The Morality of Road Landings


Driven by diabolical algorithms as they are, YouTube audiences can veer from the surprisingly urbane to the utterly lunatic and lots in between. In that vast middle is one viewer who goes off on me about once a year for a cavalier remark I made a few years ago about the morality—or lack thereof—of landing airplanes on public highways. Predictably, this week’s video on the street crash in Miami set him off once again.  

“You should never land on a street. Too many innocent people. Part of the risk of flying is not harming innocent people, so put it in the water or trees. In a previous video this clown Paul flips it, he claims we innocent drivers and pedestrians took the risk when we went out of our homes. So as long as the pilot saves his own skin (and plane) the dead family in the minivan, well they knew what they were getting into by going out to the Dairy Queen.”

The same guy goes into high dudgeon about once a year whether the video has to do with road landings, headsets or spot landings. He feels compelled to remind me of my utter depravity for that Dairy Queen crack. Mea culpa. He has a point, as the Miami crash tragically showed, although it was fatal for the pilot, not the drivers or car passengers. It’s good to be reminded that any pilot who has to put one down somewhere owes it to the people on the ground to minimize the risk to them to the degree possible. But for me, that just doesn’t equate to never land on a road. If you have no other choice, you make the best of it.

My calculus is that if you land with the traffic, the closing speeds are relatively low and cars are far more crashworthy than airplanes. This has been borne out in recent car/airplane confrontations, one of which I showed a clip of in the Miami video. That one occurred in Minneapolis in December 2020. The airplane, a Bellanca, slid down the interstate and sideswiped an SUV. The car was totaled, but there were no injuries. When I did the road landing video, I found a lot more like this, but I don’t recall any fatalities and maybe not many injuries. You could, I suppose, argue that the Bellanca pilot should have taken that median, but unless you’re in the seat, you don’t know what he saw and what he had to consider before committing to the landing.

So, to the hard no of never landing on a road, I haven’t changed my view and I’m not likely to. Find a better option if you can, but if there’s nothing else available, the probabilities favor you and the drivers.  

Coincidentally, and without realizing it, last week, we rode right by the site of the mother of all road landings. That would be Southern Airways Flight 242 on what was then State Route 381 in Georgia, on April 4, 1977. The town is New Hope and the route is now 52, which I ride a lot on our motorcycle trips into the mountains. There’s a memorial in New Hope and I’m making a note to visit it next time we’re up there later this summer. I didn’t realize it was there.

To refresh the details, 242 was a DC-9 enroute from Muscle Shoals and Huntsville, Alabama, to Atlanta when it ran through a thunderstorm so intense the hail and rain snuffed both engines and broke the windshields. The crew ran out of altitude and ideas and the only remaining choice was to line up on the highway. During the rollout, the airplane struck a gas station, swerving it into woods nearby. The fuselage broke up and caught fire. Of 83 people aboard, 20 survived, including the flight attendants. Nine people on the ground were killed, including a family of seven.

Applying the never-a-road morality to this, should the crew have ditched the airplane in the woods instead? Would that have traded nine on the ground for 20 more dead in the wreckage? Could you even consider such a calculation in the heat of the moment? Even knowing the outcome, that’s a no for me. The pilots had little time to make the best of a terrible situation and the highway was it. In my view, it’s sometimes the same for GA pilots responding to an engine out. Sure, don’t let the lure of pavement blind you to that field (or lake) next to the road, but if the highway is the only choice, try to avoid the cars and bend as little as possible. The accident record shows that it’s a high percentage bet.

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  1. I try not to be absolute during an emergency about ruling out posibilitities for survival.
    It’s the one thing that American pilots do have; complete authority to do whetever they deem nessesary to get down safely. When going down, pretty much everything below you (other than a runway) will be a less-than-desireable thing to hit. Roads are just another undesireable. Having had an IFR engine failure, I was hoping to see ANY flat surface when breaking out of the overcast at 800′ AGL. Funny how roads look a lot better in those situations.

