Night Forced Landings by Peter Bedell

When it comes to flying small airplanes, there’s not much that’s worse than having to make a forced landing at night. Let’s face it, most aircraft owners and pilots who fly for pleasure are going to do it during the day; that’s just the way it usually works out. Although it’s not the only factor affecting the decision, most pilots are aware of the increased risk of flying at night and elect to fly during the day to minimize that risk.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that night-time flight is potentially more hazardous, because flying in the dark has lots of advantages: It’s usually smoother because thermal heating is at a minimum; traffic is lighter, allowing more freedom in routing; and other airplanes are generally easier to see. When everything is working well, night flight is one of the most peaceful and pleasurable flying experiences. And given the reliability of the engines that power our airplanes, night flight is statistically a very safe operation. Interestingly, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s 1998 Nall Report shows that the overall-and fatal- accident rates per 100,000 hours flown were lower in night visual meteorological conditions (VMC) than during day VMC flights. This is likely because those flying at night tend to be professional pilots, whereas the day-trippers tend to be recreational pilots. In instrument meteorological conditions, there were more total accidents at night, but fewer people lost their lives at night than those flying in the clouds during the day. Again, these figures depend on many factors such as the ratings and experience of the pilots making those trips, but they reinforce the fact that night flight can be just as safe as daytime flights.

In a single, if your engine quits at night, you’re in a whole heap of trouble, especially if the weather is poor. We pilots are our own worst enemy when it comes to engine stoppages. Pilots who run tanks dry (fuel starvation) or run out of fuel completely (fuel exhaustion) cause the majority of engine failures. Pilots who practice conservative fuel planning and have a good understanding of the fuel system of the airplane they fly drastically reduce the chances of having a pilot induced engine stoppage. Regardless of whether you caused the engine to fail or Murphy’s Law has made you the chosen one this evening, you’ve got a serious problem.

The first thing to do is to set up the airplane for the best-glide speed and trim it to fly hands-off. Run through the engine failure checklist to attempt to get the engine running again. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that the engine will not relight, and that you will have to make a forced landing. Your first question should be, “Where am I?” If you’re totally dependent on GPS, and it’s not equipped with a moving map, you may not have the foggiest clue where you are-all you know is that you are 173 miles west of your home airport. You can punch the nearest-airport button on your GPS or loran unit. If your aircraft isn’t so equipped, hopefully you had your finger following along on a chart, or some nearby VORs tuned in to quickly triangulate your position.

GPS units with terrain databases that feature roads, lakes, and other cartographic depictions could prove helpful in such a situation. With one of these units, you may be able to determine whether that dark spot below you is a lake. And if it’s a lake that you suspect is surrounded by trees, then ditching in the lake becomes your best option for a forced landing. Since it’s very hard to determine your height above water at night, the glassy-water-landing technique used by seaplane pilots would come in handy here.

If you are IFR or receiving VFR traffic advisories, call the controller and declare an emergency, pronto. (If you are flying VFR on your own, which is not such a good idea at night, then transmit a Mayday call on 121.5 MHz.) Squawk 7700 on the transponder and ask the controller where the nearest airport is. If it’s IFR, find out where the best weather is. If there isn’t any, then you’ll have to head for the most benign terrain available and hope that when you break out you can maneuver to a safe landing spot. If you’re over mountains, cold (but not frozen) water, or forest, the outcome looks more dismal. On the other hand, if you’re over a dry lakebed, flat terrain, or a thoroughly frozen body of water, then consider yourself lucky. For example, if your engine quits over Nebraska, you have a darn good chance of setting down in a nice wheat field and walking away without a scratch on you, your passengers, or your airplane.

Analyzing the terrain at night takes a sort of sixth sense if there’s no moon or the airplane does not have weather radar to map the terrain. Is that dark spot on the ground a lake, a forest, or a field? Wouldn’t it be great to have a set of night-vision goggles that the armed forces use? Seriously, these vision enhancers are now being sold to the public at a cost that’s far less than going out and buying a twin for night-flying security. We haven’t tested a set in an airplane yet but would think that a set could help.

If it’s a moonless or overcast night, ambient light is nil and you may be forced to make some tough choices. In such cases, lighted roads or highways can be your savior. Of course, landing on a road opens you up to the chance of harming drivers, so be very cautious about executing your forced landing on a road.

When setting up to land on or near a road, be wary of power lines and overpasses. If it looks doubtful that you can make it over these obstacles, you should plan to go under them. Trying to stretch the glide over the obstacle could lead to a stall, whereas going under the obstacle with extra speed allows you to remain in full control of the airplane.

Hopefully, automotive traffic will be light and you can land on the pavement. To minimize the potential for a collision with a vehicle, it’s best to land in the same direction as the traffic on a divided highway. Light singles approach and land at speeds nearly identical to highway speed limits, making the airplane’s ability to merge with light traffic a definite possibility. If you land against traffic in the hopes that somebody will see the landing light(s) and pull off the road, you’re putting too much faith in the ability of drivers to act quickly to something they’ve probably never seen before. By the time the driver sees your landing light it’ll be too late, and instead of a collision at or near the same speed, you could be looking at a head-on collision with a vehicle that’s twice as heavy as your airplane.

If the highway has a level median strip, you may be able to land there with little or no chance of hurting anyone or anything. Even if the median is beveled, you should still consider landing there since it’s better to break up your airplane a little than cause a multi-car pileup on the interstate.

In June, a near-catastrophe for all of GA occurred when a Cessna 402A made a daytime forced landing on a Van Nuys, California, road. According to the NTSB preliminary report, the twin Cessna rolled down the road, running a red light at an intersection where two school buses filled with children were crossing in opposite directions. The 402’s tip tanks were sheared off as it hit the front ends of the two school buses. The airplane slid to a stop soon afterward. One bus driver and one child were injured. There was no fire. Why? Because the NTSB preliminary report indicated that there was no fuel in the 402’s tip (main) tanks. It’s amazing how one pilot’s poor planning could have affected so many innocent people. To read a copy of the NTSB report, see the Web site (

As this accident illustrates, pilots of twins aren’t immune from forced landings. If one engine of a twin packs it in, depending upon cruising altitude and load, the pilot may not be able to maintain altitude. For example, if the single-engine service ceiling of your twin is 4,500 feet and you’re flying over 6,000 foot peaks at 7,000 feet when one engine quits, you’d better find an airport in a valley-quickly. Even while maintaining the best single-engine rate of climb speed, the airplane will gradually begin descending to its new service ceiling-which will depend on a number of factors such as density altitude, load, and pilot technique. If you are forced to descend into clouds filled with ice, you may be committed to an off-airport landing just like the pilot of a single.

In order to survive this “nightmare of aviation nightmares,” pilots need to start at the planning phase. For example, taking a flight at night over mountains with questionable weather should raise a red flag or two in your mind. What will be your escape plan? Cruising at higher-than-normal altitudes to be within gliding distance of an airport is a good start, but keep in mind that the body is more susceptible to hypoxia as altitude increases. Bring that oxygen bottle. Also utilize ATC whenever possible by using VFR flight following or by filing IFR. Following these basic tips can make night flight a less-puckering, yet more pleasurable affair.

Reprinted with permission AOPA Pilot November 1999

Peter A. Bedell