Getting Down Safely

If the engine quits, flying the airplane at a speed greater than stall speed is the number one priority, but once the airplane glide is safely under control, the pilot must make the next most important decision.

Where will I land?

Pilots often use an acronym to help them make proper decisions in the midst of a potential panic situation. To help select an emergency landing site, I use the letters WATO. That doesn’t really spell anything, but it helps me remember that when selecting an emergency landing site, I must consider the Wind, my Altitude, the landing area’s Terrain and any Obstructions I must cross to get to the site.

The letters are arranged in the order that these factors should be considered

  1. If you do not plan for the wind, you will not make it to a field or be able to stay in a field. Pilots should always know the direction the wind is coming from when they fly. I look at the DG and notice the wind direction and its angle to the airplane. Even in an emergency you should make every effort to land into the wind just like any other landing. Attempting a tailwind landing will be difficult and the wind may just carry you across a great landing site into an area that is not so great.
  2. The altitude you have will determine the options that are available. Where it is possible you should use your altitude to fly a normal traffic pattern to the landing site. You have practiced countless engine out exercises in the traffic pattern and, from this, you have gained judgement and perspective. Now, put that judgement to use for real. When practicing engine-outs, I always try to notice when we descend below the normal traffic pattern altitude and fly to the landing site just like it was my home runway. It is usually better to select a nearby field or one below you rather than to strike out on a long distance glide. You may not make the field in the first place and the field may not look as good up close as it did from afar.
  3. The terrain is the next most important consideration. You would prefer a flat, low-cut, grass field to land on, but that might be hard to find. At least, you must find a surface that is near flat. Try not to land across a plowed field and be ready for a surprisingly rough touchdown. Any vegetation or crops will pull the airplane to a quick stop. With this in mind, you can select a fairly short field because you will not have a long rollout anyway. Tighten shoulder harness in preparation for a fast stop.
  4. Finally, you must consider any obstructions that might cross the approach path. The biggest threat is powerlines. The fact that powerlines often cross roads and highways is reason enough to discount a highway as a potential landing site. The only flat area to land on might be the floor of a valley, and so hills on all sides might provide obstacles to content with. Cellular telephone towers are now everywhere and these also could turn an adequate landing site into a hazard.

Consider Wind, Altitude, Terrain, and Obstructions (WATO) when selecting an emergency landing location and you will have done all you can do to walk away unhurt when the engine quits. Best of luck … and may you never have cause to use anything you’ve read here.