Prepare For The Unthinkable

It’s time you gave thought to the ‘what if’ of an off-airport forced landing.


Just because the chances of dealing with a forced landing are relatively slim doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for one—on every flight, and especially on every takeoff.

Flying in IMC poses an even greater risk for the complacent because there’s less time to assess what lies below. Knowing the immediate steps to take by memory on an engine failure is critical. There may be little time to refer to a checklist.

Know The V-Speeds

Of all the airspeeds you should commit to memory is the best glide speed for your aircraft. Be aware that this is based on max gross weight and standard conditions. Since you’re rarely at max gross weight except maybe at engine start, a general rule of thumb is to reduce glide speed five-percent for each 10-percent below max gross weight.

Winds can significantly affect your gliding distance and are more difficult to compensate for during an engine out. First, you need to know the wind direction and speed. Your GPS may provide this. A typical rule of thumb is to increase glide speed by half the headwind component or decrease glide speed by a fourth of the tailwind component to achieve the maximum range.

Positional Awareness

On breaking out of the clouds during an emergency descent, we may only have seconds to react. To improve the odds, you should have a sectional either displayed electronically or close at hand during flight—and refer to it frequently. A sectional is the best source of information into what you’ll be descending.

En route, about every 15 minutes, assess your actions if a forced landing should become a reality. This minimizes time and altitude lost, determining where to go.

What About An Airport?

Take advantage of the Nearest button on the GPS to “see” what airports are nearby before you need them. Note that depending on how the GPS is configured, it may not show every available airport, such as private fields or small grass strips. It’s unlikely ATC would be aware of potential small fields that may be close by. This is where the sectional becomes essential.

A word of caution—even if an airport is shown on a sectional, it may not be active or maintained. You might be looking at an old crop duster strip in the middle of nowhere. One landing strip on my sectional had a building erected at the end of the rather short runway. At night time you might never be able to find some of the smaller fields, especially if unlit. On a VFR day, a great exercise is to try and find small private airports. You’ll see how difficult it is to locate some of them even in optimal conditions.

Hostile Terrain

Naturally, we all route-plan to avoid weather. But what about route planning to avoid hostile terrain, especially at night? A new airplane owner recently opted to fly the plane out over the Gulf of Mexico. Just before reaching the opposite coast engine problems developed. The engine quit as they crossed the coastline, but by luck, an airport was directly below. They are fortunate since they had no survival gear onboard had the engine decided to quit sooner.


Flying in IMC, we tend to lose a sense of time and distance. Fuel starvation has been the source of many a forced landing. Having a useful flight log prepared with anticipated fuel burn at various points along the route of flight and notations of when to switch tanks can help ensure against running a tank dry or fuel exhaustion. You can’t always rely on the older fuel gauges as they are notorious for being inaccurate except when they read empty.

Fuel totalizers, when programmed correctly, are generally a more accurate way to keep track of the amount of fuel that is being burned. If you have multiple tanks, it might be wise to keep one in reserve. My plane has four tanks. I always keep one full and in reserve so I know exactly how much fuel is available in at least that one tank.

A too frequent cause of fuel starvation is inadequate venting of the tank. Do you know where your vents are located? Is it possible for them to get obstructed? I put a protective screen over the vents since a variety of bugs seem to find them a great place to build a nest.

Some vents are in the fuel caps. Ensure your fuel caps are secured before the flight. After refueling by an FBO, make sure they put the right ones back on and correctly.

Survival Gear

There are many survival kits available for purchase but make sure the one you choose fits the needs for the areas you frequently overfly.

Always carry a survival kit on board for every flight. However, one size does not fit all. The survival kit should be tailored for the route and conditions of your flight. While there are essential items that should be in all such kits, there are others that are more germane for the particular flight, such as life vests or rafts for extended over water flights or a portable saw for over forested areas.

You can get carried away with what items to bring along, though it is better to over than under prepare.

One item I recently came across that I think is a vital addition to any survival kit is a solar charger for a phone. Your phone is your lifeline in a crash. Cell phones can be used to triangulate the position of a person. Not only does it provide communications capabilities, but it can help you navigate to more hospitable terrain if necessary or even civilization. It also has a light as a backup for a flashlight.

We have all become dependent on cell phones, but they are only useful if you have cell coverage. In remote areas, the phone may be useless for communications . However, it can still be a valuable tool for navigating to nearby civilizations. I recently heard of an aircraft that went down in the Florida swamp. The survivors proceeded on foot in the wrong direction, taking them deeper into the quagmire. Had they looked at their phone, they would have discovered there was a road nearby.

