Crash Like a Pro

Making the field after an engine failure requires heads-up thinking and some healthy preparation


If youre like most pilots, you carry a touch of power into the flare, then pull it off as the airplane settles to the ground. Powered approaches are routinely safer than power-off approaches. Pilot judgment is less stressed, and a little power can make up for a lot of mistakes in the pattern.

Think about how long its been since youve done a power-off landing. In a way, its a shame. The skills they help develop are useful in other ways, such as an engine-out landing. Volumes have been written on forced landings, crash landings, flameouts, engine-out landings, off-airport landings and a host of other colorfully termed dead-engine landing scenarios. Every pilot should have his or her own foolproof method of dealing with the dreaded engine failure in flight.

The Secret to Crash Landings
Of course, the best way to make a good landing in an engine failure situation is not to have one. Completely avoid it. Just dont go there. Period.

Most engine failures that lead to dead-stick landings are pilot-induced. That means they are also pilot-preventable. The nut on the end of the wheel is the culprit here, and it is very important to realize that. All too often, pilots do it to themselves.

There are several concrete, positive things you can do to avoid having an engine failure. Good maintenance is important, including routine inspections and getting problems fixed before you take off. Ensuring proper fuel and oil servicing is also crucial, and is part of a thorough preflight. But lots of pilots dont sump the tanks, depart with fuel caps missing or trust their fuel gauges instead of their eyes.

Follow proper engine operating procedures as you fly. Stay within the engines best performance ranges and include the gauges in your scan. Perhaps most importantly, dont run out of gas because of poor planning, carelessness or guessing.

While some of these might seem to insult your intelligence, the fact is that the accident trail is littered with cases where these seemingly obvious points were totally ignored.

In spite of the best efforts of most pilots to care for and nurture their engines and all the training emphasis placed on engine failure, there are many engine-out landings each year. Successful engine-out landings are seldom reported; the unsuccessful ones end up as accidents in the NTSB database. We can learn from all of them.

General aviation pilots flew more than 125 million hours from 1993 through 1997. During that five-year period, there were almost 2,800 accidents involving engine failures reported to the NTSB. More than half (56.5 percent) of the engine failures were caused by the pilots. More than a quarter (27 percent) involved pilot-induced fuel exhaustion.

Regardless of the causes, however, engine failures are a fact of life. And they are serious. During the period cited, more than half of the accidents resulted in injury or death, with nearly 300 involving fatalities.

In the simplest of terms, only three things are necessary to make a successful emergency landing without power: 1) The skill to make a reliable power-off landing from a target point you select, 2) Ability to reach the target point from the position where your engine fails, and 3) Good enough planning not to put yourself into a situation where your only option is to pick out some desolate spot upon which to crash.

Perfect Power-Off Landings
Fix this concept in your mind: Simulated power-off landing patterns are preparation for the real thing. Plan and practice with that in mind. When your no-kidding engine-out happens, there will be no go-around. Get used to it.

Because most pilots seldom practice power-off landings, few can make good ones with any degree of consistency. This skill is critical should you ever have to put an airplane into a confined space.

Practice safely. Pick a point far enough down your favorite runway to give you some slop room when youre first starting. The end of the runway doesnt have to be your aiming point. That way, you can visibly evaluate how much short of the desired spot you would have touched down.

Fly a normal pattern to abeam touchdown, close the throttle and practice landing on your point under complete control. Avoid the tendency to add that little touch of power on final to adjust the glideslope. Simulate the pattern as dead-stick all the way. Its all in the mindset.

Think about zero-time beginning glider pilots. If they can do it, you can do it.

Just as when you practiced rectangular patterns for the private certificate, think about how various winds will affect you during the power-off pattern. Handling the unseen winds is a big part of achieving the required skill and confidence.

Pay extra attention to the geometry of the pattern. Once you lose your engine remember that the airplane is always descending. It is especially important to get the geometry right in a power-off pattern. There are few ways to correct your mistakes.

If the angles are correct, however, its almost impossible to miss. If you arrive abeam your planned touchdown point -mile from the runway at 1,000 feet agl on a heading reciprocal to the final approach heading at the proper airspeed and compensate correctly for the wind, a safe landing should result.

Got that?

Getting There
Getting there involves knowing where there is to begin with. Then fly the proper speed, correct for wind and navigate to the target/key point with enough altitude left to fly the power-off landing pattern.

It is important to be aware of where you are and to know how your airplane performs after an engine failure. You need to know your target airspeed, what true airspeed that corresponds to, how the winds affect your ground track and ground speed, what the airplanes descent rate is at best glide, and what turns youll need to make to line up for landing on the field.

