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Emergency Landings on Roads No

By Joe Clark

Joe Clark
Joe Clark

I read with some alarm the March 2010 article in the EAA Light Plane World newsletter about pilots who recently landed on highways. As always, I was glad they pulled it off and no one was hurt. I also heard the little voice in my mind asking, “What were they thinking?” The highway or any road is the last place a pilot should want to land an aircraft. However, I had listened to numerous inexperienced pilots proclaim they would go for the road. This mindset baffled me, but after thinking about it, I began to understand.

We used to teach pilots how to fly off grass airstrips. During the 1960s through the early part of the 1980s, there were many “mom and pop” grass airstrips throughout America. These little airports were the greatest places to learn how to fly. As we moved into the latter part of the last century, the insurance industry essentially closed down 80 to 90 percent of these little airports. Consequently, many pilots learning how to fly no longer had the chance to experience actually landing on a grass or soft strip.
In the early days, certificated flight instructors routinely took their students to airports with grass runways just to give them the experience. As a result, those new pilots knew their airplanes could take off or land in any pasture. They developed the idea it was perfectly permissible to land in a field. They knew airplanes weren’t restricted to runways. And most importantly, they didn’t hesitate to land in a field.

AirVenture ultralight arrival
View of Route 26 on AirVenture ultralight inbound arrival notice to airmen (NOTAM)

Psychologically, pilots of today consider their only option to landing airplanes is on a hard surface. This is why I believe there has been an increase in off-airport landings arriving on roads. Pilots learning how to fly today aren’t gaining this valuable experience of actually flying off grass runways. Flight instructors who are wannabe airline pilots teach their students all about the benefits of 10,000-foot long runways, talking with air traffic control, instruments to fly by, and GPS. In my opinion, they don’t focus well enough on the basics, especially on emergency approaches and landings.

The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook, published in 2004, doesn’t mention interstates, highways, and roads as viable landing sites. Throughout the section on emergency approaches and landings in chapter eight, the reference is always to “fields.” The handbook never once mentions landing on a road. Somehow, student pilots and less experienced aviators grasp onto the idea of landing on roads and highways. Sometimes, those inexperienced aviators become flight instructors who continue to pass on this improper technique. Accounts in the news media further reinforce the idea of landing on roads as an alternative to landing on a runway.

What is wrong with landing on the highway, you ask?

First, cars usually occupy the space on which you want to land. Secondly, all kinds of obstacles including mailboxes, signs, telephone poles, power lines, and more line the sides of roadways. Striking any one of these obstacles changes your controlled landing into an out-of-control crash. Keep this concept in mind: You can walk away from a controlled crash landing. If you hit something, more than likely you will lose control and crash, which decreases survivability.

It’s difficult to plan for a proper emergency landing. The preparation for an off-airport landing actually begins with the flight planning. Regardless of destination, once reaching a safe altitude of 800 to 1,000 feet above ground level (agl), a savvy pilot always has in mind a place to land his airplane. Once the pilot flies out of gliding distance of that place, he or she should pick another field in front of the flight path to land in the event of an engine failure.

Student pilots should learn this critical sequence in the event of an engine failure; first, acquire and maintain proper gliding airspeed. The next task is to find a field in which to land. After setting up to land in the field, the pilot should accomplish checklist procedures while preparing for the off-airport landing. By using the simple technique of always keeping a place to land in your mind, the second item on the checklist is already accomplished. You don’t have to waste critical time looking for a place to go.

From the moment you take off and reach safe altitude, you should always have an emergency landing field within reach. Pilots can use this technique on a local afternoon pleasure flight or on a cross-country from California to Florida. Prior to reaching safe altitude, though, there’s little a pilot can do. In other words, landing on a road may be the only avenue strictly based on the laws of physics.

Still, if you have an engine failure on takeoff, you may have a few options. The first thing you must do is maintain flying speed. If the engine fails on takeoff, you must lower the nose to maintain a safe airspeed. Look in front of the aircraft no more than 30 to 40 degrees left or right of the flight path. Take the path of least resistance, keep the wings level, and slow the aircraft as much as possible before landing.

Try not to be tempted with the idea of the “impossible turn.” Depending on your aircraft, you may or may not make it back to the runway. Here’s the ugly truth to the impossible turn – if you aren’t in control of the aircraft at the time of touchdown, survival is questionable. During the impossible turn, you’ll be flying the airplane on the edge of its performance limits. More importantly, you’re going to be right at the edge of your own performance limits. If you’re good, you keep the airplane inside its performance envelope, and if you have just enough altitude, you’ll make it. However, if you exceed the aircraft’s limits or your own, you may fly the airplane into an accelerated stall. If that stall is out of coordination, there’s a high likelihood the aircraft will spin.

If you’re a low-time pilot, I would like you to consider this: With over 10,000 hours of flight experience and 1,000 hours in my own airplane, below 800 feet agl, I’ll never consider turning back to the runway. The reasons are simple. I know I can control the airplane through a forced landing. I also know an engine failure can surprise anyone and may lead to hesitation of action. It could also lead to degraded pilot performance.
In other words, being surprised may cause you to accidentally spin the airplane during an attempt to return to the field. If you hit the ground out of control in a spin, all bets of survivability are off. On the other hand, landing straight ahead under control will probably turn into a nonevent, even if it’s on a road.

Joe Clark is a CFI with more than 6,000 hours dual given and has been teaching since 1978. A former Navy attack pilot, he serves as an assistant professor at Embry-RiddleAeronauticalUniversity in Daytona Beach, Florida.

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