Commitment Point

October 1, 2007

Emergency landing strategies

Some lessons we are taught, or teach, often lead to new ones being learned. For instance, when practicing a simulated engine failure as a student pilot, we often do so from a number of different altitudes, from a low-level failure with little time to deal with the problem to a cruise altitude failure with loads of time to troubleshoot and try to restart the engine before committing to an emergency landing, possibly off the airport.

I used to teach primarily over the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is predominantly farmland and is as flat as a sheet of plywood. Rather than a lack of suitable landing sites, there were too many of them, but, hey, you've got to start somewhere, and that's a good problem to have. Like any instructor, I always preached to my students that even though the rehearsal was just that, there was always the very real possibility that it might become the real thing. Unlikely, but possible, and it has happened (although fortunately not to me).

One day, while putting a student through the paces, we started the drill at a relatively high altitude of about 2,000 feet agl, and the student was doing a dandy job of getting the airplane set up for a possible landing on a field he had picked out and we had agreed upon. As we descended through about 1,000 feet agl we noticed that the field suddenly was not so good. Now that we were lower, we could see some standing water we hadn't seen before, and on top of that there were some kids playing in the mud who had been obscured by the tree line. We immediately did a go-around and discussed what had happened.

On the ground, I started thinking about what could have been had our practice event turned into the real thing. From that day on, I decided that all of my students would pick not just one field, but two, and that they would be as close to each other as they could practically be. My rationale was that if we got down low, and something about the first field became obviously undesirable, I wanted a "Plan B." If you think about it, that should be obvious. Aviation is all about "Plan Bs" — having in mind or on hand a contingency or two or three — and this situation really should be no different. The plain plan for the airplane (sorry) in this case was to make sure that, whenever feasible, we'd have an emergency backup for the emergency landing field.

My new rules for an emergency landing field would be to find a primary spot, followed by one that would allow a turn of no more than 30 to 45 degrees of heading change at an altitude of 400 feet agl. I came up with a list of reasons why I wanted to do this. In addition to the experience described earlier, it was possible that a wind shift would lead to overshooting the intended field, that previously unseen obstructions might become visible, or that in the adrenaline-powered hurry to get down, we'd be too high to land safely on the field of choice. Also, engine problems of the real sort are almost never as sterile as they are on training flights. There may be smoke in the cockpit, oil on the windscreen, or the windshield may be shattered from hitting a flock of birds (or migrating geese or ducks on the Delmarva Peninsula) that would make forward visibility limited or even zero, and having an option that allows for side-window visibility is a comforting thought. At least to me it is.

Also, I realized that my new change in procedure was going to require another decision point as well. I wanted to take away the temptation to change emergency landing points at what might literally be the last possible second. In order to do this, I began to ingrain into my students that we would have a Commitment Point or, more specifically, a commitment altitude. The purpose of this would be to accept the fact that there comes a time during the event that we must accept our fate and land. For my purposes, I decided that when we reached an altitude of no less than 400 feet agl, and possibly a higher one, we were committed to landing on whatever field we were facing. At that point it is less risky to go ahead and land straight ahead than it is to engage in what could be low-altitude, low-speed, maneuvering flight without an operating powerplant. At that point you are generally less than 30 seconds from touching down somewhere, and that is no time for being wishy-washy.

The first student I put through these new paces handled it beautifully and actually added a new wrinkle to the equation (this is the part where the instructor learns from the student). The two fields he chose were sort of catty-corner to each other, and his tactic was to approach so that he was aiming right between them, with neither one the immediately obvious choice. As we passed through 700 and 600 feet agl, he began to weigh his options and the prevailing winds, and at 500 feet agl he began to turn to his field of choice. Had we needed to continue to a landing, it would have worked out perfectly using either field. I was duly impressed, and so from that point on, if students didn't make this same decision themselves (it was amazing how many of them did), I'd do a demo after their first effort to show them the alternate way to do it. Now I had an alternate procedure to an alternate emergency procedure. How cool is that!

Contingencies, alternate plans, and emergency procedures all are a part of aviation. The lesson to learn is that even when things are bad and getting worse, if you have or can create a backup plan, then you should do so; but it must be done without compromising safety, and the procedure must be adapted for different equipment. The basic premise of a Commitment Point will work for any type of airplane, but you will probably need to adjust that commitment altitude up for heavier aircraft, which descend faster than your average trainer. Most important, after you practice this procedure and come up with the number that works best for your airplane, you need to commit to not deviating from that altitude in the event you really are faced with an off-airport emergency landing.

At a certain point, just like an impending car accident, it really is safer to land straight ahead and to take your lumps than it is to try to perform a low-altitude turn or other maneuver that only adds more risk with little margin for reward.

Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a regional airline captain.