  2. Paul, something to add. Per an AOPA podcast on highway landing with traffic: land with traffic and AHEAD of cars if possible. Per the person in Alaska that was quoted by Richard McSpadden, cars are more apt to slam on their brakes if they see something looming in their rearview mirrors vs not braking when you appear in their windscreen field of view.

    Not sure how well-supported this is with data, but on face value it seems to make sense.

  3. Landing in a field, whether full of mature corn or young wheat is a preferable option to most road landings. Landing in a grove of SMALL skinny trees is about like landing in mature corn. Ditching near shore is a better option than landing on a bridge. But, for any of those viable options a pilot with a dead engine has to have light and VMC.

    Any landing against traffic is foredoomed to have a bad outcome. With exceptions, off airport NIGHT landings on a black landscape are also unlikely to turn out well for occupants of aircraft.

    However, no one requires, nor should anyone expect a plane full of people to commit suicide if a SE aircaft suddenly becomes an inefficient glider. Landing WITH traffic on a freeway or divided highway is, IMHO, is low risk for both occupants of aircraft and for persons on the ground. Highway speeds for cars and Vb (best glide) for most SE aircraft are fairly similar. Flare air speeds are even closer to speeds driven on most freeways and divided highways in urban areas outside of rush hours. An approach speed of 60 kts is about 70 mph, while 70 kts is less than 81 mph. Lotsa freeways have speed limits of 70, and many states even have 80 mph posted on freeways. FWIW, I’ve only rarely seen traffic moving lockstep with posted speed limits. I’ve driven in most of the states in the lower 48. Except in congested urban areas highway speeds driven by both cars and trucks seem to average well over posted speed limits. Even well occupied divided highways and freeways have relatively frequent gaps of several hundreds of feet that might accommodate a typical SE light plane emergency landing.

    Assuming 4 or five point harnesses in the front seats of an aircraft dead sticking a highway landing I think smacking the back of semi with the nose would likely avoid both the horizontal cart wheel AND the ruptured fuel tanks I’ve seen in some highway landings. With good speed control in close approach and in the flare the potential for contact between the spinner and the back of a ground vehicle isn’t very large.

    Yes, I agree that my emergency (engine failure or whatever) is not a license to harm anyone on the ground. I fly SE piston aircraft. Given that, I’ve learned to avoid night flights and IFR or MVFR in a SE piston aircraft.

    Paul, et. al., have you looked at what the NTSB says about engine failure? They post annual graphics of the initiating events (they call ’em “Defining Events”). Engine failures don’t occur in not in huge numbers, but they ARE consistently among the top three causes of accidents. And, FWIW, he NTSB annual analysis shows that loss of power accidents resulting from fuel exhaustion and fuel starvation are MUCH less frequent that most of us seem to believe.

    So, let’s not fly with known squawks. Preflight like our lives depend on it (because it does). Plan our flights with at least an hour of fuel in the tanks when we we land… and DO land before we penetrate that sixty minute buffer. Know our fuel burns and know what the winds are doing. An realize who is PIC (and it ain’t ATC, the passengers, or someone safely on the ground).

    • John : once again thank you for not rear – ending that semi. For helping me stay (sorta) calm by giving me things to do (secure stuff in back seat) for the 7+minutes of impromptu C182 glider operations. Thanks to the semi driver who DIDN’T hit the brakes for the strangely high headlights in his mirrors. Thanks to the driver of the dodge Durango who realized “that airplane’s gonna land on the road” and hit his brights so we could see better. To the various officers who helped secure the “runway”, and all the various CAP squadrons whose members drove all over the state to help secure the acft in the middle of the night. Including my mother – in-law who drive 2 hours each way to get us.

      And last but not least, the divine intervention that I believe had a say in the timing of the engine destroying itself so we’d fit into traffic and miss all those power lines.

  4. Thanks for mentioning Southern Airways Flight 242. That accident has always captivated me. I’m not sure why. Maybe because the audio is so readily available online or the circumstances are so well known and documented or both. In any case, I was in Dallas working several years back and made a detour to visit the site. The memorial is in a local graveyard and seems only temporary at the moment until they can erect a proper memorial when the money is raised.

