Forced Landings: Preventive Measures

Not every engine-out need take you by surprise and even if there’s nothing you can do about the problem, having some warning that its coming and some knowledge of its nature will always help. Generally speaking, your mission as a safe pilot is not simply to fly the airplane but also to account and compensate for those variables that might otherwise do you in. This means you must acquire knowledge of and / or take the proactive steps that will minimize or remove those threats. The steps listed below, are designed to help you prevent a forced landing due to engine failure, and survive one should it happen anyway…


  • Instrumentation: If you can afford it, an exhaust gas temperature gauge — especially, an instrument showing individual cylinder head temperatures — can give you advance notice, prior to sudden silence.
  • Pick your battles. Most of us fly for pleasure. If you must fly a single-engine airplane somewhere at night, pick a night near a full moon. Fly higher. Bring and use oxygen. File IFR, or get flight following. (And if you can afford ’em, get some night vision goggles!)
  • Your fuel system. Know it, love it. Manage your fuel properly, use carburetor heat if you even think you might need it, use the right kind of fuel, and check your sumps.
  • Memorize engine failure checklists. (Most involve changing everything that can be changed.) They contain vitally important things like setting the prop to the low rpm (assuming you still have oil pressure), or unlatching all doors. (If you’re really paranoid, keep your POH’s “Emergency Procedures” section bookmarked — yes, the old fashioned way — and at the ready.) There may be circumstances where the added structural rigidity gained by leaving the doors closed may be more important, but follow your POH.
  • Twins. If you’re in a twin, don’t fly over inhospitable areas with elevations greater than your single-engine service ceiling — at least at night.

KEEPING IT IN THE AIR (this, too, shall pass)

  • Speeds. Don’t just remember best glide speed; have it engraved in memory. Remember to keep it nailed if you need the most distance out of your altitude. Use your trim so that your mind can concentrate on other things! If you do have the field made, and you want to buy yourself some time, there’s a speed not too far above stall speed known as minimum sink speed. At this speed, your vertical descent rate is at a minimum (but again, you’re close to stall, so beware).
  • Best glide speed is weight-dependent. If you have sufficient altitude, consider using your VSI to optimize your glide; that five fewer knots at lighter weights might make the difference.
  • Time vs. Distance. There is controversy over whether or not to trade excess airspeed for altitude in the event of sudden engine failure. With a sudden engine failure, I’d like to think that I’d have enough presence of mind to pull back to best glide speed.


  • Nighttime. It doesn’t get much worse than a forced landing at night. That “if you don’t like what you see, turn off the landing lights” is cute, not helpful; leave them on. Fate is blind enough, as it is. (Just remember to turn the master off just before you reach the ground.) Speaking of lights, if you see any in that vast panorama of black out there, head for them. You’ll be closer to assistance and closer to the people and facilities that give it.
  • Terrain. The lower you get, the better you’ll see what it’s really like down there. If you see something better, as a rule of thumb, changing your mind once might be sensible. Changing your mind a second time is probably ill-advised.
  • Roads. Unless the road is deserted and you can really see there are no telephone poles, wires, or that the median strip really would make a nice turf runway, you risk loss of control or hitting a panicked driver on the ground. Having an insurance assessor shake his head over your airframe is highly preferred over seeing your defense attorney do it. (If you have no other choice, land with the traffic, not against it!)
  • Mountains. In mountainous terrain, consider ridge orientation, and if faced with a hilly arrival, landing on gently up-sloping terrain is preferable.
  • Wind. Unless terrain or obstacles dictate otherwise, always land into the wind. Crosswind landings should not be amongst your problems today … forward progress, yes. Minimize it.
  • Picky-Picky. Remember you don’t have the luxury of being choosy; a mediocre forced landing area with enough altitude is better than the perfect field that requires a stretched glide.


  • Landing gear: extend it, (but only when you’re quite sure you can make the field with all that drag hanging out there and no power). It won’t survive a rough field, but will absorb a bit of the kinetic energy otherwise destined for your butt. Speaking of buts, if your gear is wing mounted and you have a dead engine for some reason other than having no fuel left (i.e., risking a ruptured tank) or you’re facing the sea or mud … in which case, leave the gear up.
  • Flaps should be used only when you are absolutely sure you’ll reach the selected landing area. You had better be sure that you have anticipated the resulting steeper glide path
  • Steep arrivals are far less survivable. Keep the descent rate low.


  • Rollout. Do whatever you need to do to keep the cockpit and cabin structure intact. That may translate to a sacrifice of wings, the landing gear and the bottom of the fuselage. Aim for bushes, not boulders; or fences and haystacks, and not houses and hills. A corn or wheat field makes for very effective arresting gear. (Obviously, this wouldn’t be your first choice in a precautionary landing.)
  • Impact. Hit the softest, cheapest thing you can, as slowly as possible. Maintain the aircraft well under control and make sure the thing you hit is of your choosing. The laws of physics will be gearing up to make a physical imprint on you. A crash at 85 knots will be twice as severe as one at 60 knots (almost exactly, as a matter of fact).
  • Pain. A general aviation airplane is designed for nine G’s of forward deceleration. Translation: If you are moving forward at normal single-engine touchdown speeds when you impact the ground and enjoy uniform deceleration, you’d be stopped in the length of a car. So long as the sink rate isn’t high, ground contact at a reasonably low airspeed will probably have less impact (to you) than an automobile collision.


  • Survival. Being obsessive-compulsive can be a good thing: Have a survival kit, extra flashlights, clothing appropriate to the terrain over which you’re flying, water (and a cell phone, and …)
  • What next? Once you’re on the ground, if you’re in the middle of nowhere wondering what to do next, well, too bad if you didn’t already read”After the Fall.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: You should always be thinking about the things in your power that may eliminate the negative affects of things that are not. No one wants to go from risk management to damage control, but if an “attitude adjustment” ever strikes, keep thinking. These pearls won’t absolutely guarantee an uneventful arrival, but they’ll help.