Landing Airplanes On Roads: Again


A couple of weeks ago, the local paper ran a headline on the front of the inside section: Plane Lands on 301 … Safely. I look at such a head on two levels; one as a pilot and a second as an editor. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of a headline that says: No News Happened Today. But not quite.

Obviously, if an airplane lands on a road, regardless of the outcome, it’s news. It’s always better if the landing completes with no bent metal and no injuries, but either way, it’s news. We didn’t run the 301 landing because, frankly, these things happen every week. We did run this one, which occurred last week in Irvine, California. Why? Because someone caught it on video, of course. And like us, you probably can’t resist clicking on it. It too ended with no injuries or damage, as many road landings do. Kudos to both pilots involved for good airmanship under duress.

But what of the ones that don’t end so successfully? What’s the percentage of road landings that work compared to those that don’t? I can’t tell you. I tried to develop this data once, but the immediate problem is that many landings on roads aren’t recorded as accidents so they never make it into the NTSB or FAA data. I can’t even hazard a guess, so from my perspective, landings on roads are an unquantifiable risk. You kinda gotta be there to decide for yourself. (I wrote on this a couple of months ago; last week’s events make it worth reconsidering.)

Some pilots are morally opposed to landing on roads because of the risk to innocent motorists and bystanders. Although I respect that opinion, I don’t share it, at least not in the absolute. As these two incidents show, successful road landings are not just possible, but somewhat common. I draw a different standard for road landings than for beach landings, which I’ve written about before. Here’s my logic. A beach populated with too many people to land safely always offers the alternative of an offshore ditching. As I’ve noted, ditchings are high-percentage survival events so the choice is a no-brainer.

With roads, it’s not so simple. In a rural area, a road can be bisected by obstructions such as poles and wires and that might make adjacent fields—even less than ideal ones—a better choice. It’s more complicated yet in urban areas because in addition to obstructions, there’s likely to be traffic. So you have some decisions to make. Do you insist on a strip of pavement that’s absolutely clear of cars or settle for a reasonable gap and try to jam the airplane into it? Or just aim at the thing you’ll do the least damage to, cinch down the belts and hope for the best?

Tricky stuff. I’m not sure it can be pre-judged, but my philosophy is to try to do the least damage to cars and people, but to not kill myself doing it. Modern cars, with airbags and reinforced doors, provide a good protection envelope for drivers and passengers. Drivers assume a certain risk when venturing onto the highway and although they might not realize a sheared rod bolt in an IO-360 is one of them, that is in fact a reality. Sounds cold. Welcome to life in a modern industrial society. Stuff may fall on you from the sky.

Then it becomes a matter of degree. You wouldn’t—at least I wouldn’t—try to bounce the airplane off bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic on the LIE. But if there was a plausible opening, I think I’d try for it. Obviously, irrespective of wind, you should land with the traffic to reduce the energy of any impact. Medians are sometimes the better choice, even if the airplane will be damaged or destroyed. That’s why we have insurance.

I’d like to say there’s some way of training or prepping for such a judgment call, but I don’t really see it. It’s just one of those snap decisions you sometimes have to make in flying. Fortunately, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that you never will. But if so, try to remember to smile for the camera.