The Pilot's Lounge #97: Precautionary Landings

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You probably only flew an approach to an off-airport field as part of your ''power-failure'' training -- and you probably didn't actually land on that crop field (balloons and gliders excepted, of course). But if that's the only thing that will save your life when you get caught scud-running, shouldn't you practice?

As do pilots all over the world, we who gather here in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport read and discuss aircraft accident reports. Recently we got to perusing a fatal accident involving a relatively new, inexperienced, private pilot flying in the Midwest.

While I'm amending the details a bit to preserve anonymity, the gentleman pilot and his family came to grief on a flight that was forecast to be VFR, although visibility in summer haze would range between four and five miles. There was a slow-moving warm front approaching from the southwest, but it appeared that the 150-nm trip could be completed before conditions would worsen as the front reached the area. Friends of the pilot indicated that he had intended to launch at 10:00 a.m., but a combination of delays getting out of the house and then -- once at the airport -- discovering forgotten luggage (necessitating a 90-minute round trip to get it) and some lunch, meant they didn't get airborne in the 180-hp, 4-place single until 2:30 pm.

Post-accident reconstruction indicated that while they were en route the warm front started moving faster and the weather deteriorated sooner than forecast. (My non-expert opinion is that had the weather behaved as forecast things would have been fine; I didn't see anything that caused me to believe that the pilot didn't live up to his responsibility to his family in deciding to initiate the flight after the delay.) The radar track had the airplane going directly toward the destination for about 110 miles, and then it descended on course to where he was only about 800 feet above the ground. The track next turned left, into the afternoon sun, toward an airport only seven miles away. In about two minutes the airplane started a left turn and descended below radar coverage. Impact with the ground -- in a steep left turn, at high speed -- was a half-mile from where radar contact was lost.

VFR into IMC

The probable cause was continued flight into IMC and loss of control due to spatial disorientation. What struck me is that I happen to know the area where the accident occurred. It's almost-level farmland with large corn, soybean and hay fields. Thinking of the area, I tried to imagine the feeling of the pilot, watching the ceiling come down and the visibility drop. He descended, probably hoping to stay under the ceiling for the remainder of the trip; after all, he was two-thirds of the way there. I suspect he punched the "nearest airport" button on his GPS a few times; then as things got worse, made the decision to divert. It had to have been a tough decision to make, especially with family on board. The psychological pressure to be the "man of the family" and complete the flight successfully must have been tremendous. He started for the nearest airport, perhaps not thinking entirely coherently with the noise of the airplane drumming in his ears, the unfamiliar low altitude and lack of visual references. He made the mistake of turning toward worsening weather and, if the clouds weren't thick enough to block out the sun, into the further reduced visibility of looking into the sun in serious haze.

The weather information in the report is not comprehensive. I do not know if attempting to turn around would have helped or if things simply got bad too fast to reach any airport.

He lost control and took his family into the statistics books, caused untold heartache for many people and convinced some of those that little airplanes were a menace.

Missed Opportunities

Yet, in those last 15 minutes of his life, as he was recognizing that things were going sour, he flew over dozens upon dozens of farm fields upon which he could safely have landed.

Somehow I doubt that the idea even entered his mind.

For the last 40 years or so, the precautionary, off-airport landing has rarely been taught. Pilots who have a mechanical or weather problem are taught to go to the nearest airport and only attempt to land "out" (as glider pilots say) when the engine actually quits. Pilots who have found themselves very low on fuel have pressed on, hoping to make it to an airport, then listened the big silence up front due to fuel exhaustion and been injured or died when they had to make an off-airport landing in a place they hadn't selected, without power.

How many pilots have died because no one taught them that when things are bad, landing in a decent farm field can make the difference between being dead and merely inconvenienced?

Changing Times

Landing airplanes in fields was a way of life well into the 1930s. Barnstormers did it on purpose to make their living hopping rides. Pilots faced with deteriorating weather would select a suitable field, land and wait it out. The stories of some of the folks they met rival the traveling salesmen anecdotes.

Author Richard Bach wrote of making precautionary landings in farm fields in the '60s and '70s in his Parks biplane and in a Luscombe. Nevertheless, the practice has faded out. It may be the advent of the nosewheel and the risk of it bogging down and flipping the airplane should the field be rough or soft. However, when you look at that risk -- a fairly low-speed upset in which folks are seldom hurt -- versus the risk of loss of control due to spatial disorientation or a forced landing over terrain selected by the aircraft when the engine is running on air, it just seems to me that the odds are a heck of a lot better putting the airplane down in a place the pilot selects, while the engine is running or before the weather removes all options.

In conversations with pilots and instructors about precautionary landings, the overwhelming comments I get are either "I'll get in trouble with the FAA/police/landowner/FBO/insurance company" or "I'll get sued by the landowner/passengers/FBO/insurance company."

