Forced Landings: Down, But Not Out

For most of us, if our engine quits, we’re going down. It happens, though not often. About half the time, it’s either because a pilot exhausted his fuel, starved the engine by attempting flight with a tank that had none left, or forgot about that red knob. An additional fourth or so are attributable to maintenance issues. And about another ten percent are attributable to fuel contamination. These data come only from those events in which a forced landing resulted in an “NTSB 830 classifiable accident” but based on these, a forced landing occurs about once every 200,000 hours: many times more than most of us will ever get to fly.

The FAA says it’s an “immediate landing, on or off an airport, necessitated by the inability to continue further flight.” Of course, very often when something goes amiss under the cowling, it doesn’t do so suddenly and without warning. I won’t philosophize here about the fact that almost no precautionary landings ever result in fatalities; about all I’ll say is that when a pilot exercises wishful thinking instead of the option of a precautionary landing, that’s when he goes from the frying pan into the fire. (Actually, nothing bad need happen; being low on fuel, worsening weather, or just being hopelessly lost might justify one.) The benefit of course is that a pilot has more time and options (as well as power) to plan an approach and landing. The reasons why someone might wait until there are no options (and no power) run far and wide. Some hope to save the airplane (or himself) from damage in a rough landing. Some simply won’t acknowledge that something’s wrong (wishful thinking again) or even “analysis paralysis” (indecision, if you will). But for argument’s sake, let’s say your engine plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” on you, and it’s a total surprise…

They happen in all types of airplanes — even airliners. Air Transat Flight 236 was an Airbus A330-200 that August 24, 2001, lost its second engine due to fuel starvation at 34,500 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and 85 nautical miles from Lajes Airport on Terceira Island. The plane and passengers and crew made it. (The tires didn’t.) But I digress… Generally, the bigger the airplane and the higher the stall speed, the more severe the consequences. With fixed gear singles, the outcome results in serious injury or worse only about five percent of the time. (Two thirds of the time, there are no injuries at all.) It’s about twice that for retractable-gear airplanes and at least five times poorer for twins. For those very few airliners, things went from bad to worse about two-thirds of the time (or fifteen times as bad). You can put all kinds of spin on statistics, I know, but for us single-engine fry, the odds of having an engine quit and getting hurt or worse are about once in a few million hours. Even of those who didn’t make the field and wound up in the trees, many (like the fellow whose flight plan was lost wasn’t allowed into the DC ADIZ and hit some trees) didn’t involve serious injury.

Here are some observations you can use to improve the odds of not getting banged up if you lose power during cruise:

  • Always be mentally prepared to deal with an engine failure at any time (which might theoretically preclude your needing the other Rule Number One).
  • Fly high: At 3000 feet, even the clunkiest airplane has over 60 square (statute) miles of potential landing area available — at 5000 feet, it’s at least 175. Over mountainous areas, fly at least somewhere within reach of “land-able” roads.
  • Don’t panic; you’ll have more important things to do. Loss of control and subsequent injury become much more likely when you’re in auto-flail mode, instead of checklist mode. Remember to fly the airplane!
  • Prepare your passengers: seats all the way aft for the front seat passengers. For rear-seaters with lap belts only, lap belts tight and bending forward and down in the crash position just before touchdown. In the meantime, have someone arm the ELT; have them scout for landing sites. Do as much as you can to keep them calm.
  • The wind. Remember where it’s coming from. If you can make use of it, do.
  • The pattern. Even though you’re flying a glider, you should make a reasonably normal (but tight) pattern. Why? Because you will benefit from retaining as much “normality” as you can, in an unfamiliar situation. However, if you find yourself high on final, do not circle or turn away from the field. Watch your speed and make steep S-turns. Allow the aircraft to lose altitude in the turns. Do not try to hold it up; you will stall.
  • Know where you are. It also doesn’t hurt to know how to punch in that handy “nearest airport” on your GPS, and having those moving maps sure comes in handy.
  • Mayday“, squawk 7700, and get all the assistance you can from ATC. Just don’t count on them to save you; that’s your job.

If you lose power during climb:

  • Many rotation speeds are near stall speeds; be ready to lower the nose briskly if the engine quits suddenly at a very low altitude.
  • Fight the “turn back” reflex; it’s a proven killer. Almost half of the serious accidents in both singles and twins occur right after takeoff during an attempt to turn back at an insufficient altitude.
  • Use a shoulder harness, and cinch it up as tight as you can; a hard landing is much less likely to make a bad impression on you than if your upper torso jackknifes up and forward into the panel.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Engine failures are uncommon. If they were common, you’d be prepared for them. Prepare for the uncommon. Next time we’ll look at preventive measures…