Emergency Descent


  • An emergency descent is a maneuver for descending as rapidly as possible to a lower altitude or to the ground for an emergency landing
  • The objective is to descend the airplane as soon and as rapidly as possible while not exceeding any structural limitations of the airplane

Emergency Descent Situations:

  • The need for this maneuver may result from an uncontrollable fire, a sudden loss of cabin pressurization, penetrating hazardous weather phenomoena like icing, or any other situation demanding an immediate and rapid descent

Emergency Descent Considerations:

  • Simulated emergency descents should be made in a turn to check for other air traffic below and to look around for a possible emergency landing area
  • A radio call announcing descent intentions may be appropriate to alert other aircraft in the area
  • When initiating the descent, a bank of approximately 30° to 45° should be established to maintain positive load factors (G forces) on the airplane
  • Emergency descent training should be performed as recommended by the manufacturer, including the configuration and airspeeds
    • Except when prohibited by the manufacturer, the power should be reduced to idle, and the propeller control (if equipped) should be placed in the low pitch (or high revolutions per minute (rpm)) position
      • This allows the propeller to act as an aerodynamic brake to help prevent an excessive airspeed buildup during the descent
    • The landing gear and flaps should be extended as recommended by the manufacturer
      • This provides maximum drag so that the descent can be made as rapidly as possible, without excessive airspeed
    • The pilot should not allow the airplane's airspeed to pass the never-exceed speed (VNE), the maximum landing gear extended speed (VLE), or the maximum flap extended speed (VFE), as applicable
      • In the case of an engine fire, a high airspeed descent could blow out the fire
      • However, the weakening of the airplane structure is a major concern and descent at low airspeed would place less stress on the airplane
      • If the descent is conducted in turbulent conditions, the pilot also needs to comply with the design maneuvering speed (VA) limitations
    • The descent should be made at the maximum allowable airspeed consistent with the procedure used
      • This provides increased drag and a high rate of descent
    • The recovery from an emergency descent should be initiated at a high enough altitude to ensure a safe recovery back to level flight or a precautionary landing
    • When the descent is established and stabilized during training and practice, the descent should be terminated
      • In airplanes with piston engines, prolonged practice of emergency descents should be avoided to prevent excessive cooling of the engine cylinders

Emergency Descent Procedure:

All procedures are GENERALIZED.
Always fly per Pilot Operating Handbook procedures,
observing any relevant Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

  1. Select an altitude where recovery will occur no lower than 1,500' AGL and a descent will be no more than 2,000'
  2. Brief all passengers
    • Let passengers know what you are doing, to buckle up and secure all objects and how to avoid pressurization build up
    • Tell them to let you know if they have any problems
  3. Determine wind direction
  4. Perform clearing turns
    • Look down!
  5. Reduce the throttle to idle, move the propeller control to the full forward (high RPM) position, as required
  6. At or below VLO, call out, "gear down, and extend the landing gear, verify 3 down and locked
  7. Pick a visual landmark off the wingtip in the direction of turn to be made
    • It is recommended to turn toward the side the pilot is sitting (left turn if in left seat)
  8. Simultaneously roll into a 30-45° bank in that direction while lowering the pitch
  9. Roll out on the 90° point (visual landmark) in the turn, making shallow S-turns to continue checking for other traffic while descending
  10. Approaching the target altitude, begin to level off by increasing pitch to reduce the descent rate
    • High key: 1000-1500' AGL abeam the point of landing
    • Low key: 500' AGL on final
  11. At target altitude, adjust pitch to maintain level flight, allowing the airspeed to decrease at or below VLO
  12. At or below VLO, call out gear up and retract the landing gear
  13. Complete the maneuver on entry heading and set cruise power
    • Trim as necessary
    • Recover above 1500' AGL unless combining the maneuver with an Emergency Approach and Landing
  14. Complete the Cruise Flow/Checklist

Emergency Descent Common Errors:

  • Failure to adequately clear the area
  • Excessive pitch change during entry or recovery
  • Attempts to start recovery prematurely
  • Failure to stop the turn on a precise heading
  • Excessive rudder during recovery, resulting in skidding
  • Inadequate power management and airspeed control
  • Attempting to perform the maneuver by instrument reference rather than visual reference
  • Poor coordination, resulting in skidding and/or slipping
  • Inadequate wind drift correct
  • Failure to coordinate the controls, so that no increase/decrease in speed results when straight glide is resumed
  • Failure to scan for other traffic
  • Failure to maintain orientation

Private Pilot - Emergency Descent Airman Certification Standards:

  • To determine that the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with an emergency descent
  • Note: See Appendix 6: Safety of Flight
  • References: FAA-H-8083-2, FAA-H-8083-3; POH/AFM

Emergency Descent Knowledge:

The applicant demonstrates understanding of:

Emergency Descent Risk Management:

The applicant is able to identify, assess, and mitigate risk associated with:
  • PA.IX.A.R1:

    Failure to consider altitude, wind, terrain, obstructions, and available glide distance
  • PA.IX.A.R2:

    Collision hazards, to include aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and wires
  • PA.IX.A.R3:

    Improper airplane configuration
  • PA.IX.A.R4:

    Distractions, task prioritization, loss of situational awareness, or disorientation

Emergency Descent Skills:

The applicant exhibits the skill to:
  • PA.IX.A.S1:

    Clear the area
  • PA.IX.A.S2:

    Establish and maintain the appropriate airspeed and configuration appropriate to the scenario specified by the evaluator and as covered in POH/AFM for the emergency descent
  • PA.IX.A.S3:

    Maintain orientation, divide attention appropriately, and plan and execute a smooth recovery
  • PA.IX.A.S4:

    Use bank angle between 30° and 45° to maintain positive load factors during the descent
  • PA.IX.A.S5:

    Maintain appropriate airspeed +0/-10 knots, and level off at a specified altitude ±100 feet
  • PA.IX.A.S6:

    Complete the appropriate checklist

Emergency Descent Case Studies:


  • Steep spirals, while similar, are not emergency descents
  • Consider practicing maneuvers on a flight simulator to introduce yourself to maneuvers or knock off rust
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