Let's address the reality of the situation. Way, way too many people die in general aviation aircraft every year. Our accident rate is roughly akin to those who ride motorcycles without a helmet -- and most of us think those folks are merely Darwin-award wannabees. In those general aviation accidents, a shockingly high proportion involve continued flight into instrument meteorological conditions; you know, low ceilings and/or visibilities. Unless the pilot is in the mountains, every single one of those probably had 10 or 15 minutes where the pilot knew full well he or she was in a jam and was over several fields where a safe precautionary landing could have been made.

Why not use a tool that is available to us? Why throw away something that will allow us to live to fly another day just because we are afraid we will get in trouble?

That's easy: We've been getting in trouble for one thing or another as long as we've been alive, so we can very easily imagine getting in trouble. However, unless we've been in a situation where we have been hurt badly, you know, screaming in pain, it is extraordinarily difficult for us to imagine getting dead. So we press on, subconsciously remembering the mantra that "It's better to be dead than embarrassed" because we just can't conceive that we, who are too cool to die, can bite the big one and that we're in a situation where the risk is near unity that we're about to do so.

Practice

With that out of the way, the next thing to consider is that one of the dumber things pilots do when faced with an emergency is to attempt a maneuver that they have never practiced. Every year pilots die because they try to turn back for the airport when the engine expires shortly after takeoff, try to shut down the engine and stop the prop before landing when the gear won't extend, or try to scud-run in marginal weather. So, recognizing that trying something entirely new when things are not going well is truly stupid, how do we practice an off-airport precautionary landing?

First of all, a precautionary landing is just that: a landing before things get out of hand. It's a soft-field landing, and we've done lots of those. We aren't doing something moronic like trying to pull the mixture, then pull the airplane up into a stall to stop the prop and then try to make a spot-landing without power, with the gear up. We're going to make a soft-field landing. We can do that. So we'll practice landing with full flaps, with some power, as slowly as we can without stalling the airplane, to minimize the energy on touchdown. Once the wheels roll, we'll chop power and hold the wheel full aft to keep the nosewheel off until we are going slowly or, if it's a tailwheel airplane, to pin the tailwheel.

Next we'll go practice on a grass runway. I know, I know -- the insurance companies charge extra to insure the airplane for operations on grass, so lots and lots of FBOs and flight schools do not allow grass runway operations, so lots of pilots have never landed on grass. Make some landings on a dry grass runway. (You'll find you like it -- maybe even more than on pavement). It's certainly not magic; you just keep the wheel aft to keep the nosewheel light when moving slowly.

Next, recognize that you will be flying the "pattern" for your selected field low and close because the ceiling and visibility may well preclude you flying high and wide. That means that on a day the pattern isn't busy, you may want to buy a little dual to practice flying the pattern at 400 feet and close-in. Get a feel for when to start to descend, what the world looks like from that low (it's different) so that if you have to do it for real, you can.

Crop Counting

Find an instructor who knows the crops in the area and fly around at about 1,000 feet AGL and learn to differentiate corn from soybeans from wheat and so forth. Find out how tall the crops are. Corn is generally three to four feet high by July and seven to eight feet high by August. You can land in it, parallel to the rows, so long as you don't stall, but you'll stop pretty fast and tear up the leading edges of the wings and there is a very good chance you'll flip over. It's certainly not the first choice for a precautionary landing except after harvest in October and before the corn gets fairly tall in early June. Vineyards are not great landing sites due to the poles, stakes and wires. In World War II similar stuff was put into fields to tear up troop carrying gliders and kill the occupants.

Wheat is planted in the fall, comes up a few inches and then is dormant through the winter. It is harvested in June or July and never gets more than three feet tall. You may nose over in it, but it's not a bad field for a precautionary landing. Soybeans top out at a bushy three feet tall in mid-August. Land with the rows. A very good spot is a hay field that has been recently cut. Hay is very tall grass. It is periodically cut just above ground level and the stalks of grass collected into bales. Often they get left in the field for a while. Most of the bales are about 8 feet in diameter. There should be enough room between them to land. Don't hit them; they weigh more than your airplane. Old-fashioned, rectangular bales are rarely seen any more, but if you do, there may be so many in the field that it's tough to find an open lane for landing. Finally, pastures are usually just grassland and often an excellent spot to land, if you stay away from the cows and don't upset a bull. (Cows have been known to graze on the skin of fabric-covered airplanes.)

Always be aware of the wind direction. That should be second nature. Normally a precautionary landing is made into the wind. If you must land in a field that has a row crop or is plowed, land parallel to the rows, as much into the wind as possible. In general, do not land across the rows; that can result in flipping over immediately after touchdown or worse, coming to an immediate stop against a furrow.

