How to Choose an Emergency Landing Spot in an Airplane

Photo © Ben Salter/flickr

They say it’s not “if” but “when” you’ll have to land an airplane somewhere other than the airport. And there are many accident reports that tell the story of successful off-field landings. During flight training, students practice emergency or "off-field" landings frequently in order to prepare in case there is an actual emergency. When was the last time you practiced an engine-out procedure or an off-field landing in your airplane?

If it's been a awhile, take the time to revisit emergency procedures, including how to choose an off-field landing spot. 

There are many reasons that you might have to put an airplane down in a field or on a road, or somewhere there is not a runway. An engine failure due to fuel starvation is probably the most common reason, but an off-field landing can be the result of structural failure, an engine or cockpit fire, a bird strike, or any number of emergencies that force you to land or that cause you to choose to make a precautionary landing somewhere off of the airport. 

So how do you choose a place to land? Well, first consider yourself lucky if you have to choice in the matter. Many times, there's simply nowhere to land, or the only option is a small road or tiny field that you aren't sure you'll be able to land in. But what if you do have options? Is it better to land in a field or on a road?

This is a question that cant really be answered, at least not without considering many other factors like traffic, surrounding terrain and obstacles, wind direction and speed, how much altitude you have, and the glide distance of the aircraft, but here are a few advantages and disadvantages to off-field landing spots:

Fields

Fields are usually very good options for forced landings. They're wide open, empty, and unpopulated. They're often flat and free of obstacles, and offer plenty of space for a long landing if you overshoot. But use caution: Fields can have hidden obstacles like fence posts and irrigation lines. And depending on what's growing, you may be in for a bumpy landing. A corn field, for example might actually destroy an airplane, while a freshly plowed hay field might cushion the landing. And a freshly tilled field might look inviting, but if it's wet enough, will cause your airplane to sink into the mud and cartwheel. 

Roads

Roads can be good landing sites, but only if there are no traffic or pedestrians on them. Always choose a field over a road if there are cars or there is a possibility of cars on the road. You're responsible for not becoming a hazard to other people on the ground. Sometimes there's no other option, but when there is, a field is probably best. 

A paved or a dirt road that's not in use is an obvious choice for an off-field landing. It's hard enough to make a normal landing with little or no damage to the airplane. But just like any other landing site, be aware of hidden obstacles like fence posts and power lines- they often aren't visible until you're very close to them and out of options.

 

Other landing areas

Besides a field or a road, there are a few other suitable landing areas that might help minimize destruction and save your life. Look for beaches, dried lake beds, shorelines or dirt patches. Anything on flat terrain will be better than hilly or rocky terrain. A beach is a fine option as long as there aren't any people around. The waves might mask the sound of your engine - if it's making any noise at all - and people might not see you coming. 

 

When there is nowhere to go... 

In the event that you have an inflight emergency or a power failure that requires an off-field landing, and you're left with no good landing spots, don't panic. Many aircraft have landed on top of trees or in water and survived just fine.

If you're over a forested area and a tree landing is inevitable, the only thing you can do is prepare the aircraft for an emergency landing and concentrate on making the approach as slow and as stable as possible.

A slow approach near stall speed with minimal descent rate and minimal forward speed with increase your chance of survival and minimize wreckage. 

Ditching on water might be one of the most challenging of all of the potential emergency landing events. The landing requires a bit more finesse in order to not cartwheel or flip over. With enough speed or in an uncontrolled state, water impact can be like hitting a wall. But a nice controlled landing might mean you'll survive, as long as you can swim to shore or have a life vest and the water isn't too cold. Hypothermia sets in quickly in cold oceanic water. 

 

In all cases, the most important thing is to continue to fly the airplane. No matter where you are, a controlled approach and landing is better than an accident and subsequent fire.