    While I was there, I drove the approximate flight path from the pic on Wikipedia. From the pic, the approach begins above a well developed neighborhood; however, the spot right above where the approach begins is a vacant, undeveloped lot. The final resting spot at the end of the sequence is also still vacant and undeveloped. For some reason I can’t explain, I thought that was significant.

    The gas station where the family was killed is also still there. There’s some damage to the concrete where the pumps used to be. Not sure if the damage is related to the crash or not, but it was nostalgic to think it was.

  5. Respectfully, to the consideration of the morality of landing on public highways, I don’t think any consideration should be given whatsoever to anyone else’s viewpoint of ‘morality’ or any other subtle, guilt-tripping behavior towards the pilot should be.

    The sudden challenge to consider every scenario as best as the PIC can in executing an adrenaline-fueled, get down-asap emergency landing is stressful enough, but to also strap-on a morality hairshirt for the busy-body social media skels and finger-pointers is absolutely ludicrous. Spin on your heels and walk away as fast as you can from these types.

    Accept the responsibility of the situation, do your best to get down wherever and however you choose, help others if they need it once down, and don’t give a thought to anyone else judging if what you decided was ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ or sealed by Good Housekeeping.
    We’re way overboard on meddling today and too drought-stricken on personal responsibility and minding our own business, in my view.

    • Thanks Dave and thank you Paul for the dialog.

      And I’ll add, in an around about way, Americans tend to confuse or conflate harm, and the potential for harm.

      Thousands of automobile occupants are killed each year on our roadways due to other drivers. That’s actual harm and not even a blimp on our radar. Let one GA aircraft land on a road, and we clutch pearls at the potential for harm.

  6. There is the old saying “Never say never.” Hope I never have to do it but if I ever do I hope I make the right choice. On a dark night with no cars I’m pretty sure I’d take the road if nothing better was available. But at rush hour over a dense urban area, can you say “all options suck.” I suppose that’s why the Hudson looked pretty good especially considering the number of possible casualties. I think I would have made the same choice as the “roads” choice would almost certainly result in a very bad impact for anyone concerned. Gotta avoid those dungeons, high or low!

  7. Many years ago I had an engine failure after takeoff at abt 1200 ft. I was downwind of the airport and knew that I could not make it back.
    As I turned to try I had a nice state road insight with houses on both sides, I knew that there was a powerline crossing at every other house. I looked but did not try.
    I made a 180 from abt 400 ft. and made it into a short pasture. I passed lower than a man working on a barn, made it over a fence, and landed downwind too fast to stop. I wiped out the left gear and came to a stop with a broken prop and many horses around.

  8. – You got out of bed in the morning. Welcome to a day where you have NO idea how it will actually end.

    – To be extreme – “Moggy” Cattermole (fictional character in Derek Robinson’s ‘Piece of Cake’) bales out of the remains of his Hurricane during the Battle of Britain. Later the intelligence officer asks if he remembered trying to point it away from the school below before he did. Because the plane landed on the school and killed a bunch of schoolkids. Battle fatigued, shocked and exhausted “Moggy” snaps ‘They are in this too you know….’

    Meaning – Society as a whole accepts risks and regulates/mitigates away as many as it deems reasonable. As long as the collective – as opposed to some local incident that changes the perceptions at that location/moment – accepts the risks – we carry on. But our “rights to fly” are only as good as the collective agreeing to it. It does behoove us to not raise our heads above the parapet too often.

    – So round here – in the winter – I will go for the firm packed sand at the water’s edge on the beach below. But in the summer I’ll go in the water near the edge with hopefully less people. The sandy bits are just too busy with people.

    – If I am within a glide of 08R – Richmond – I’m NOT going in there. Short runway buried deep in the trees. I would go for the adjacent big open turf farms next door. Insurance can worry about the ruts I will leave in the crop.

    – There are lots of smallish clearings in the forest around here. Keep practicing those crushing slips to be able to get in there.

    – And those big highways – Round here the medians are big and wide – but are deeply “V’d” to contain the cars that run off – without the need to put up expensive crash barriers. Presumably they will contain me. But I’ll make that snap decision while trying to go with traffic but watching for the overpass bridges and wires that will surely kill me if I hit them. (Hey – maybe I will get away with flying under a bridge!!).