Courage To Stop

When it comes down to the real thing, the pilot has to have the courage to make the decision that continued flight involves too much risk given the fact that there are decent places to land safely. Once we've gotten low, in bad visibility, we are down where there are a heck of a lot of towers, many without working lights. We know that scud-running has become so dangerous as to be a last-ditch ploy a pilot tries when out of options, often just before dying. So, we get smart. We spot a field that may be acceptable. It looks to be a gently rolling pasture oriented into the wind. Obstructions allowing, we'll set up a normal, left-hand pattern (because that's what we're used to) at whatever altitude we can given ceiling and visibility. We'll fly a downwind, base and then a pass over the field to look it over. We'll stay about 100 feet up, just right of center so we can see the area where we want to land. We'll carry a third to half flaps; at Vy plus about 10-20 knots and the airplane trimmed for level flight so we can divert our attention to the outside world without losing control of the ship. We're looking for the right place to touch down, the best area for rollout and for any obstructions.

Then we'll go to full power, retract the flaps if we need to, climb to our pattern altitude and turn downwind. On downwind, double-check to make sure that the cabin is secure, that there are no loose items to become projectiles and that everyone is well strapped-in with something to put in front of their face on touchdown. We'll pop the doors open so there won't be a delay in getting out, unless we're in an airplane that flies poorly with the cabin door open slightly (and we should know that already, right?).

Turning base and final we watch for obstructions. We know that we probably will not be able to see power lines, so we look for the poles. To assure we will clear the wires, we assume they run straight between the tops of the poles. If we find ourselves in the position where we have to go under wires, the technique is to look at the ground (and there may be a fence), not at the wires. We'll stay as low as we can, over the ground or fence and that way we're most likely to miss the wires. If we look up at the wires, we are likely to snag the fence at flying speed (which is extremely bad news), bounce off the ground (which can have a number of bad side effects), or catch the wire with the vertical stabilizer, another sub-optimal event.

We'll touch down as slowly as we can, with a tiny bit of power, as needed to really get the nose up and the airplane slow, with all of the flaps. Once on the ground the power goes to idle, the mixture is pulled to idle cutoff and the master is turned off while the wheel is held full aft. When the nosewheel touches down, we'll get on the brakes firmly, but avoid sliding the tires. If the airplane flips now, it will be a slow-motion sort of affair. Should it happen, put your hand on the ceiling to help keep from bumping your head and be careful releasing the seatbelt after everything stops. You are wearing the shoulder harnesses, right?

Once the airplane stops make sure everything is turned off and take inventory of people and the situation. Shut off the mags and check that the master is off, then open the doors and let yourselves out.

I won't go into the procedures to follow for those times you are way out in the boonies; that's Doug Ritter's province in his aviation-survival Web site.

Aftermath

After landing you will probably get to meet the landowner. Be polite and respectful. Glider pilots and balloonists charm landowners with some frequency (balloonists use champagne). If you've done any damage to the crop, plan on paying for it.

You may be able to fly the airplane out once you've gotten fuel or the weather improves. That's a decision that you have to make based on available information and the conditions you are facing. I strongly suggest that you make it in conjunction with someone who has experience with such things. Otherwise, plan on trucking the airplane out.

Assuming you do not do enough damage to the airplane or your passengers to cause the landing to fall under the definition of "accident" in the NTSB regulations, there is no requirement to report your landing to the FAA or NTSB. There may be those who are quiveringly anxious to do that for you, but unless there is an accident, there is no federal reporting requirement.

A word about roads and streets: They are not great precautionary landing sites; they are a distant second to a wide-open field unless fields don't exist in the area. Because they are paved, they seem attractive. The problem is that they are usually narrower than the wing span, have power poles and lines along the side and generally have things such as mail boxes and signs that are just waiting to grab a wingtip and jerk the airplane into a very resistant-to-impact ditch while going fast just before or after touching down. They can be poor places to depart from, as well. If you have landed in a field and the local authorities allow you to takeoff from a road or street, be patient. Walk the entire area to look for things that you might hit. Make sure all cars and trucks are out of the area. There is a recent video of a fellow who decided to depart from a road before all of the vehicles had been cleared. It was amazing how fast he was turned 45 degrees, right into the trees, when his wingtip hit a truck during the takeoff roll. He'd made a successful forced landing but ruined it by being impatient on departure.

Yes, there is a chance you'll get to talk to the FAA and you may get in trouble. The very good thing is that you'll have some time to consider what to do. Keep thinking about that phrase -- you'll have some time -- because just before you made that successful precautionary landing, you were looking at an extremely short life-expectancy. You didn't have much future. Now, because you were smart, you do have time, a future, a new life so to speak. So you can deal with those who desire to be negative about the whole thing in a calm, considered manner. Calm and considered was pretty foreign to you when things were going badly. Now you have the luxury of time.

Yes, I'll express my contempt for bureaucrats, the chair-warmers who are so quick to be critical of you from the comfort of an office -- and I'll challenge them to do better. So can you. Because now you have the time to do it and those same small individuals who are so quick to criticize you for surviving a very risky experience are the same ones who would have said nasty things about you had you died in a crash a few miles down the pike. Now you are alive to take them on, and you can take a great deal of pleasure in that experience.

You've got to be alive to get in trouble. Isn't that a good feeling? .

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.