No Beach Landings, But How About Roads?


Ho-hum, another weekend, another engine-out landing at a beach resort. Like the one I wrote about last week, this one also made the evening news, albeit for a different reason. And it didn’t occur right on the beach, but on a busy highway choked with beach traffic. Here’s the story. It offers an opportunity to discuss a moral conundrum for pilots similar to the beach emergency landing, but with a different twist.

The short version is that the airplane—looks like a Cessna 207—took off from Eagle’s Nest Airport near the New Jersey shore with a load of skydivers. The news story says “student” skydivers, but I suspect they were tandems, drawn from local beachgoers out for an afternoon thrill. (They got one.) The engine evidently quit and the pilot did a nice job of stuffing the airplane into a median strip on a busy highway that appears to be narrower than the wingspan of the aircraft. Even by Jersey standards, the resulting traffic tie-up was evidently monumental, given that the highway is a main route to the beach. That’s why it made the news, I’m sure.

There was one minor injury and the aircraft was mostly intact, although the left wing root appears to be stove in. I’d guess the pilot caught a signpost or something in the median. All things considered, it appears to be a nice piece of airmanship.

The moral conundrum, and I’m sure you’ve thought about it, is whether to land on a busy road or not. That part of New Jersey is right on the eastern edge of the Pinelands, which are densely wooded tracts with few open areas suitable to land an airplane. Even Eagle’s Nest is carved out of a pine forest and what isn’t pine is thickly developed urban area. Not a lot of choices.

Last week, I proposed that an engine-out landing on a crowded beach is something a pilot really shouldn’t do if other choices are available. And the one that usually is available is to ditch the airplane in deeper water offshore and hope for the best. But what about a congested road or just a road in general? Do different rules apply? I’d argue yes, but there are nuances here that depend on more variables that I can discuss here. Or maybe even think of.

If the road is completely choked with traffic, it makes no sense to me to try to shoehorn an airplane into the flow. I think I’d pick another option up to and even including mushing it into treetops, which carries a reasonable survival outcome if the airplane is slowed up and flown in under control. But with less traffic—and I sure can’t define what “less” is—the road may look a lot better, even if there’s no certainty that a car or two won’t be involved.

Cars provide more protection to their occupants than does a bathing suit for someone lounging on the beach. And drivers assume some risk when they drive on public roads so I don’t see a lot of functional difference between being sideswiped by an airplane of rear ended by an Escalade. But such a decision is filled with so many fine points and conditional what-ifs, it’s almost impossible to set rules before the fact. Perhaps you can apply some broad philosophical considerations and mine is that I’d sure consider a road with reasonable chances of avoiding cars. The pilot of the skydiving aircraft obviously made the right call and seems to have executed on it.

And by the way, the skydivers face their own dilemma. They are, after all, wearing parachutes and are sitting near an open door. Why not just bail out? It’s not as simple as that. The news story didn’t say at what altitude the engine stoppage occurred, but a skydiver willing to exit and deploy a fast-opening reserve rather than a slow opening main could probably pull it off down to 1000 feet or a little less. But that could be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Once you’re under canopy, you have to find a place to land and you won’t have much time to do it; never mind figuring out the wind direction. Roads, medians and trees are no more appetizing for a skydiver than they are for a pilot. At least the airplane offers some benefit of protective structure; other than skill, a skydiver has bupkis. A tree landing under canopy can be just a painful nuisance, but it could be fatal, too. Because of a bad spot, I once landed a canopy in a highway median near Deland, Florida. The cars were so distracting that I completely muffed the landing and pitch poled through the risers before crashing to a stop. Did I mention how valuable helmets are?

Unless the airplane was on fire or the land below were wide open, I’d be inclined to stay put and ride it down, despite the lousy seatbelts skydiving airplanes have. And I’m pretty sure most tandem instructors wouldn’t take their chances with a passenger at as low an altitude as a solo skydiver might.

Maybe thinking about stuff like this is why more people aren’t pilots. If it were easy, everybody would do it.