Budd Davisson

Plane and Pilot, June, 2003

"When the brown stuff hits the fan that's no longer turning we'd better have our ducks in a row."

We’re about to talk about stuff no one likes to talk about. Many think conversations about emergencies and crashing are defeatist and negative and we agree that it’s not a fun subject. At the same time, it’s no different than teaching defensive driving: we plan for the very worse in the hopes that it doesn’t happen but with the goal of being ready for it if it does.

When discussing emergencies and how to crash an airplane it’s tough to make general statements because what applies to a given airplane in one situation doesn’t necessarily apply to a different airplane in another situation. Plus there are tons of controversies on the “best” way to handle some situations (gear up or gear down, shut off fuel, or use what power is left, etc.).

So much also depends on when and where the emergency happens. Losing an engine at 8,500 feet on cross-country over Nebraska is one thing. Losing it at the same altitude over parts of Colorado is something else and losing it on takeoff in either state is an entirely different situation. Because of the difficulty in making generalizations, we’re going talk concepts first and then put together a few checklists that apply to most situations.

The first part of preparing for any engine-out emergency, whether it’s on takeoff or cross-country, is to have a plan in mind ahead of time. Don’t expect your brain to be working at 100%, when the engine quits and panic nibbles at your common sense. When your brain shuts down (and it will), you have to have the plan and its supporting procedures so drilled into you that you can follow them with a minimum of coherent thought.

All that having been said, the old cliché behind all emergencies still applies: the three most important things are, fly the airplane, fly the airplane, fly the airplane. Many times accidents have unfortunate outcomes only because the pilot lets panic get the upper hand and he or she handles the airplane in a manner different than they would have normally. Too many times the pilot either stalls the airplane in from too high or slams it on in a desperate attempt at getting on the ground. Even an emergency landing made in the trees is still a normal landing until the last couple of feet and to deviate from standard practices (hold approach speed, hold it off, etc.) will result in a rougher than normal touchdown.

Okay, where are you going to put it? The road, the field? What about traffic? Have it worked out ahead of time.
The number one goal of your emergency, engine-out plan is to have a place picked out to put the airplane at ALL times. Not part of the time, ALL of the time. If you’re off the ground, you should have your emergency landing spot identified. Period. End of conversation.

On takeoff, when the throttle goes in, you should already be thinking about what you’re going to do with the airplane should it decide to quit at different places along the takeoff. In doing this we have to think about the airplane’s “energy foot print” and how that changes with altitude and speed. The energy footprint is defined, as that area around, or ahead of, the airplane that can be reached with the energy the airplane possesses at any given time.

Speed (kinetic energy) pushes the footprint out ahead of the airplane, which says the airplane has to land somewhere it can reach in front of it. The faster it goes, the further out the footprint moves. Altitude (potential energy) brings part of the foot print back towards the airplane and widens it out because the more altitude the airplane has, the more capable it is of reaching areas to either side and even behind it. The two types of energy combine to give a vaguely elliptically-shaped area, with the airplane sitting near one end of the ellipse, which represents those areas that can be reached at any given time.

In the early part of the takeoff, the only areas that can be reached safely are almost dead ahead of the airplane. As it gains altitude and speed, the area, the footprint, widens out as the options begin to include turning a little right and left. As the altitude gets even higher and the speed builds, the ability to turn increases until it’s possible to actually turn the airplane 180 degree’s and land behind the point where the engine quit. The danger in all of this is that most pilots have zero experience in evaluating the power-off glide distance of their airplane from various altitudes. So, the safe bet is to assume a turn 30 degrees or so right or left until the airplane is pretty high. This, of course, varies with the airplane type.

The important thing in any power failure is to immediately get the nose down to conserve energy and set up a normal, best glide speed. If there’s still runway ahead and you’re low enough to reach it, slam the airplane into a slip and get it back down on the pavement. It’s far better to roll off the end, tires smoking and unable to stop, than it is to hit whatever is out there at glide speed.