While youre recovering from the initial shock of having your engine fail, you need to pick a spot to land – assuming you havent already done that as you flew along – and head straight for it. Trimming is important so you have the time to look around, refine your aim points and focus on what else needs to be done.

As you glide toward your target, evaluate your field selection and pick the key points or targets youll use to fly the pattern.

Remember that even though wind is a major consideration in selecting where and how youll be landing, it is not always advisable or possible to land into the wind. Terrain features may make it impossible, and insufficient altitude may make a downwind landing the only alternative. Particularly in areas that are heavily forested or densely populated, field selection is critical to success.

If you have the luxury of selecting from a number of suitable landing areas or fields, remember the acronym OWLS. When its quiet up there and you look down at all those trees and rocks, imagine a wise old owl sitting on a limb of the most prominent one. The important criteria in field selection: obstructions, wind, length and slope.

You must assume that every potential landing site has obstructions. Count on it. All of them do. Power lines, telephone poles, sign posts, fences, large rocks, drainage ditches, eroded terrain, water and other hazards are found everywhere.

Look for them – particularly their shadows. Obstacles constitute the greatest hazard to a successful forced landing and most of the time will be the main reason for selecting the site where you want to land. Remember that obstacles can be horizontal, too. Look especially for soft surface discoloration or abnormal texture, planting rows and rock shadows.

A vertical obstacle will typically cost you 10 times its height, even if you are right on your approach airspeed. That means that a 120-foot-tall line of trees on the approach end of your field will preclude touchdown until 1,200 feet past them. A 50-foot obstacle will cost you 500 feet.

Wind direction and intensity have a direct bearing on the safety of the landing. Landing into a wind of 15 knots means a ground speed of 40 knots if you typically touch down at 55. Turn that wind into a tailwind, however, and judging the pattern gets more difficult and the landing ground speed shoots up to 70 knots. Slower is better, especially on an unimproved field.

A longer landing area is better, not because it provides additional rollout distance, but because it will reduce the strain on your judgment at a time of already extremely high stress. More field length permits you to come in a little short or a little long, without having to put it down exactly on the mark.

Slope can make more of a difference than you may imagine. Upslope landings put gravity on your side. The option is to expose yourself to a potentially slippery downslope, with all of the factors that brings in to play.

Regardless of what landing site you have selected – or what fate has chosen for you – at least ensure that you touch down absolutely under control. Make the best landing of your life – absolutely under control. Paint it on where you intend to touch down and chances are youll walk away from it.

Knowing Your Options
Having the opportunity to find a field and set up for landing there is good, but knowing how to avoid trouble is even better.

Good planning and analysis of the terrain along your intended route of flight. whether local or cross-country, will clearly show those areas where few acceptable options exist in the event of an engine failure. Avoid them if possible.

Flying at a higher altitude, with particular attention to the effect of enroute wind, could turn an unacceptable route into a usable one. Its something to think about.

Takeoff, of course, is the exception. Risk here is unavoidable. The only way to avoid it is to never fly. Even in the takeoff regime, however, a good understanding of the departure ends of your runways can provide insights into what you could face with an engine failure immediately after takeoff. Forewarned about what you face is forearmed.

One pilot I know turned left instead of right during an engine failure immediately after takeoff and ran into a deep ditch. The aircraft broke apart and burned. A slight right turn would have offered a long, smooth grassy area completely free of obstructions. Unfortunately, he was unaware of terrain off the departure end of the runway he was using.

So, the Day Has Come
Get your thinking and most of your planning time for engine failures out of the way ahead of time. As you plan each flight from now on, look at potential bad routes and do not put yourself in situations that offer you no options in the event of an engine failure. Just dont do it.

Your engine has just failed. You know your altitude above the ground and where you are with respect to various landmarks. You have also kept track of the forecast winds at various altitudes along your route of flight and on the surface. You know what they are supposed to be at your position.

When your engine crumps, fly the airplane, trim it and dont give away an inch of altitude until you reach the glide speed recommended for your airplane. At that point, smoothly lower the nose to the glide attitude needed to hold that airspeed. Retrim. Maintain that pitch attitude as you refine your landing area selection and try to restart the engine.

Above all, fly a proper, constant airspeed and do not compromise aircraft control to do some checklist you cant handle at the moment. Dont waste valuable time on a hurried radio call until everything else is under control. Nobody outside the cockpit can help you make this dead-stick landing. Concentrate on that.

Set yourself up so you can arrive at a target position abeam your landing spot (on a heading opposite to the final approach heading) at about 1,000 feet agl.

Once there, execute a power-off landing pattern and ensure that you touch down absolutely under control.

Piece of cake … right?

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Can You Make the Field?”
Click here to view “Try Before You Fly.”

-by Wally Miller

Wally Miller is a CFII and Gold Seal CFI wth more than 7,000 hours.


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