February 2009Commentary


Forced Landings

Setting realistic priorities

A forced landing-emergency approach and landing in the current practical test standards-is serious business. 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. A forced landing electrifies your state of being, and you initially feel as though you're swimming through glue. Free time evaporates immediately. Survival is your goal, so start with the high priority items.

Most instructors teach the ABC checklist: Airspeed for best glide, Best landing site, and Cockpit for engine restart. That's a good reminder of what must occur, but further refinements are necessary. To begin, you should always have a suitable landing area in mind and a general knowledge of surface wind conditions. Those critical requirements dramatically increase your ability to make a successful landing. In fact, for proper risk management, you should continually contemplate plans of action for all serious problems, be they mechanical or weather.

Substitute attitude-the best glide attitude-for airspeed in the ABC checklist. You can instantly establish that attitude while turning toward the landing site with your eyes outside the cockpit. Just observe the wing tip. The imaginary chord line should be parallel to the horizon. Instrument reference is absolutely not required.

After you establish the best-glide attitude and are turning toward the landing site, attempt to restart the engine using the flow pattern that you have memorized. If time permits, back up that action with the airplane's engine failure checklist, but do not deviate from your planned approach for landing. If a safe landing is questionable, shut down the electrical and fuel systems to reduce the risk of fire, and if possible, reposition the door handle to the closed position after you have opened the door so that the door pins or latches will extend and prevent the door from jamming shut during the landing. When you have done everything possible to ensure your safety, declare an emergency and squawk 7700.

When I induce a simulated engine failure during flight training, I can't believe it when the student's first action is to concentrate on the airspeed indicator in order to establish the best-glide airspeed. That can take more than 30 seconds, which is an unnecessary waste of critical time. If you immediately select the proper attitude while turning toward the landing site, airspeed will automatically decrease toward best-glide speed, something that you might not need if the landing site is close by. If best-glide speed is needed, a slight pitch adjustment may be required.

Several options exist when you don't have a landing site in mind. If altitude permits, enter a momentary steep-bank turn, look directly beneath you, and search outward from that point. When a landing site is nearby, you have gained valuable time. Otherwise, turn to a downwind heading and establish the best-glide speed. Groundspeed, glide distance, and landing site availability are now optimized. For maximum performance, 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. This last option is normally held in reserve in case you get too low on final approach. Reducing propeller drag will increase glide distance.

Avoid a long final approach, because it is extremely difficult to judge the wind gradient changes that occur when below 1,000 feet above ground level-an altitude that you must learn to recognize without altimeter reference. And, when you turn into the wind on final approach, your glidepath will steepen because of decreased ground speed. A close-in base leg with a last-minute turn onto a short final leg eliminates many variables.

Engine failure at extremely low altitudes requires a landing with the fewest obstructions, particularly with respect to fuselage damage. A gap between two trees that's wider than the fuselage is a good example, because the wings will receive most of the damage. At higher altitude, turning becomes an option, so make every effort to land into the wind with slow groundspeed in order to minimize impact forces.

You must be able to perform emergency procedures without hesitation, without wasting time, and without considering lesser priorities such as saving the airplane. Otherwise, you compromise your safety and that of your passengers. The airplane is only a machine, and your life is far more valuable.

Ralph Butcher, a retired United Airlines captain, is the chief flight instructor at a California flight school. He has been flying since 1959 and has 25,000 hours in fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Visit his Web site.