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When's The Last Time You Practiced An Emergency Checklist?


If you had a real emergency on your next flight, how well do you think you'd perform?

Even if you're not planning on going to the airport soon, you can still practice at home. Reviewing your emergency checklists and "chair flying" them is one of the best things you can do before your next flight.

Most professional pilots are required to go through recurrent training every six to 12 months. And in that training, they go through just about every abnormal and emergency situation imaginable. After reviewing systems and procedures in ground school, and practicing in the sim, they head back to the flight line, refreshed on normal and emergency procedures.

The same isn't true for GA pilots. We're only required to pass a flight review every 2 years. The minimum required training time for the flight review is 1 hour of ground instruction, and 1 hour of flight time. And while the FARs outline general topics that need to be covered on the ground and in the air, the training is largely up to the CFI and pilot taking the review.

As GA pilots, the rest is up to us.


Preparing For The Worst

Here's an example of an emergency situation, pulled from the NASA ASRS database, that a pilot experienced at night. At the end of the report, the pilot gives a self-assessment of what they did well, and what should have done better.

After an uneventful flight from ZZZ to ZZZ immediately beforehand, I picked up passengers at ZZZ.

On initial climb out, I lost alternator power. Digital display on panel indicated the problem, but I did not immediately recognize it for what it was. I knew something wasn't right with the electrical system, and suspected that I had lost the alternator but was unsure. Kept an eye on instrument and saw continued negative draw on battery, and voltage dropping, and determined I had a problem.

I reported the problem to ATC, canceled my flight plan, and stated my intent to return immediately to ZZZ. I believe I was on with approach at the time. They asked if I wanted flight following, I said yes, and said I would likely lose my radios soon. By that time the panel was dimming significantly. ATC asked if I needed anything else, and I asked them to get the lights on at ZZZ, and they confirmed my request.

As I was on with ATC, I was executing a 180 turn. Shortly after ATC confirmed my request for lights, I lost all power. I was able to use my phone, which has Foreflight + GPS, to navigate to ZZZ, which was a much easier option than a dark compass. The runway lights were on (I would learn later they were activated by a nearby aircraft at the request of ATC) and I was able to manually extend the gear per memorized procedure, and successfully landed at ZZZ.

ATC had the local fire and police department waiting for me at ZZZ, for which I'm grateful, despite not needing them in the end.

Things I did well:

  • Noticed the problem
  • Stayed calm
  • Took action and told ATC what I needed
  • Prepared plan B and C in my mind if plan A didn't work out (Plan B - Call police to get runway lights turned on, Plan C - Fly to towered airport nearby)
  • Had a backup nav system ready to go, and used it

Things that I did not do well / will do differently:

  • Understand my digital display and electric system completely so that I recognize problems instantly
  • In the event of an alternator problem, immediately slow to gear extension speed and extend gear, and turn off all unnecessary electrical items
  • Practice with and carry a portable radio on all flights

The More You Practice...

When pilots are surprised and unprepared for emergencies, they typically don't perform well. And the increased reliability of GA aircraft may actually be making the situation worse. Pilots have an expectation that things rarely go wrong in the cockpit, and when they do, it adds increased stress to what is already an emergency situation.


The more often you practice and prepare for emergencies, typically, the better you'll perform.

Start by practicing on the ground. Know how your aircraft systems work, and review the checklists you'll use when things go wrong.

Then, practice in the plane. You don't even have to be airborne to get started with this. Practice the checklist flows, and what you'll do with your plane once your checklists are complete.

Better yet, bring a CFI with you, and practice flying, talking to ATC (your CFI), and running your checklist. The more realistic you can make the scenario, the better prepared you'll be when the real thing happens.

Protect your certificate with AOPA Pilot Protection Services. Learn more and get started here.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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