    – Personally – I think we should be doing more about the big straight pipe motorbikes sitting blipping their throttles at the light outside my house. Every year – without fail – one will kill themselves two lights farther down the road trying to make the left for the beach at the last moment as the light turns red on them. Their noise is far worse than the local jump plane the neighbors whine about and the mortality rate is far higher.

    But the collective currently accepts their antics too.

  9. I am reminded of the pilot who ran his BD-5J out of gas in NC, landed on the fast lane of an Interstate highway, motioned to the folks in the sedan in Right lane that he needed to move over, and they let him. Then he coasted down the off ramp and pulled into a gas station, running over the pneumatic tube that set off the alarm for the attendant, “Ding Ding!” The gas station guy came out and wanted to know where the Candid Camera crew was hiding. The people in the dress shop next door called the TV news and told them a jet had just landed and was parked in the gas station but they assumed they were being pranked and did not show up.

    But officially, according to the USAF and FAA, the baseline for calculating whether a given rocket trajectory is acceptable is that it must not add to the hazard presented to the general public by aviation, which equated to 30 in a million probability of casualties. SpaceX got in trouble last year when they decided that for one of their launches at Bolsa Chica they were “Not That Much” over the legal limit and launched anyway. So the math has been done and everybody has been signed up for the acceptable risk of airplane overflight. And if you run out of gas try to land next to a dress shop; nobody believes them, anyway.

  10. All is well and good to discuss on the ground from one’s desk chair, but it’s another thing entirely when you’re the one behind the controls with an engine failure (or any other emergency requiring a landing in short order).

    I used to regularly flight out of College Park, and that airport is surrounded by residential and commercial buildings, with only one area to the east through northeast that isn’t built up. But unless you’re taking off in that direction, an engine failure at takeoff leaves you with hitting buildings, landing on a road, or maybe making it to a golf course if you have enough altitude. Aiming for trees likely means you will land one someone’s house. The point being that sometimes you dont have any good choices, so you just have to make the best guess that you can and hope for the best.

  11. All this reminds me of what are now “old” airports. Once upon a time, airports were placed in areas surrounded by fields. Losing power 9/10ths down the runway, just meant an off field landing. Now, people have decided to increase population size, obviously not thinking about the need for where to put those new people. Typically, placement occurs in open areas, unless you live in a city, where vertical stacking seems to be a solution. For those of us who long for the open spaces, perhaps we might also think about decreasing the number of people being produced. Less people, btw, also means less demand for all sorts of resources, which at the very least, equals less garbage and waste.

  12. All roads in Alaska have been designated as runways by the state… in other words, they have priority over cars. Cars are supposed to be looking out for planes.
    My bet is the woman was on her phone texting in Florida. The Cessna was in visual range for more than enough time to get out of the way.

  13. I was piloting a glider on my first cross-country soaring flight as PIC over a desolate section of NV above US 93 with a mentor in the back seat. We had progressed past our go/no-go point when we received a radio report from our scouting towplane advising that the next planned landing spot was not landable so we pressed on searching for “lift” and landable areas! After struggling in weak lift and zero-sink, I made the decision to land in a gravel covered pull-out next to the highway as there were no areas within glide that were not covered in rocks, sagebrush and manzanita! Because my mentor was a Naval Aviator who had landed jets on aircraft carriers, I directed him to perform the landing which he did beautifully! Our third crewman, towing our glider trailer, arrived about 30 minutes later. We proceeded to de-rig and stow the glider in its trailer before driving to a casino where the rest of the Soaring Safari participants had gathered. My first but not my last off-airport landing!

  14. 100% against occupied road landings. No pilot has the right to bring innocents into their problem regardless of what FAA regs may say. It doesn’t take many feet to safely set a plane down in a field, treetop canopy, or many other places. If you need to be doing it, insurance has all ready bought the airplane so don’t bring any more liability into the equation. Thank God, when it happened to me, I made it to an airport with a seized engine in a mooney and a soybean field when lift deserted me in a glider.