On takeoff, when the throttle goes in, you should already be thinking about what

you’re going to do with the airplane should it decide to quit.

Before you start the takeoff, you should have decided where you’re going to go if you’re too high to make the runway. Is there a field out there with only a few obstacles? How about a couple of streets (pick the one with the least number of parked cars)? Regardless of what lays off the end of the runway, the decision about where you’re going to go with the airplane at any point on the climb-out is made on the ground.

The choices increase greatly with altitude until you’re high enough that there’s no doubt in your mind that you can make a 180-degree turn safely. Repeat: there should be NO doubt you can make it back to the airport or you don’t turn. It’s better to go for a landing spot you know you can make than an airport you think you can make.

The 180-degree turn on takeoff is controversial but, if there is any wind at all and the airplane is approaching pattern altitude, that option should be considered. In most situations, however, it’s better to concentrate on havens of safety within the 180-degree arc from left to right that you’re absolutely certain you can reach. In all situations, you’ll have the nose down and the airplane cleaned up to maximize gliding distance. You’ll also fight the urge to stretch the glide by inching the nose up. That will cost distance, not add it.

If you loose the engine on cross-country, you may have more choices, but in some ways it complicates life by offering you too many choices. Here again, however, if the power goes south, it shouldn’t catch you by surprise because you’ve been flying from one emergency landing spot to the next all along. This is basic student pilot stuff, but if you don’t have the spot picked out as part of your normal cross country scan, then when the engine quits, you stand a chance of hurriedly picking out a spot and making a wrong decision. Make picking out viable landing spots part of your cross-country entertainment.

Having made lots of power-off landings in your airplane works to your benefit in an emergency. If you habitually use power in your approaches, you’re in deep doo-doo when the engine quits, because you don’t know for sure how far your airplane will glide and you won’t have the visual references needed to set up an approach to an emergency field. Bottom line: make at least part of your normal landings completely power off to equip you with the visual references needed in an emergency.

A couple of quick points to cover both before, and while, you’re orchestrating your approach to your chosen emergency field.

-While on cross-country always have 121.5 on the back-up frequency so you can start telling someone you’re going down without having to think about setting-up the frequency.

-Do the accepted engine restart routine: mixture rich, boost on, change tanks, crank it with the starter if it’s not windmilling.

-When it’s obvious it won’t start move the fuel selector to “off.”

-Have everyone on board pull their shoulder harnesses as tight as possible.

-Don’t take your eyes off the field you’ve picked out

-Look for indications of wind direction – smoke, flags, etc.

-Remember to fly the airplane as if it’s a normal approach and fight any temptation to change your usual procedures and airspeed numbers.

Incidentally, if you have a choice between two fields and the only difference is that one is isolated while the other has houses in sight of it, go for the one closest to civilization. When crashing, it’s always good to have someone see you go down who can call for help and come to your assistance. You also won’t have to walk as far.

An approach to an emergency field from altitude is the ultimate test of your ability to plan ahead. However, if you have sufficient altitude, you don’t plan the approach to the field itself. You plan it to a point abeam the touchdown spot on downwind. You’re trying to put the airplane in the exact position it would be if you were making a normal power-off approach to any runway. To do this, you have to figure out how many 90 degree turns or tight 360’s it’ll take to get rid of your altitude and put you on downwind at 800-1000 feet or whatever you’re used to. In preparation for this, before you ever have an emergency, you should practice a few power-off, gliding turns (90’s, 180’s and 360’s) to determine exactly how much altitude each turn takes. In an emergency, you’ll guesstimate how high you are AGL and then make a mental note what altitude to shoot for on downwind and what combination of turns will get you there. Also, always be conservative: we can lose altitude but we can’t gain it. At the same time, we don’t want to overshoot the field.

If you don’t have enough altitude to set up a normal rectangular approach and have to make a modified straight-in, okay, but our goal is to make the landing pattern as normal as possible to eliminate as much guess work as possible and power-off straight-ins are hard to judge.

