During initial flight training, pilots are taught to be constantly on the lookout for a good emergency landing site. This so-called “landing game” often goes something like this:
Instructor: If the engine were to quit right now, where would you land?
Student: Uh…. Uhhh… (quickly scanning the surroundings)—umm...over there? On that __________? Fill in the blank with field, road, beach, parking lot, factory roof.
Sometimes, rather than just asking, instructors pull the throttle to see how their student’s decision-making process goes. But what about after training? Do you sigh with relief that you don’t have to play this stressful game anymore—or do you keep playing?
Many seasoned pilots continue to play a high-altitude version of the landing game, always looking for appropriate places to put down should the need arise. Some even incorporate the game into their scanning routine: Oil pressure and engine instruments look good. Yep, I’m on course and heading. Fuel’s where it should be. Flight instruments A-OK. Scanning for traffic…looks like I have the sky to myself. Ah, nice country road off to the right at 2 o’clock that I can land on if the engine fails.
The idea is that if you’re always thinking about where to land if the engine quits, you’ll be prepared should it really happen, and there will be one less thing to worry about.
But you can do more than just scan for spots where you think you could land.
When was the last time you actually dropped down from your cruising altitude to take a closer look at one of the places you chose during your game? It’s amazing how the higher you are, the better an open spot looks—but when you get closer, the blemishes really start to show up. Oh dear: That field is crisscrossed with fences. Huh: I didn’t see those power lines from 5,000 feet. Wow, those rocks sure are big.
Periodically fly lower and have a look. Looking closer now and again helps to sharpen your skills in choosing the right kind of sites.
Choosing the perfect emergency landing spot does you no good if you can’t get to it. So just how far can you go if the prop stops spinning? Review the best glide speeds and ratios in your pilot’s operating handbook (POH), but don’t stop there. Put them to the test. In a safe area, reduce power to idle, establish best glide speed, and then see far you really get. A glide test like this doesn’t need to be done close to the ground. It can be conducted at any altitude, and a GPS on a tablet is a handy way to track both the altitude loss and distance covered across the Earth’s surface.
Several factors will affect maximum glide distance—wind being the most significant—but weight, altitude, and temperature also play a role that can subtract enough range to make the difference between clearing a row of trees and turning your airplane into a treehouse.
Equally important to how far your airplane actually can go if operating as a glider is how well you, the pilot, can judge distances.
So you are flying a Cessna 172 at 3,100 feet above ground level when the engine fails. Having a stellar memory for detail, and being a mathematical genius, you know that you can glide precisely 27,900 feet at the best glide speed of 65 knots indicated airspeed with the 172’s optimal glide ratio of 9:1.
Great! Now, how sure are you that you can look out the windscreen and identify a spot 27,900 feet away? Because if you misjudge, and that perfect landing site is really 27,975 feet away, you have a problem.
Math aside, a great way to refine your distance judgment is do emergency landing dry runs. Choose a spot you “know” you can make, chop the power, and see if you were right. (We called it a dry run because empty fuel tanks still are the leading cause of engine failures.)
Another way to stretch your distance-judging muscles without getting your heart rate up is to look at features along your route of flight, estimate their distance visually, and then see whether you are right or wrong by using your GPS or watch.
Many pilots have a tendency to look for an emergency landing site that’s at the far end of their best glide range. It’s a natural tendency, as no one likes maneuvering a dead airplane, and of course gliding as far as possible also means staying in the air as long as possible—giving you time to troubleshoot the failure and possibly restart the engine.
But that distant area clear of trees might not look so hospitable when you get closer to it—remember the fences, power lines, and big rocks?—and by then you may be out of options.
In fact, sometimes the safest spot to land is right below you, and the best way to get down to it is a descending spiral, also known as a corkscrew. A corkscrew gets you down without the risk of getting too far away at the same time. Practice power-off corkscrew descents so you’ll be comfortable with them if you need one.
Of course, the descent is only half the picture, and the easy half at that. How do you plan a corkscrew so that at the bottom, you’re over the intended site of your emergency landing zone, oriented in the proper direction? By practicing full-stop corkscrews, of course.
Seriously, not only is it easily done, but it’s a total blast as well, and it will help you build a skill that could prove crucial in an emergency. Many rural airstrips are perfect for practicing corkscrew descents and landings. Just be sure to broadcast the dickens out of your intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency, as anyone else in the area is unlikely to be looking for you in a corkscrew traffic pattern.
Come in high above the pattern altitude and start with a turn about a point around your intended touchdown zone. Then cut the power and use a corkscrew landing pattern. Odds are you’ll be heading in the wrong direction close to the ground on your first try, but don’t worry about it. This is why we practice. If the winds are calm and the runway is long enough, plan your touchdown for midfield the first few times just in case the engine actually quits during practice.
A corkscrew can terminate in a standard landing pattern or extend all the way to final. Practice both; terrain will dictate which you’ll need to deploy in a real emergency.
Sometimes there just aren’t places to land, and no sensible detour in flight planning or increase in altitude can resolve that. All of us sometimes take flights over hostile terrain that offers very little in the way of ideal emergency landing spots.
So does the game stop with: Well, if the engine quit right now, I’d be screwed? It shouldn’t. Rather than hoping the engine won’t conk out at the worst possible time, this might be a good time to refresh your mental preparedness in “flying through the crash.”
Maintaining control until the airplane stops moving will increase your survival odds in even the worst of circumstances. A controlled impact into the ground—even lousy ground—is always better than stalling and falling out of the sky.
Landing dead stick—regardless if it’s on a runway, a corn field, a swamp, or a mountainside—feels different from our routine landings. In theory, a stabilized approach requires no power adjustments, but how often do you really go from abeam the numbers to touchdown without playing with the throttle?
So practice power-off landings—we’re talking throttle at idle here, not mags off—from various parts of the pattern on a slow day or at a sleepy airport. Keep your hands off the throttle and modify your pattern to touch down where you want to. Sure, it may look sloppy, but it will help you get comfortable with the dead-stick landing and boost your skill set in setting the bird down precisely where you want it to be in a real emergency.
Or take it to the ultimate level: Get with an appropriate backcountry instructor (in an appropriate backcounty aircraft) and get checked out on soft-field landings on a primitive strip. Or on no strip at all. It will help you build the confidence and skills that you need to execute an emergency landing from which you can walk away.