Going Down Where?

How to pick a forced landing site so your field of dreams doesnt turn into a nightmare. Hint: Altitude matters.


There has never been a shortage of talk about dealing with an engine failure in a single engine airplane. Most of the lessons focus on being ready, with your out already planned in your mind. Too often lost is a consideration of just how to select a target for an off-airport landing.

Just for yuks, lets say the engine has quit, and you (the dutiful pilot) have done what you can to restart it – but it just isnt coming back to life. Also, because youre a dutiful pilot, well assume the fuel tanks are not empty. We are also going to assume youre not stuck in IMC over mountains at night.

Every flight instructor has a personal method of teaching students how to deal with negative events such as an engine failure, but its what your instructor doesnt teach you that can lead to trouble down the road. When I was a student pilot, my instructor passed on the common wisdom that each simulated failure should be treated as a potential emergency.

His words were clear, and I never forgot what he said, but it wasnt until later that I really grasped what he meant.

We were doing simulated engine outs in a Piper Colt one day over Marylands Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay. I was getting pretty good at assuring that we had a safe landing ahead if need be, until the last drill. I came in a little short, and when we got to the lowest safe altitude it was questionable if we could make the landing without hitting trees.

Actually, it was pretty doubtful. If this had been a real emergency, the sound we would have heard would have been the pitiful crunch of airplane into wood.

We agreed to go around, and when I pushed the throttle full forward, the engine coughed and choked and sputtered. It only lasted for a few seconds, but in that time we had racing hearts and falling stomachs. Once the engine caught and we started to climb, we saw the opportunity for a safe outcome we had completely missed.

When I became a CFI myself, I taught my students the emergency landing by breaking it down into three different scenarios: a failure below 500 feet agl, one from 500 feet to about 1,500 feet, and anything over that.

500 Feet and Under
If youre in the traffic pattern descending below 500 feet agl and lose the engine, you should still be able to coax the plane to the runway. Trim for best glide, fly a little high if possible, slip if necessary and grease it on.

If the loss comes on takeoff, time is not on your side. You will be climbing at a speed much less than your cruise speed, and you will be fighting the force of gravity, which is going to bleed what excess speed you have off very quickly. More so if you have flaps extended for takeoff.

The most important thing you can do at this juncture is level the plane off. You will have minimal time for trouble-shooting, and you need to find a place to land.

Turning around at such a low altitude is not an option, so you need to see what is in front of you. Ideally, you will already have some idea what your options are, especially if it is a familiar airport. If not, the goal is to minimize just how bad things can get.

Once the plane is leveled off, you have a quick chance to trim for best glide or minimum sink. You dont have much time here, so spin the wheel toward nose up. Just get it close.

You can try one shot at checking the mixture, carb heat and mags. If the fuel system has two tanks and/or a fuel pump, try both once. This should all take about seven seconds or so. Combine this with your reaction time to recognize the engine failure, and you may already be 15 to 20 seconds into an emergency that may last only a minute. Now, its time to land.

Because you are so low to the ground, you want to keep your turns to a minimum. Plan on no more than 30-45 degrees of heading change, less if you need to add flaps.

If there is a field or a road straight ahead, turn to it and start setting up as normal an approach and landing as you can. If it is short on the far end (that is, no obstructions underneath you), aggressively lower the flaps and slip to get as much rolling room as possible.

All those other things youve been taught, such as getting the door open and tightening seatbelts, should come as time allows. The important thing is to make sure the airplane is under control. If you can get a door or a window open, do it. Tell your passengers to tighten their belts and, if you are landing on a road, turn on the landing light to warn cars and pedestrians.

In the meantime, get the flaps down without getting too slow and concentrate on looking ahead for hard-to-see electrical and phone wires. If you are landing on dirt, start looking to see if it is wet, because if it is, you need to land with the nosewheel as high in the air as possible.

If there is no suitable landing spot directly in front of you after leveling off, then you need to quickly look left and right, 10 oclock to 2 oclock, and make a prompt decision. As soon as you start to turn to one, you are committed to it. Pick the best looking chunk of land (or water) and go for it.

And what if it is water? What if your departure has you taking off over the drink, thereto to land sans operable cylinders? Head for the nearest boat if one is around, or toward land if its safe, or land next to a bridge if possible. (Note: next to does not mean hit.) Plan to land tail first, and, in this case, get the door(s) open prior to impact.

A Step Up
Suppose that you are flying between 500 feet and 1,500 feet and the engine quits. You have a little more time, but not much. Again, the first step is to trim for best glide speed, but at the same time you need to be looking for a place to designate as New Airport, USA.

I always liked the idea of having the plane trimmed for hands off flight at best glide speed as soon as I could so that I could use both hands to pound myself in the head for getting into this predicament – or complete any other tasks that may require hands.

While looking for a field, dont ignore what, in retrospect, seems obvious. Instructors will attest to the fact that students typically fail to keep track of potential landing sites behind them. A favorite method of student torture is to have the student fly right past a prime landing spot toward more challenging terrain, then pull the throttle to idle.

