Ask the Captain: How do pilots keep their emotions in check in an emergency?

John Cox, Special to USA TODAY
·2 min read

During in-flight emergencies, what is your greatest concern as a pilot? What personal steps do you take to keep your mind and emotions in check?

– SJW, Portland, Oregon

When a serious emergency like the United Airlines engine failure occurs, there is often a "startle" factor. Once that has passed, pilots rely on their training to work through the issues at hand.

While training, pilots experience high-stress situations and are expected to follow procedures resulting in a safe landing.

My experience is that the emotions occur after the airplane is on the ground. During the actual emergency, you are focused on flying the airplane, ensuring the flight path remains safe, following the checklists, reprogramming the Flight Management Computer, advising air traffic controllers, advising the passengers of the revised flight plan, advising the company of the return, briefing the approach procedure – and finally, executing the approach to a safe landing.

Do pilots completely take their hands off control systems in the cockpit when the weather is so bad it necessitates letting autopilot land the plane?

– Fletcher, Nairobi, Kenya

Automation is used to land in very low-visibility condition such as fog. The landing limits are lower for the automation than for manually flown approaches.

In gusty or other dynamic conditions, the landing are made manually.

Pilots usually have authority to land in higher crosswinds than the automation.

When the automation makes the landing, the pilot still keeps his or her hands on the controls as a backup.

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ask the Captain: How do pilots keep emotions in check in an emergency?