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What to Do When the Passenger Must Become the Pilot : 'Pinch-Hitter' Course Teaches How to Take Over in an Emergency

May 05, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Peggy Weddell gazed out the right front window of a Cessna 172 at an even line of oil rigs dotting the sea 3,500 feet below.

A reluctant passenger who had flown in a small plane only once before, Weddell was just beginning to enjoy the sensation of being airborne when the pilot quietly collapsed against the door panel on the left side of the plane.

Weddell tuned in the numbers 121.5 KHZ (the international emergency frequency) on the radio, and reached for the microphone. "The pilot is unconscious and I don't know how to fly," she said.

'How Much Fuel?'

"How much fuel do you have?" a voice came back.

"Five hours."

"Do you know what a transponder is?" the controller asked.

Weddell said she did, then set the knobs on a black box in the panel so that the numbers matched a setting she had memorized. (The transponder is an instrument that allows the craft to be identified on radar from the ground.)

"Very good, ma'am. We've got you on radar now," the controller said after a long pause. "You're five miles east of Santa Barbara airport. We're going to get you down."

When Weddell, 36, turned the control wheel toward the red roofs of Santa Barbara and felt the plane lurch in response to her touch, the fear she felt was quite real--even though she knew the emergency was not.

The pilot had simulated a collapse in order to allow Weddell, a drafting supervisor for a computer firm, to try out the lessons she had learned at a "pinch-hitter" course she had attended the night before. A concept originated in 1963 by the Air Safety Foundation of the Airplane Owners and Pilots Assn., the pinch-hitter class is designed to teach non-pilots who fly frequently in small planes how to get the plane back to earth in the event the pilot is suddenly incapacitated.

Although no one seems to keep records on how often this actually occurs, such incidents appear in the news with enough regularity that most pilots take the possibility seriously, Tom Gallagher said. Director of ground training for Santa Barbara Aviation, a flight school and air charter service, Gallagher offers a pinch-hitter course several times a year. The San Fernando chapter of the 99's, an international organization of women pilots, provides similar training in what they call a "flying companion seminar." Elsewhere, the class is taught under the name of copilot instruction.

Tripled in Size

"Every time I've held one of these classes, within a week there it is (a real-life incident reported)," Gallagher said. "Only this time it happened a week before." Gallagher produced a recent clipping from a Santa Barbara paper reporting that when the pilot of a single-engine Cessna--bound from Chicago to St. Louis--died in mid-flight, his passenger, a non-pilot, was successful in making "a perfect landing." Gallagher said his class tripled in size after that item appeared.

Although the hero in that incident was not known to have attended a pinch-hitter class, the emergency training did figure in a similar situation two years ago when a 78-year-old non-pilot, Editha Merrill, saved herself and two passengers by landing the plane after their pilot died of a heart attack over Sedona, Ariz. A back-seat passenger who had just completed a pinch-hitter course was able to make contact on the radio and communicate with controllers on the ground. She then relayed step-by-step instructions to Merrill at the controls.

The scenario can also end tragically. Gallagher told the class about a recent disaster in the South in which four people were killed when the pilot lost consciousness during the flight. The controller asked a non-pilot who was to take over the controls to turn on the transponder, Gallagher said. The stand-in pilot apparently believed the instrument was critical to their survival (it wasn't), and panicked when she realized she didn't know where it was located. Gallagher thinks the victims in this case might have been saved if one of them had known something about the instrument panel.

"People think it takes more knowledge than it actually does to fly a plane," Gallagher said. "Just knowing a few facts can enable you to get that plane on the ground." Given two hours of training, said Gallagher, a novice need not feel overwhelmed in an emergency.

The pinch-hitter course designed by the Air Safety Foundation includes four hours of air time and students make as many as four landings.

Gallagher contends that anyone who flies frequently in a private plane should be required to complete a pinch-hitter course. Even if an emergency never occurs, he said, the experience can transform a timid flyer into a bold and involved flying companion.

Peggy Weddell, for instance, doesn't intend to spend a lot of time in small planes, and it's unlikely she'll ever find herself in a predicament like the one she enacted in the sky. But a number of her friends are private pilots, and Weddell said since taking the class she feels more comfortable in the air.

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