July 2002Commentary


Forced Landings

Setting Realistic Priorities

A forced landing, now called an emergency approach and landing by the FAA, is serious business with no margin for error. I've experienced three of these startling events - once in a helicopter, twice in light airplanes. All were successful with no aircraft damage.

Don't be misled by the hypotheses of the inexperienced. An engine failure and subsequent forced landing electrify your state of being, and you initially feel as though you're swimming through glue. Free time evaporates immediately. Survival is your goal, so concentrate initially on the high priority items of the ABC checklist: attitude, best landing site, and cockpit.

Yes, attitude - not airspeed. Attitude means that you briefly look outside at the wing tip, not the instruments, while you place the wing tip level with the horizon for best glide or raise the leading edge of the wing tip slightly from the level position for minimum sink rate. Don't waste time. Rough-trim the elevator as necessary and move to the next step while airspeed is decreasing toward the speed that these attitudes will generate.

Hopefully, you had a landing site in mind before the engine failure, and you turned toward it while selecting the desired pitch attitude. Good pilots always know the surface wind conditions and suitable forced landing sites. Such thinking dramatically improves the odds for a successful forced landing.

If you don't have a landing site in mind, several options exist. If altitude permits, enter a momentary steep-bank turn, look directly beneath you, and search outward from that point. If a suitable site is discovered, you gained valuable time. If nothing exists, turn to a downwind heading and establish the best-glide airspeed. Maximum groundspeed maximizes glide distance and landing site availability.

If you selected the best-glide attitude, airspeed will now be close to the desired value, but a small pitch change will most likely be required in order to obtain the exact speed. Minimize propeller drag by pushing the throttle full open to reduce engine resistance to the rotating propeller, and if your airplane has a controllable-pitch propeller, select the low-rpm, high-pitch position.

At extremely low altitudes, an engine failure mandates that you pick an area of least resistance and land straight ahead or nearly so. The ability to turn obviously increases with altitude. Your highest priority is an upwind landing with low groundspeed; your lowest priority is a downwind landing with high groundspeed.

The area of least resistance implies a landing site that will result in minimum fuselage damage. If a good site is not available, pick one that will damage the wings but leave you and the fuselage relatively intact. Two trees that are close together like a football field's goal post are a good example. Many pilots have walked away from impossible situations because they protected the fuselage and let the wings take the punishment.

As soon as you determine a plan of action and head the airplane in the right direction, use a cockpit flow pattern and attempt to restart the engine. An engine-restart flow pattern is mandatory knowledge, because you may not have time for a written checklist. If time permits, back up your actions with the written checklist, but never lose sight of your landing site while you perform these actions.

During the approach, turn off the fuel selector and the master switch, open the cabin door, and reposition the door handle to the closed position so that the door pins will extend and prevent the door from shutting if something strikes it during the landing. If structural damage occurs, a closed cabin door can jam and severely impede your evacuation of the airplane.

Your first priority is to concentrate on your approach. As soon as you realize that it is satisfactory, continue with secondary items if time permits - declare "mayday" and squawk 7700. If you were receiving ATC traffic advisories before the engine failure, declare "mayday" on that frequency. Otherwise, transmit in the blind on 121.5 mHz. If you filed a VFR flight plan, a telephone search will commence 30 minutes after your filed ETA, but it may be several hours before you are found, particularly if you did not make periodic position reports with flight service.

You must be able to perform engine-failure procedures without hesitation and without wasting time, and you must always know the surface wind and your forced landing options. Otherwise, you are compromising your safety and that of your passengers.

Ralph Butcher, a retired United Airlines captain, is the chief flight instructor at a California flight school. He has been flying for 43 years and has 25,000 hours in both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Visit his Web site (www.skyroamers.com ).