After the student has boxed himself into a corner, the CFI displays the mean grin of the devil and shows the student the field that was beckoning the whole time. Never, ever, lose track of possibilities behind you.

After trimming the airplane and lining up for the selected field, look around to see if there is a better option within about 45 degrees of that field. That gives you an option you can turn to at the last minute if you need to change your mind.

Why would you do that? There are a number of things you may see as you get closer that make the field less attractive than you first thought: wires, mud, boulders, people, animals, fences or a tailwind that might cause the landing to be too long.

At this point you should still be above 1,000 feet, typically maybe 1,200 feet or so. You are turning to set up your modified pattern, maybe a high downwind or extended base. Youve got a little time to decide if you want to switch your target field.

By the time you have descended to 1,000 feet you should be pretty set on your primary target, with one or two secondary targets in mind. If, as you descend and turn toward your field, you see another primary landing site that is a dramatic improvement over the first choice, and you know you can successfully land there without further jeopardizing your safety, then use it – provided it meets all other criteria.

You should consider yourself committed to one primary site by 1,000 feet, but you might be able to bring that number down to 800 feet in areas of flat terrain.

Once you reach your commitment point, the rules are the same as for an engine loss on takeoff. If you are going to crack open a door, do it now. Front seat passengers should be told to slide their seat all the way back and tighten the seatbelt.

By this point, youve either done the checklist or you havent. Concentrate on the landing. The only thing left to do is shut off the master switch, if youve kept it on for using electric flaps. Make a normal approach, and if you dont like what you see, utilize the secondary field.

More Time on Your Side
In cruise flight, you have a lot more options, especially in VFR conditions. One of the amazing things about losing the engine at altitude is just how much time you really have.

Sometime when you practice engine-outs – you do practice them occasionally, right? – time how long it takes to run through the emergency procedures and get set up for the forced landing. From a cruise at 5,000 feet, youll have five to 10 minutes before gravity wins. Thats a lot of time. Use it to your advantage.

At cruise altitudes, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to go through all the appropriate checklists for the problem. This is where getting the plane trimmed to fly hands off at best glide speed is so beneficial.

Because we are assuming you cannot get the engine restarted, you can add a couple of other items the previous scenarios dont allow time for. First, you need to attempt to establish radio contact if you are not already using it. Second, you need to be squawking 7700. Third, you need to fully brief your passengers on what is happening.

It is crucial that you remain the picture of calm and serenity, despite how you really feel about blowing the first date with the person next to you. Tell them honestly that you are going to be landing off an airport and without power.

Tell them to slide the seat back and tighten up. This does three things. First, it gives them something to do rather than scream. More importantly, sliding the seat back moves them away from the panel should they be slammed forward on the ground – and it makes it more difficult for them to impulsively grab the yoke out of fear and cause more mayhem when you least need it.

Have your passengers help you look for a landing site. You have some time here to explain in generalities what you want – long, flat, few obstacles, no wires. Go ahead and crack a door open and stick a shoe or a checklist or a piece of clothing between the door and the airframe to keep it from getting stuck closed. You might as well do this early enough to get a feel for how the plane flies.

Even though you need to communicate, dont get obsessed with talking on the radio or to your passengers. The most important thing is to fly the plane and be situationally aware of where you are with respect to both altitude and your chosen field.

Mark your location on your sectional or with your GPS. As you descend below 2,000 feet, its time to start planning your pattern. Your passengers ought to be briefed and calm, and probably should be told to be quiet the rest of the way unless they have something safety-related to say.

This type of landing should be the easiest one, because you had so much time to choose an ideal place to land. Be it on a road, next to a road, in an empty cornfield or an abandoned runway, you should be able to walk away from this one feeling that you honestly picked the most suitable, appropriate place to land due to the time you had to work with; you might even be able to fly the plane out when the time comes.

On the day my engine threatened to give up the ghost, as we were climbing out my instructor and I saw another field about 30 degrees off the left side of the one we had chosen. It was a much better choice, and we could have made it rather than landing short to the intended field.

We discussed this at length later and both added the secondary landing site to our repertoire. The most important thing about the optional field is that it needs to be such that it is actually a little closer than the primary field, so that if you are going to come up short on the primary, the secondary is guaranteed.

Once you are on the ground, especially in rough terrain, keep the elevator full aft to avoid a nose-over. If possible, let the plane come to a stop without using the brakes. Once you are safely stopped, have the passengers deplane while you make sure anything hazardous is shut down. If theres no fire. use the parking/shutdown checklist and make sure the airplane is properly secured.

From outside the airplane, you can make a judgment as to whether there is a fire risk, and at that point consider going back into the airplane for supplies or to try the radios.

An engine out is really two separate drills. The first is trouble-shooting the problem, eliminating a restart and flying the airplane. The second is properly choosing a safe, suitable field and alternate that you can guarantee a glide to – every single time.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”

-by Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline captain and CFII.


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