(March 2011) — PAYING HEED TO THE Scottish poet Robert Burns, who said: “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew,” I counsel those who come to me for flight training not to think in terms of “if,” but rather “when,” so that they are prepared for that moment when things go wrong. That preparation includes not only refining troubleshooting techniques and thinking through the actions one should take for a variety of potential problems should they occur, but also the possibility of having a forced landing in a remote area, and the skills and techniques one would need to survive in that situation.
Whether it is a diversion, a precautionary landing, or a worst-case scenario, a forced landing, we need to know what to do in order to achieve a safe and successful outcome.
If you are a pilot who was born under a lucky star, you might have the good fortune to have an airport within landing or gliding range when you most need it. However, the Murphy who wrote that infamous law will probably arrange things so that your emergency occurs far from any airports, and in a worst-case scenario, far from civilization. If that is the case, the most important issue now becomes survival, and unless you are a pilot who never ventures beyond gliding distance of your home airport, the possibility of having to face a survival situation becomes much more of a reality.
Even if your planned flight is a short hop across Long Island Sound from Connecticut to Long Island, or over the Arizona mountains from Flagstaff to Sedona for that legendary expensive burger, there is always the very real possibility that you might have a forced or, slightly improved, precautionary landing. Obviously, if no one knows that you are making the flight, no one is going to miss you, or at least know where to look for you, when you don’t show up. By filing a flight plan or getting “flight following,” or better yet, both, if there is an emergency, it won’t be long before someone is coming to your rescue.
If you are in a situation that will require an off-airport landing, the first step in your survival is picking a landing site. Obviously the terrain will dictate, in most situations, where you can land, but keep in mind a few thoughts. Regardless of where you choose to land, the most important element relative to surviving the crash is to be as slow as possible at touchdown. It’s the sudden stop that is going to cause injury, and the Gs that will be experienced increase exponentially with speed when we hit an object.
If you will be landing in hilly terrain, endeavor to land uphill. If you have to choose between landing in trees, or in a lake or river, choose the water, the closer to shore the better. Statistics show that survivability is about equal whether you choose trees or water; however, the injury rate goes up for those who choose trees. If you are forced to ditch in open water, land parallel with any swells, preferably on the top of the swell. If your choice is between corn and hay, the hay will be better. If you are considering landing on a road, remember that many small rural roads might very well have power lines that won’t be seen until it is too late.
If you fly a retractable gear airplane, the choice of gear up or gear down is not always an easy one. If ditching in the water or landing on a soft surface, gear up will increase survivability. For those of you flying fixed gear aircraft, this obviously is not an issue. The important thing to remember is that you want to do all that you can to keep the airplane right side up.
For many pilots, the training that they receive relative to soft-field landings is to use the technique of carrying a little power through the landing, approaching the landing site on the backside of the power curve. If you are a bush pilot in Alaska, that’s definitely the way to do it. But consider the following: When your engine has failed, you are not going to have that power! It is for this reason that I train and counsel my clients to practice their simulated engine-out landings as if they were landing not only on a soft surface, but on a short one as well, surrounded by tall obstacles. Thus, practicing steep approaches utilizing forward slips to a spot landing should be a part of your regular, recurrent training.
One other thing I need to mention. When we practice simulated engine-out procedures, the standard practice is to pull the throttle to the idle position to simulate the failed engine. Remember, though, that when the engine quits for real, the throttle most typically is in a cruise or even full-power position, and you never know when it will come back to life. For this reason I urge you to pull the throttle to idle once the chosen landing site is assured. At the same time, be sure to turn off the master switch, move the fuel selector to “off” to minimize the chance of fire and open the door to help prevent getting trapped in the airplane.
OK, so you have managed to get your airplane on the ground (or in the water). I am willing to bet that you would like to now live long enough to tell others about your experience (and write an I Learned About Flying From That article), but it’s quite possible that the most difficult part of your experience is about to begin. The most important keys to your survival will now be your ability to maintain a rational mentality, to stay as warm and dry as possible and to get found.
It is essential, above all else, that you do not panic. Start by sizing up the situation. What is your personal condition and that of your passengers, if any? Where are you, and how far from civilization? What weather conditions need to be considered? What can you do to aid searchers in finding you? Remember, “Haste makes waste.” Your best chances of being rescued are to stay with the aircraft, so stay put and formulate a plan of action. Do not allow fear or panic to lead you to do impulsive things that could make your situation worse.