I’ve often made wry reference to the coward’s credo that discretion is the better part of valor. Aside from past tales of gallant heroes battling against great odds in wartime skies, fearless courage usually bears little or nothing of value in civil aviation, and too often brings only grief, not glory. All pilots know that risk assessment is an ever-present task, and all pilots train to expect the unexpected. There is one skill in particular which is seldom needed, but always mandatory, which is called upon should mechanical or other problems ever get the better of us, and that involves knowing how to successfully execute a forced landing. There is another kind of courage needed however, during times when all is not yet lost, when that special blend of knowledge and trust in one’s own judgment dictates the best course of action to be…the precautionary landing.
I can immediately think of one such landing that I’ve made. As you might expect, I remember it well. It was while I was on a cross-country flight as a student pilot. I was perhaps 45 minutes from my destination, but the fuel gauges in the Cessna 150 were bouncing around the one-quarter mark, and I was feeling increasingly apprehensive that I might not have enough fuel left, despite my meticulous planning. I saw an airport nearby, made a snap decision to land there and top off, and that’s exactly what I did-not very dramatic, perhaps, but that’s just fine with me. And I’ve made a few more, since.
The difficulty in making a precautionary landing doesn’t come from the landing itself, of course. The hard part is admitting that the flight is not progressing favorably, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s deteriorating weather; it could be unforecast headwinds or a simple blunder in the estimated fuel usage; or it might be mechanical in origin. It might just be second thoughts over something about which you might not have been overly concerned-until you were out there, doing it; flying over a wide expanse of heavily wooded terrain, flying a single-engine aircraft at night over unlit and unpopulated areas-it doesn’t matter. We’re used to having things go as we’d planned them. (This phenomenon of conditioned expectancy also accounts for the instances in which a pilot does land, because that’s what he had been intending to do, when in fact a go-around would have been the wiser choice.) The solution, as saccharine-simple as it may sound, can sometimes come from doing just what I alluded to at the beginning: before things can go from bad to worse, blow that bugle and call retreat.
Of course, some things that might make a VFR-only pilot consider an intermediate stop, such as lowering ceilings and visibility, probably wouldn’t do much to adversely affect the peace of mind for someone IFR-rated and on an instrument flight plan. Rough-running engines or howling headwinds on the other hand will evoke notice across a broad spectrum of experience and pilot qualifications. Fuel reserves are often involved in deliberations over unplanned stops. If there is an airport nearby, most of us can find out just how far and in which direction with one or two button punches on our GPS (or Loran), and in addition we’ll probably see runway lengths and fuel availability. And that brings out the best thing about precautionary landings: you still have options, and in many cases you still get to choose a runway over a roadway (or a fairway). If you’ve planned your route well, you’ll already have a reasonably good idea as to the direction and distances to the nearest safe haven when you begin to have doubts about any aspect of the flight. You don’t need the aggravation and anxiety, and you sure as heck don’t need embarrassment. As I sat there worrying about running out of fuel, I considered the fact that any short delay would be well worth the time. After all, anxiety is not among the things to which those who make the century mark attribute their long life; any delay in your aircraft, you’ll probably make up for when you’re back on the ground, later.
But what if it’s one of those situations where something isn’t right, but it isn’t the sort of thing that is likely to give you much time? Say the engine is running rough and the oil temperature is climbing. You look around, and there isn’t any prepared surface anywhere in sight. How would you handle that? Well, the first thing I’d do is convert excess airspeed to altitude and climb until the airspeed reached something that I’d use in entering a traffic pattern. (I’d advise that whether it was a rough-running engine, or a dead one.) If I had the luxury of altitude, I’d pick from among the choices of landing spots on the way down, and select the winner well before I got to the altitude above ground that would be my ‘downwind, abeam the numbers’ reference point. I’d plan on doing a soft-field landing (though not necessarily a soft-field approach). As I was gliding in on my downwind and then base legs, I’d be trying to keep the same sight picture as I’m used to in any normal pattern, although I would obviously be more mindful of using a best-glide airspeed and might not deploy more than 10 degrees of flaps until I was fairly low. I’d stay aware of wind, and I would be watching out for any obstructions or unsuitable terrain as I got descended. If it started looking ugly and I still had power, I’d climb back up and search for another port in the storm. Otherwise, I’d glide until I knew I had my spot made with plenty of altitude to spare, and then I would probably deploy flaps to increase my descent (or use a forward slip) until I was about 100 feet up. At that point, I might deploy full flaps, touch down on the main wheels at 1.3VSO, and keep the nose wheel off the ground as long as possible, using power as needed and available.
Some likely candidates to look for, should this ever happen to you, might include golf courses, or unplowed ground. In general, look for dry, light brown fields, not wet or dark brown ones, and not plowed fields, either. I’d stay away from secondary roadways, because you probably won’t see overhanging wires until it’s too late, and unless you’re particularly lucky, you can’t count on motorists having the presence of mind to cordially let you cut in while you’re busy having your emergency. My other advice is to practice diversions, always include alternate airport information in your flight planning, and of course, keep a running survey going as you’re flying along, as to what area-or spots if you’re under a couple of thousand feet up-that you would head for, if your engine skips a beat. That way, your heart might not have to.