Regardless of the pattern flown, you’re going to plan to have the airplane just a little high on short final so you can use a combination of slips and flaps to get you down. Again, we don’t mind rolling into the trees or a fence at the end, but we don’t want to drop into the trees on final.

Here’s another concept to be used in guiding you: our goal is to have the lowest forward speed while at the same time minimizing our vertical speed. The real culprit in terms of damage done to the occupants in many accidents is the vertical rate of decent not the forward speed. That’s what compresses spines and rips diaphragms. The energy that must be ablated in an accident is directly proportional to the square of the speed, but our bodies are better set up to absorb forward motion (within reason that is) than they are vertical motion.

As we slow an airplane below the best rate of glide speed, our forward motion may decrease, but our vertical rate of descent goes up. In fact, you don’t have to get too much below normal glide speeds before the rate of descent gets pretty scary. If you’re trying to stretch a glide by bringing the nose up or let panic talk you into holding the airplane off too high, you’re going to hit hard.

All things being equal (pilot skill and performance coupled with airplane type), the differences between accidents most often come down to the differences in terrain. It’s the Nebraska versus Rocky Mountain thing. It goes without saying that a wheat field and a mountainside do not offer the same chances of a positive outcome. The specifics of the terrain also define what options are available to the pilot in the last few seconds of short final.

Landing on a wheat field is a normal landing and should be conducted as such. Don’t do anything heroic. Landing in a stand of trees is not normal and some last minute changes might be in order. Ditto when there is nothing down there but mountainsides. In all situations, the goal is to A) avoid hitting obstacles head-on and B) make the touchdown portion of the airplane’s path be tangential to the surface regardless of what that surface consists of.

Our job on final is to avoid obstacles or, of they can’t be avoided, use them. Airplane wings, for instance are much more fragile than they look, but they still take energy to be ripped off, which means the remainder of the airplane has that much less energy as it continues on. The more parts we can tear off the airplane before the fuselage makes solid contact, the softer (if that’s the right word) it will hit the ground.

This, of course, brings to mind the movie scenario of flying between two trees and tearing the wings off. Good idea, but seldom will there be two trees parallel to one another and positioned so there isn’t another obstacle dead ahead between them. Still, an emergency landing is called that for a reason: it’s an emergency so you have to deal with the cards dealt. Tearing pieces off the airplane is a great idea but do so with at least a modicum of planning in the last second before contact.

Hitting anything with a wing will cause the airplane to violently turn in that direction. What’s in that direction? A big boulder? Another gigantic tree? What about if you catch the other wing? Will that pivot you into a more open area? At that last moment a lot of brown stuff is going through the fan, but try to analyze what’s ahead of you and how to make it work for you.

Just before contact, in any kind of inhospitable terrain, there’s a one or two second window of opportunity where you can maneuver the airplane to bring the flight path parallel to the surface, e.g. if you’re going in on a mountain/hill side, try to parallel it with your wings AND bring the nose up to curve the flight path in the direction of the slope at the same time. This will decrease your rate of descent in relation to the slope. Also, at the last second and not before, you can pull the yoke back and the rate of descent will momentarily decrease while the speed decreases slightly. A second or two after that control input, however, even though the airplane will have slowed, the rate of descent will go up. So, you have one shot to abruptly pull the nose just before impact, but the timing has to be right on the money.

Certainly the characteristics of the landing site selected override much of what the pilot does. No manner what you do, a canyon wall, for instance, isn’t going to help you, but the dry wash at the bottom might. It comes back to being prepared for the unexpected at all times by having the emergency field already picked out and then you fly the airplane right down to contact and never give up.

Then comes the problem of being found once you’re down, which is why your cell phone should always be trapped in a jacket pocket where you can’t lose it and can always reach it. Don’t laugh; it works more often then not. Also, a little handheld transceiver that’s always dialed to 121.5 lets you talk to airliners flying overhead. From that point on, it becomes a different subject: ground survival. Still, your survival begins with letting people know where you are and that always begins with being prepared and planning ahead. But, then, you’ve heard that before. BD