Dust Off That Handheld

Because of cellphone limitations, that handheld radio may be a vital survival tool. Airlines monitor 121.5, and chances are no matter where you are, there is an airliner flying overhead within range. Additionally, search and rescue teams will most likely be monitoring 121.5.

Best advice on surviving after the crash is to stick with the airplane. ADS-B can provide a tremendous boost to search and rescue teams in locating a downed aircraft.

Familiarize yourself with the ELT. If you decide to leave the vicinity of the crash site, then bring the ELT with you, so they find you and not just the wreckage.

One last thing. Most FBOs provide pilots with a bottle of water. Please take it. I always ask for a bottle of water before I depart. Dehydration can begin to affect your reasoning ability in as little at eight hours. Unless you are forced down in an urban area, it could be hours before rescue personnel can be mobilized and get to you. My FBO also offers a free cookie as a bonus. On every flight, expect the unexpected and have a plan already in mind to deal with it.

Richard Lanning Ph.D. is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a pilot for more than 30 years. He is an ATP and CFII and is a gyroplane CFI.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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  1. Good article, but I have one suggestion. Dr. Lanning mentions taking the ELT with you if you leave the wreckage. A much better and easier solution is to carry a PLB as part of your survival kit. They are lightweight, relatively inexpensive and have built in GPS for precise location. Most also float. Trying to dig the ELT out of a wrecked plane (including its antenna) would be difficult and potentially dangerous.

  2. I agree that a PLB is a much better option because they are more reliable as Paul Bertorelli with Aviation Consumer has said for years and just wrote about once again with data to back it up. PLBs are less likely to be fatally damaged in an accident unlike the wiring and antenna of an ELT, and many ELT G-switches aren’t good when tested after a crash. You can take a PLB away from the plane if it burns up unlike the ELT. Mine floats. The battery is good for 5 years, and it’s not horribly expensive to send it in for battery replacement and testing. My PLB is in an emergency bag right in a storage compartment under my seat. Mine is an ACR ResQLink+ series. ACR/Artex must recognize that PLB’s are good for aviation because they even now have ELT bundles on their website that include a PLB.

    There’s a problem with relying on your phone to act as a GPS-map to get you out of areas without cellular service. Your cell phone’s general mapping software does not keep a street or other map in its memory, rather, it gets that wirelessly via the cellular network when you are using it. If you are in an area without cell service, your cell phone will have a location but not map to display it on. It is possible to download small areas for offline use in Google Maps and Waze, but not in Apple Maps as best I can tell. The issue seems to be downloading enough area to be useful and I would not rely on it. In Google, you can download a named area, such as a city, that you select in the usual way. When you do a trip by car it will download the roads along the way but not off it by much. If you go off route in an area without cell service, you’re not going to have a map. It’s happened to me in a rental car in rural areas. Google Maps and others are really not made to download a large area like we cover in an aircraft as best I can tell from Googling just now. If you don’t have a handheld, dedicated aviation GPS that you can use display street/city maps on (I have a Aera 510 in my panel that I could pull out and 4 spare lithium batteries I keep charged in my emergency bag) I think it would be better to use an EFB like Garmin Pilot or (maybe ForeFlight?), and download for offline use their street maps. This is optional and will require your input. For Garmin Pilot, it is easy enough to download “US Open Street Map” for the states you will be flying in. You will be able to view those offline. Looking at ForeFlight’s download options for the U.S., there’s no option to select “street map”, which is what they call the option on the map page. So, it’s not clear to me if you can download street maps for offline use. The closest thing downloadable for FF is high resolution basemap, and I suspect that is an aviation rather than street map, but not sure. So, if you crash and don’t have cell service, if you have GP (and maybe FF, not sure), use it rather than Google or Apple maps. If you only have GP on your iPad, if you have an iPad with internal GPS, use it. If no internal GPS, you might try tethering the phone and iPad and your phone can send your location via “location services” to your iPad, the same way non-GPS equipped iPads can receive GPS location via a GDL 88, GDL 39, GDL 50-52, or other ADS-B receiver with built in GPS.

  3. Google Maps (at least on my Samsung phones) allows you to “Select your own Map” for download, and it can be pretty big, you just need the available memory; around 200 MB per map. Whenever I travel internationally I’ll download the maps before I leave if I plan on renting a car. Saved most of Guatemala once, and a big portion of South Africa around Pretoria. If you have the available memory, you can save multiple maps that overlay, easily covering most SEL piston routes. But as you mentioned, Google Maps is intended for driving and won’t show most terrain details, and most roads shown are those intended for vehicular traffic. But still better than nothing.