board,” “America’s Soft-Skills Infrastructure,” and “How an Aviation Emergency Sounds in Real Time.”
Most people never hear these stories, because unless things go wrong such stories never make the news. I think they’re important to know about, when they go right. This is not only because so many of the tales are gripping on their own terms but also because of the trained calm, competence, focus, and professionalism they put on display.
Here is the latest example. The YouTube video below is an in-cockpit capture of the sights and sounds during the final nine minutes of a flight last month by a Cessna 205 single-engine propeller plane. The plane was headed from a small airport outside Seattle to another small one near Sacramento. (The departure airport was Norman Grier Field, S36, near Kent, Washington. The destination was Yuba County-Marysville, KMYV. I’ve landed at each of these places a few times.)
About an hour into the flight, when the plane was over Portland, Oregon, the engine suffered a “catastrophic failure” that brought the propeller to a sudden stop. Later evidence showed that one of the engine cylinders had exploded and pulled away from the rest of the engine case. At the moment the engine stopped producing power and the propeller stopped turning, the airplane inevitably began heading down.
You will see what happens next in this video, which I found absolutely riveting. Most of it is self-explanatory, but I will add a few notes below. (The screen is black for about a minute starting 20 seconds in, but the audio continues, and the video resumes after that.)
Let’s talk about ‘managing energy.’
Many people would imagine that if an engine stops, an airplane would just plummet Earthward, toward what would become a smoking hole. That is how things work in nightmares.
In fact, airplanes are designed to glide. A helicopter might begin to fall when it loses engine power. (Update: yes, helicopters can “auto-rotate.” But still.) An airplane will begin a gliding descent. At this very instant, at countless airports around the world, airplane pilots are intentionally managing the final-approach stages of flights with minimal or no engine power, as they glide their crafts toward runway touch-down. Also at countless airports today, pilots have been practicing “simulated engine-out landings” by intentionally pulling back the throttle and gliding the plane the rest of the way.
The big difference is: these drills are simulated emergencies. And the throttle is still there. Most of these practice landings are with an instructor in the other seat. If it looks like the power-off glide is going to be too short (headed toward the ground before the runway), or too long (likely to overshoot), the pilot or instructor can push in the throttle and go around for another try. Some times I have managed these practice engine-out landings without needing to touch the throttle, although my hand has been nervously one millimeter away from it the whole time. In other cases I’ve had to call it off, add power, and go around.
What pilots are doing in this case is “managing energy.” An aircraft’s energy is a combination of its altitude, and its airspeed. You can trade off one for the other. At a given engine-power setting, you’ ll go faster if you’re descending, and you’ll go slower while you climb.
In this sense, a plane sitting on the runway has zero energy. Its elevation above the airport is zero, and so is its airspeed. What allows it to fly is energy added by the engine, when you push in the throttle. The process of landing is managing the energy of descent, to bring the plane smoothly and safely from the high altitude and high airspeed of its cruising flight back to zero energy on the ground.
But let’s also talk about managing attention, emotions, and fear.
That’s the concept. In practice, managing a landing means balancing two main factors. One is the plane’s airspeed, within a few-knot range. (Fast enough to stay above stalling speed, slow enough that the plane will be ready to stop flying when the wheels meet the ground.) The other is its descent rate, so it stays on the glide path that will keep it above obstacles but onto the runway soon enough that you’ll be able to come to a complete stop.
There are a whole range of tools for fine-tuning this process, with adjustments that become finer the closer you get to the ground. You push the plane’s nose up or down to adjust airspeed. (Nose down means faster.) You use the rudder and ailerons to stay properly lined up, and account for cross winds. (Or “slip” to lose altitude, if need be.) You use flaps to allow a steeper descent at a lower airspeed. You use a “sight picture” of the runway’s numbers, or other guides, to stay on the glide path.
And—which is the point I’m building toward—you can use engine power to correct the path. If you’re at the right speed but coming up short, you add slightly more power.
If you have an engine. Which Kevin Mayes did not.
When his plane’s engine exploded, Mayes knew that he would begin losing altitude at around 1,000 feet per minute. That is quite a rapid descent, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. No correction or adjustment was possible. The plane would come out of the sky within nine minutes at most.
What Mayes could do is manage the plane’s energy so skillfully that he came down to a landing most pilots would be proud of — if they had done it with a functioning engine, and at the airport they’d had in mind all along. (Mayes ended up at Hillsboro airport outside Portland, KHIO, which was within easy glide range and has a very long runway.)
And he managed his attention, emotions, and fear. Listen to his transmissions on the radio, and those of the air traffic controllers, and reflect on how smoothly and skillfully all of them handled what could have been a tragic outcome.
If any of them had faltered, we would have seen in it the news. Their skill and success deserves note as well.
The pilot and aviation broadcaster Juan Browne has done a stage-by-stage YouTube analysis of the flight here. I recommend it.
And Kevin Mayes has discovered that while aviation insurance pays out for crashes, it doesn’t cover in-flight equipment failures like this one. He has started a GoFundMe site to help him with $15,000 toward the cost of replacing his engine. You can find it here. I offer my congratulations, and have chipped in.