    • Bill, many airports that were surrounded by open fields are now surrounded on all sides by civilization. Any takeoff already means that there is that possibility of dropping down onto “innocents” below you. Even a Cirrus deploying a ballistic chute has the possibility of dropping down hard into a full schoolyard.

      Actually, dropping in on people who are protected in cars is probably a lot safer than dropping into a field of soccer players or into those trees with people sitting beneith them enjoying the shade.

  15. Paul, I can only agree with the sentiments that once again you so eloquently express.
    as a pilot of almost 50 years, and a flight instructor of 40, i am very motivated to provide the best advice that I can to students, and experienced pilots during flight review, especially for emergency and bad weather experiences. I emphasize that it is NOT so important WHERE you land, but that you MUST be able to actually and assuredly reach your designated landing area, and that you absolutely must be IN CONTROL at touch down. Roads are an attractive option but have many hazards, and are not always the best option, but they ARE an option, and one that must be considered even in a time precious emergency situation.
    spend as little time as possible whilst transitioning the height band where wires and obstructions are present with a slight excess of speed, slow down whilst in ground effect to minimum energy, and from what I have experienced on US freeways, you are actually more likely to be hit from behind by a Honda accord doing 95 mph than to inflict serious damage or injury to the vehicles and users. road and highway landings are fraught, but potentially viable, but usually only when the other options are not viable. I enjoy riding with students and helping them to make critical decisions quickly, and then following through with positive actions and an appropriate maneuvers with safety for all those on board, and on the ground.

    • I’ve been asked a half dozen times now to develop numbers comparing road landing outcomes with ditching. So far, other than the Miami accident, I haven’t found a single fatality. A few bent cars and airplanes, some broken glass and minor injuries, but pilots seems to survive all sorts of chaos on the highways. So do the drivers.

      I think it’s because the relative speeds are so close. Not a lot of energy at contact.

      • Paul:
        May I refer you to my earlier post on this topic re: relative ground speeds of a landing (or flaring) aircraft and highway speeds? And yes, there are very few fatalities if
        (a) we don’t attempt to “stretch the glide”;
        (b) we’re on speed and wings level when we’re approaching to land;
        (c) we make effective use of slips to manage our wheels down point because dropping the gear or flaps is an irreversible decision;
        (d) we either defer extending the gear of retracs to just the right moment – i.e. with sufficient time for it to lock – or make a conscious decision to belly land;
        (e) be very deliberate AND PRACTICED in how our flaps and gear will affect our glide slope in our approach;
        (f) we equip our aircraft for survival! with 4 or 5 point harnesses;
        (g) we pre-brief our passengers on emergency landings/use of restraints/etc.
        (h) we consider and mitigate overflight and airport operations above highly congested built up areas the same as if flying over steep, heavily forested, and otherwise inhospitable terrain… (note after engine issues in three different aircraft I’m wearing a helmet when I fly over that stuff);
        (i) recognize the role of luck…
        (jj Realize the very significant imperative that we be able to SEE our landing spots… hence think hard about flying SE IFR, SE night VFR, SE MVFR and SE operations over large expanses of rough mountainous or heavily forested terrain where tree canopies are way up there and few landing sites occur.

        Frankly, I don’t think landing on residential streets or even urban arterials has a high likelihood of success. Fewer overhead powerlines occur over freeways and divided highways than over local roads or even multilane city arterials.

        The NTSB “Defining Events” offer us a really clear look at how inflight loss of control from a mishandled engine failure will not turnout well.

  16. “The people in the dress shop next door called the TV news and told them a jet had just landed and was parked in the gas station but they assumed they were being pranked and did not show up.”

    As for engine loss, mebbe singles should not fly IFR.

  17. Hey Paul, et al,

    As an aside, I often notice those orange balls on power lines and associate those with an airport nearby.

    On long road trips, I like to point out airports I’d like to visit one day, even going to the extreme of scanning common CTAF frequencies to hear pattern work and get the name of the airport.

    These orange balls give me a heads up that an airport may be nearby and oddly I guess, I am more vigilant about aircraft in the vicinity. Maybe a PSA to advertise what these power line markers indicate?